Kennedy Bakircioglu: The true story of the Champ Man icon & Man Utd trialist
Kennedy Bakircioglu was a footballer who meant different things to different people.
To Manchester United he was the prodigious talent who failed to impress after being handed a trial after the club’s 1998-99 treble-winning season.
Sweden fans remember him as the attacking midfield dynamo who, along with Kim Kallstrom and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was tipped to usher in a new era.
There’s the supporters of Twente, Ajax and Racing Santander, the teams that bore witness to the best and the worst of Bakircioglu in his peak years.
And then there are those who will remember Bakircioglu from countless hours spent playing Championship Manager – the 2001/02 edition, to be precise.
But if there is one club where the legend of Bakircioglu is writ large, it’s Hammarby.
Across two spells bookending his forays into Greece, Holland and Spain, Bakircioglu built a reputation as a goalscoring midfielder with a rocket of a right boot.
Best deployed as an attacking midfielder, behind the front two, while the latter part of Bakircioglu’s career saw him reinvented as an Andrea Pirlo-like playmaker, one thing remained the same: he could take one hell of a free-kick.
Capable of firing in sublime strikes of pinpoint accuracy, Bakircioglu’s two spells with Hammarby are littered with moments of dead-ball brilliance.
But none of this does justice to a career marked by moments of genius and misfortune.
How it all began
Named after John F. Kennedy, Bakircioglu first caught the eye at Assyriska FF, a club established by Stockholm’s thriving Assyrian contingent. It wasn’t long before he was turning out for the senior side at the tender age of 15.
By 17 he had racked up nine goals and eight assists from 18 starts, capturing the attentions of Manchester United, who invited him for a trial.
“It was a dream come true,” he later recalled.
“I’d train with their first team and play with the second string at a time when their squad was packed with big names like David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, the Neville brothers, Dwight Yorke and Teddy Sheringham.”
“United were always a team that I admired.”
Yet Bakircioglu suffered the first in a series of setbacks when Ferguson opted against signing him, with the likes of Jonathan Greening instead retaining the Scot’s faith.
Returning to his native Sweden, he joined mid-table Allsvenskan side Hammarby in a marked step-down from his Old Trafford ambitions.
Slowly but surely, however, Bakircioglu began to make good on his promise, with Hammarby affording him the perfect platform to develop his talents as a playmaker.
Operating just behind the front two, Bakircioglu’s precise shooting, eye for a pass and surprising aerial ability helped Hammarby become a major force in the Allsvenskan.
The culmination of his efforts came in 2001 when Hammarby upset the natural order of the Allsvenskan to win their first ever Swedish league title.
Bakircioglu enjoyed an impact of Diego Maradona at Napoli proportions, weighing in with eight goals and seven assists from 26 games – including one in the 3-2 victory over Örgryte which sealed Hammarby’s title success and secured him God-like status among fans.
A legend to millions
It wasn’t long before the scouts took notice – the Championship Manager scouts.
On first impressions, Bakircioglu cuts a fairly ordinary figure on the 2001/02 edition of the game, with his 18-rating for “technique” the only real standout attribute.
But as the game progresses, Bakircioglu emerges as an incredible talent, garnering consistently high match ratings with his attributes increasing in turn.
Though Hammarby failed to win another title, Bakircioglu’s fine form on the pitch continued while his profile received a further boost off it thanks to his “efforts” on the game.
“I remember when I was still at Hammarby, travelling to play a game against SK Brann in Norway,” he told Kenny Millar, co-author of ‘Football Manager Stole My Life’.
“After the match one of their players approached me on the pitch and told me what a good player I was for him in the game. That kind of thing happened from time to time.”
Though the game predicted a swift ascension to the top of the game for Bakircioglu, the truth proved stranger than any Championship Manager fiction.
“My problem was that I stayed in Swedish football for a long time,” he admitted years later.
Having seen a previous big-money move to Besiktas fall through, Kennedy eventually left Sweden on a free transfer in January 2004 for Iraklis in Greece.
It was every bit as ill-advised as it sounds, serving as the first in a string of moves that saw Bakircioglu’s career veer between triumph and disaster.
A switch to FC Twente followed in the summer of 2005 where, under the tutelage of Fred Rutten, Bakircioglu enjoyed arguably his best spell outside of Sweden.
Initially operating as a deeper playmaker, the 2006-07 season saw the Swede pushed further forward with his return of 15 Eredivisie goals propelling Twente to UEFA Cup qualification.
Everything he touched turned to goals, with Kennedy emerging as a surprisingly effective poacher capable of finishing off chances of any and all kind.
Back in the big time
He soon caught the eye of Ajax and, with his contract up at Twente in 2007, agreed a move to the Amsterdam giants, joining the club alongside Luis Suarez.
Nine years after his Manchester United trial, Bakircioglu was back in the big time – or so he thought.
“Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is a good friend of mine, had already told me positive stories about the club,” Bakircioglu said at his official unveiling. “I hope we can make the supporters happy.”
What even Zlatan, in his infinite wisdom, could not have predicted was the chaos that would greet Bakircioglu.
Reeling from Wesley Sneijder’s departure for Real Madrid, Bakircioglu played sparingly under four different managers over two trophyless years at Ajax.
He paid the price on a personal level, with the loss of confidence and game time seeing him miss out on Euro 2008, where Sweden were sorely lacking in attacking flair, exiting at the group stage.
Back in Holland, things went from bad to worse when incoming manager and Ajax legend Marco Van Basten earmarked Bakircioglu as a player with no future at the club.
Transfer listed, though he ultimately outlasted the Dutchman at the club, Bakircioglu cut an increasingly peripheral figure, playing just 17 games over the next two years.
There were flashes of brilliance, though – a goal against Fiorentina in the 2008-09 UEFA Cup offered a hint of Bakircioglu at his best; a crisp, well-taken finish from a difficult chance.
It’s difficult to ascertain whether he failed to hold down a first-team place because of his poor form or if his poor form was a result of his failure to hold down a first-team place.
A move to Racing Santander in 2010 suggested the latter – initially at least.
Eager to get his career back on track, while there may have been other offers, Bakircioglu picked the Spanish relegation battlers and the promise of regular first-team football.
Living in the sunnier climes of Spain, the Swede enjoyed a stellar first season, playing 34 games and scoring seven goals to help Santander finished three points clear of the drop.
His contribution was crucial with Bakiroglu scoring superb match-winning goals against Mallorca and Atletico Madrid in the final few weeks of the season to secure their top-flight status and the adoration of the watching fans.
Kennedy was back – but his joy would prove fleeting.
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Beset by financial issues, Santander finished bottom the following season, with Bakiroglu sidelined with an Achilles tendon problem physios struggled to diagnose, despite the Swede’s claims of feeling pain when touching the ball.
Local press speculated Bakiroglu was sitting out games over money owed by the club, but such suggestions were always refuted by the player himself.
In any case, the experience was enough to convince Bakiroglu to return to where it all began, with Hammarby, who approached the midfielder with an attractive offer to return as captain.
“When you get a feeling that they care about me, then you feel at home when you come here,” he said upon his arrival.
Then in his early 30s, Kennedy returned to a club considerably different to the one he had left, with Hammarby languishing in the Superettan – Sweden’s equivalent of the second tier.
Despite his difficulties on the continent, Bakiroglu was determined to bring the good times back telling reporters: “I’m here to deliver, I’m not here to take a vacation.”
He delivered on his promise in triumphant style in 2014, leading Hammarby to promotion with 17 goals and seven assists.
Eager to extend his career further he reinvented himself as a central midfielder, pulling the strings to help Hammarby to a series of comfortable mid-table finishes.
There was the occasional moment of star quality too, including a sublime 30-yard free-kick against Gothenburg which the 37-year-old celebrated by catching and drinking a beer thrown from the stands.
He hung his boots up in 2018 but has few regrets – even admitting to the occasional bit of harmless wish fulfilment via Championship Manager.
“I stepped into Sir Alex Ferguson’s shoes in the game,” he once told Millar.
“I signed myself for United. It was a case of what might have been. I played myself in the middle of the park, pushing David Beckham out right.”
Just as long as everyone knows who is on free kicks.