Blast from the Past no.15: Alpay

Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…

Benito Mussolini. Nick Cotton. Harold Shipman. Darth Vader. George Osborne. Men for whom you could travel the length and breadth of the UK and struggle to find anyone that had something nice to say about them. And one of the few footballers you could add to that list is Alpay.

When the former Aston Villa defender was last seen on British shores, in October 2003, he had reached such a nadir of unpopularity that - had he not left the country of his own accord - it would have not been wholly surprising to see him catapulted across the English Channel by an angry mob of pitchfork-wielding men, women and children.

And yet, just over a year earlier Alpay had been a revered figure, idolised at Villa Park and lauded as one of the world’s best centre-backs. So what went wrong?

The 2000 European Championships were the making of Alpay, who marshalled Turkey’s defence with grace and grit as they reached the quarter-finals. Even his red card against Portugal in the last eight couldn’t remove the gloss from a triumphant tournament. When Aston Villa beat off a host of admirers to buy him from Fenerbahce for £5.6m that summer, it was considered a coup.

As one Villa fan on the Heroes and Villains website recalled, “I remember watching him at the Euros and thinking, "Who is this bloke? He’s brilliant!” A few weeks later we signed him.“

Following a glamorous unveiling alongside David Ginola before an Intertoto Cup match, Alpay slotted seamlessly into the central defensive berth vacated by Ugo Ehiogu to form a successful double act with Olof Mellberg.

"One of the best defensive partnerships I’ve seen. They complemented each other fantastically,” said one Villa fan, while others remember a “cracking defender” who was “absolutely loved” at Villa Park.

Nicknamed Alfie, the gregarious Turk even told Villa’s fans what song he wanted them to sing for him, conducting the Holte End in renditions of “Ole Ole Ole Ole, Alpay, Alpay” while he basked in their adulation.

Ask Villa fans what they think about Alpay today, however, and that warmth has been replaced by cold, bitter contempt.

“Egotistical”, “nutter”, “a legend in his own mind” and “he’s dead to me” were among the few publishable assessments of Alpay offered by Villa fans. “He is in my all-time detested Villa players six-a-side team,” added another.

The meltdown of Alpay’s career was triggered, perversely, by its greatest moment. In the 2002 World Cup, Turkey surpassed the world’s expectations and their own wildest dreams to reach the semi-finals, where they were narrowly beaten by eventual winners Brazil. Alpay was selected in FIFA’s team of the tournament, alongside the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos. When he returned to a Villa team containing Mark Kinsella, Jlloyd Samuel and Marcus Allback, he seemed unsatisfied with his lot.

Or as one Villa fan put it, “He went to the World Cup, had a good tournament and became Billy Big B*******”.

After Villa refused Alpay’s demand of a 50 per cent pay rise, he made it abundantly clear he felt he had outgrown the Villans and deserved a bigger club, which at the time he considered to be Leeds.

“I do not want to stay at Villa. I think I will play at Leeds for this season,” he announced.

Villa boss Graham Taylor later revealed the club did not receive a single offer for Alpay after the World Cup, adding that he only made the tournament All-Star team due to “football politics” after Turkey reached the last four, but in Alpay’s mind he was already up there with the Brazilians.

“He really seemed to believe the hype that the media were spurting about him,” one Villa fan said. Even Taylor had some sympathy, saying: “In the World Cup XI and with Pini Zahavi as his agent, who could really blame Alfie for thinking that the next club was Real Madrid, Juventus, Barcelona, or AC Milan? Forget Aston Villa.”

The problem was that, once the transfer window had closed, forgetting Villa was not an option.

Taylor briefly recalled Alpay to the side but in the words of one onlooker, “His attitude became more and more sulky and it seemed as if he deliberately underperformed.” Alpay played only four games that season, but as his value decreased the club’s notoriously stingy chairman Doug Ellis refused to sell him on the cheap. The following season, Alpay was still at the club.

Against Charlton in September 2003, he made his first start at Villa Park for almost a year and was welcomed back by a hail of boos from his own fans. Inevitably, the football gods chose this moment as the scene of Alpay’s first and only Villa goal. He celebrated with a finger-on-the-lips shhhhhhhh gesture to the fans, and with that act his transition from Holte End hero to pantomime villain was complete.

“The only time I have booed at Villa Park,” said one fan. Others now claim they would “actively try to urinate on” Alpay given the opportunity.

Just when it seemed as if Alpay couldn’t get any more unpopular, his infamy went global. Playing for Turkey in a crucial Euro 2004 qualifier against England in Istanbul, Alpay responded to a penalty miss by David Beckham by taunting the player lovingly referred to as Goldenballs. It prompted a half-time squabble between the two, after which Alpay accused Beckham of spitting on his Turkey shirt.

Taking on England’s most popular man was only going to end one way. The outraged media launched a campaign demanding that Alpay leave the country, which he duly did. Ellis queasily cut his losses on Villa’s World Cup Star, saying, “The player himself is aware that life in England had become increasingly difficult for him and his family,” while Alpay stormed off blaming Beckham for everything. He presumably put it down as an unfortunate coincidence that his subsequent spells in the Korean, Japanese and German leagues ended in similarly sour circumstances.

The most frustrating part of Alpay’s demise was his undoubted talent. As one Villa said: “In truth we struggled for a few years to replace Alpay with a partner as good for Mellberg. It’s a shame he turned into such a plonker.”

And in fairness to Alpay, nobody has ever said anything that complimentary about Darth Vader.

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