When Aymen Tahar was released by Sheffield United with only one senior substitute appearance to his name, he probably didn’t expect he’d end up playing in the Champions League. But that’s exactly what happened…
Tahar joined Sheffield United as a 15-year-old and went on to play for the first team in an FA Cup defeat to Hull City in 2009, but sadly for the Anglo-Algerian midfielder he would not get another opportunity and was released at the end of the 2009-10 season after a year on loan at the Blades’ then-sister club Ferencvaros.
He dropped down to the ninth tier of English football to play for Staveley Miners Welfare in Derbyshire and could easily have faded into obscurity from there, but it was a move which worked out as he helped the part-timers to promotion and caught the eye of several professional clubs along the way.
Looking back now as a 28-year-old, Tahar is grateful he made the decisions he did.
“I had a chance to go to the Greek Super league as soon as I left Sheffield, but I didn’t take it for a number of reasons,” he says. “I dropped down (to play for Staveley) because I needed to play men’s football.
“I had friends there who also came through at clubs and were in a similar position to me. I really enjoyed it, the chairman and the people who run the club are great and they created a good environment for the team.
“Playing in the lower leagues was good for me, you play against a lot of good players who can easily play higher. There is a thin line between being a pro and not, a lot of the time players are good enough but just need an opportunity.”
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Tahar himself is an example of that, but he is grateful for the one chance he did get to run out as a first-team player at Bramall Lane.
“It was really exciting for me to make my debut,” he says. “I went from playing in front of small crowds at youth and reserves games to playing in front of 25,000 fans.
“I think I deserved more chances, but so did some of the other young players who have gone on to have careers in football. That year Sheffield United were doing well and fighting to get back in the Premier League so sometimes you can understand why you don’t get chances.”
When Tahar did return to the professional game, it wasn’t to the Football League but instead to Romania where he joined top-flight side Gaz Metan Medias, starting a completely new adventure in the game.
“A friend of mine who is an agent had a contact there and he recommended me,” Tahar says. “They were in Turkey preparing for the second half of the season and invited me so they could have a look at me.
“I saw that they had been in the Europa League that season so it was a good opportunity. I went over to train and played a few friendlies for them and did quite well.
“It was tough, especially the first three months, but you have to adapt. I had never lived away from home and didn’t speak the language, but many people spoke English and I was fortunate both the local and foreign players helped me settle.
“My life was very different from England and there are things you have to learn to accept, but it was a place for me where I could just focus on football.”
Tahar adapted to his new surroundings well and stayed with Gaz Metan Medias for more than three years before the country’s biggest club, Steaua Bucharest, came calling and offered the Sheffield lad the chance to play in the Champions League. It was a long way from the Northern Counties East Football League he had previously inhabited.
“It was my third season and I had matured a lot during that time,” he says. “I was also playing well and there were other teams from different championships who had offers accepted, but then I had a call from the manager of Steaua.
“I thought it was the best footballing decision, they were playing in the preliminary rounds of the Champions League and are historically a great club.”
Tahar featured in both Champions League qualifiers against Trencin and Partizan Belgrade, and though Steaua fell just short and were knocked out by the Serbians, it was a reminder of how far the midfielder had come.
Steaua’s infamous owner Gigi Becali, however, took some getting used to.
“It’s very interesting working under Mr. Becali,” Tahar says. “After every game he would give a televised interview, and wouldn’t hold back if he thought you didn’t play well, which can have a negative effect on the team, and vice versa.
“He is a very emotional and unpredictable character, but he clearly loves football. His outspoken views make him an entertainer, which obviously brings attention to the team so maybe that’s why he’s like this.”
Come January 2016, just six months after joining Steaua, Tahir ticked off another country on his football as Boavista came calling, allowing him to test himself against the likes of Sporting Lisbon, Benfica and Porto.
He found the move much easier to deal with this time and wanted to make it permanent, but after returning to Steaua at the end of the season he was instead sold to Sagan Tosu in Japan.
Things didn’t work out for him on the pitch, but it’s an experience he’ll never forget.
“I was over homesickness and it was easy for me to adapt to new cultures. I had always enjoyed going to Portugal in my time off and had friends who played there who spoke well of the league so I thought I’d enjoy it.
“Japan was more difficult to settle because of the time difference – eight or nine hours time difference to England makes it difficult to keep in touch with friends and family.
“But it’s a beautiful country and the people are amazing. And the football in the J1 League is a very high standard.
Aymen Tahar é o novo reforço do Sagan Tosu, da J-League pic.twitter.com/lwAVX5wYL7
— SoccerClass (@SoccerClass_) August 5, 2016
“In Europe we sometimes think that football in places like China and Japan isn’t very good, but I found players in Japan technically were just as good, if not better.
“The J league is run fantastically well with great stadiums. Football wasn’t the biggest sport, but some teams have average attendances of 50,000. The experience was once in a lifetime.”
Now he’s back at Boavista, where Tahar is once again settled after injury saw him miss a lot of the first half of the season.
“I never wanted to leave to be honest, but it was complicated to stay as I was only on loan.
“I really enjoyed my loan spell here even though at the time the team was in a difficult position in the league. It’s the biggest club after the big three here. It’s full of history, a well-supported club with passionate fans, and the club is ambitious to compete again.”
Official: Aymen Tahar has signed a 2-year deal with Boavista, where the English-Algerian midfielder played 11 games in 2016, from Gaz Metan. pic.twitter.com/xtMc3MJhTB
— Jan Hagen (@PortuBall) June 6, 2017
Many Englishmen move abroad if they fail to break through at a club in the Premier League or Championship, finding the style on the continent suits their attributes, and though Tahar would not hesitate to move back home, he certainly isn’t in any rush.
“In the near future it would be nice, but it has to be the right opportunity.
“I had an offer the past summer, but I felt it would be better for me to stay abroad playing in a very competitive league. I’m only two hours from being home now and enjoy living in Porto.”
By Will Unwin