“I always knew it was going to be difficult in the best of circumstances after being away for five years,” Dean Furman says, pondering his attempts to make a comeback in England after leaving South Africa. “Now the pandemic has taken over it’s going to be tough. I’m joining probably over 1,000 players on the free agent list. But I’m confident we’ll find a club.”
Furman, one of the few Jewish footballers to make it as a professional in the United Kingdom, knows the financial impact of coronavirus has altered the landscape in the lower leagues. “There’s a lot of concern,” says the former Oldham and Doncaster midfielder. “I guess we have to play the patient game.”
Furman has never shirked a challenge. He joined Chelsea when he was nine, rose through the age groups and witnessed the transformation after Roman Abramovich’s arrival in 2003. “I was hoping I’d be the next superstar,” the 32-year-old says. “But we were signing players for millions at 16. The competition in the reserves was up. We signed players like Scott Sinclair and Ryan Bertrand. At 18 Chelsea decided not to keep me on.”
Furman is not bitter. “It was an incredible time,” he says. “Brendan Rodgers took over as our manager in the youth team. It’s no surprise to see how successful he has been in Scotland and with Leicester. On the pitch everything had a structure. I remember the first day he came in and told us that while he was the youth-team manager at Reading the reserve players wanted to train with him and so did the first team. His training was second to none. We were young men and he helped us grow up off the pitch.”
Rodgers sent Furman to Celtic for a trial in 2006. He ended up signing for Rangers and spent three years with the club, including a loan at Bradford, before joining Oldham, where his form was good enough to convince South Africa to call him up in 2012.
Furman, whose parents are South African, was born in Cape Town and moved to London when he was five. He always had offers to play in South Africa and, after two years at Doncaster, he finally accepted one from SuperSport United in 2015. “I was at a good age,” he says. “I had no kids. It was time to try something different. The five years there have been incredible. I’ve been able to explore the most incredible country and play in a different league.
“I had to uproot myself and my wife, who’s from Manchester. It was daunting for her but she had a fantastic experience. I was lucky enough to lift four trophies and be in six domestic cup finals and the equivalent of the Europa League final.”
Furman was a celebrity in South Africa. “You’re stopped for selfies everywhere you go,” he says. “The people are so friendly. I played for the national team and came in unknown because I was playing at Oldham. I’d seen other players who’d gone down a similar path struggle to be accepted. But for some reason the fans took to me.
“My first call-up was away to Brazil – the start of an incredible journey. You go to some incredible places. I’ve probably ticked off half of Africa. I’ve been to three Africa Cup of Nations. The last one was knocking out Egypt in Cairo.
“I’ve been to places where football is life. You’d rock up to the stadium and there’s already 50,000 people waiting for kick-off. Travelling through Africa isn’t easy. There are challenges to overcome – hotels, food, travel. If you go over to the west coast sometimes you fly to Dubai and then across. The heat and humidity are factors.”
Furman embraced it but he decided to return to England after his wife became pregnant. Coming home, though, was not easy. “We had decided that we weren’t going to sign another contract in South Africa,” he says. “But once we went to lockdown, it was strict.
“The borders were closed. Just before lockdown we decided to get my wife home and then I’d try to make it back. Watching flights get cancelled every day was nerve-wracking. I ended up on a repatriation flight from Qatar Airways. I was in lockdown by myself for six or seven weeks, just waiting. I was keeping busy. I’m setting up a travel business to do with South Africa. Then there was fitness work. Thankfully I had an underground car park I just ran around.”
Furman made it back before his wife gave birth to a girl last month. A new start beckons for a player hoping to inspire aspiring Jewish footballers. “We’re few and far between,” he says. “I would love to see more Jewish players. To become a pro, sacrifice is key. If there was a barmitzvah party on a Saturday night, I’d leave at 10. It was a sacrifice for my parents. My dad would come home from work at 5.30, take me from north London to Harlington for training and then bring me home.
“Maybe there aren’t many sporting role models from the community. I hope parents and young Jewish players are looking up to me, Joe Jacobson and Nicky Blackman. There is more security in other jobs. Is it a safe career path? Not particularly. But if your dream is to become a footballer you should be encouraged to follow it.
“I’ve seen some very talented players come and go. Not just Jewish. Players who maybe had too much pressure from their parents or fell out of love with the game. You take a setback and you’re not able to recover. It comes down to having the mental strength when you get released at the age of 18. All you’ve ever known is Chelsea. Then you have to look for a new club. Are you going to throw in the towel? Or are you going to make something of this?”