When Graeme Souness went back to his old stamping ground of Ibrox in June 2000 to sign the Turkish midfielder Tugay Kerimoğlu for his newly-promoted club Blackburn Rovers, many considered that even given the relatively inexpensive fee of some £1.25 million it was a lot to pay for a player who would be 31 before the new season got underway. It looked like the archetypical move of a player looking for a decent payday to fuel the bank balance for retirement. That Tugay stayed at the club until he was 38, earning a cult status among the Ewood Park faithful for his unswerving dedication and passionate play, suggests that the manager may have had it right after all.
Souness had become aware of Tugay’s talent whilst managing in Turkey. He had been in charge of Tugay’s Galatasaray club for just a single season in the mid-nineties, but it was sufficient to convince the Scot that here was the type of player that could be dropped into almost any midfield, playing any pattern of play, in any league and still be the metronomic master of the centre of the field. Dutch manager Dick Advocaat had persuaded Tugay to join Rangers in 1999 where, in his only full season at the club, he would pick up a Scottish League Cup Winner’s medal in 2001. It merely underscored the impression that Souness had gained of the player when managing in Turkey. Knowing that Blackburn, returning to the top tier of English football, would need dependable and experienced reinforcements, Souness persuaded the club to spend on a player past his 30th birthday.
Tugay’s debut in the famous blue and white halved colours of the club came against West Ham United, and although he would be far from prolific in the goalscoring stakes, he still managed to mark the occasion with a long-range goal in a 7-1 victory. His first season would go on to bring success and silverware. Although absent from the final itself, his debut season would be crowned with a second League Cup Winner’s medal. This time, south of the border, in the guise of the Worthington Cup, as Blackburn overcame Tottenham 2-1 at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Although in his time at the club, he would serve under four managers – Souness, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Sam Allardyce – each would value the contribution that Tugay provided to the midfield of the team. For example, in an interview towards the end of his reign as manager, Mark Hughes was effusive about Tugay’s performance in a game. Given that the player was clearly nearing the end of his career, the interviewer asked what seemed a fairly innocuous question, enquiring whether the Blackburn manager wished that the Turk was ten years younger. Hughes was typically blunt. “No,” he replied. “Because if he was, he’d be playing in a Barcelona shirt.” The fact that the opinion was delivered with such force, only added to its conviction.
Almost like the mechanic, the glue that held everything together, Tugay was the player that allowed everyone else to play. This was not only because he could win the ball and defend with an innate ability to read the game, he was also unflappable in possession offering a safe haven for the ball when others were under pressure and could unerringly find team-mates with astute passes.
As well as being a valuable asset for the managers of the club and a fans’ favourite, however, Tugay was also widely popular with his team-mates. In his book, “I Tell You What!” Robbie Savage recalls when he joined the club in 2005, and in particular a game against Liverpool. “He must have been 35 or 36 at the time but I remember he did a step over against Steven Gerrard at Ewood Park against Liverpool,” Savage relates. “Tugay then slid the ball through to Gamst Pedersen, he smashed it across, Benni McCarthy scored and we won 1-0. Doing stepovers to Steven Gerrard at the age of 36! “Tugay was an unbelievable player. He could receive the ball in any area of the pitch and do something with it.”
Savage would go on to describe how the Turk insisted on the new arrival having the number eight shirt that he preferred, while Tugay took five instead. A small gesture perhaps, but not only does it display the humility that the player exhibited throughout his career with Blackburn, but it also illustrates how he provided the glue for the team in more ways than merely on the pitch.
Across his years in Lancashire, until he decided to hang up his boots at the tender age of 38, Tugay would average more than 33 games per season for the club. It should also be noted that despite his advancing years, this contribution was hardly tapering off when he retired. In the 2006-07 season, when he was 36, he played 46 times, the most games he had taken part in during any campaign in England or Scotland and, in his final year, he still appeared no less than 36 times. Such longevity and consistency of performance are the qualities that fans appreciate and did much to cement Tugay in the Blackburn supporters’ affections.
Although he would only score 11 times in Blackburn colours, that did little to diminish the affection he was held in at Ewood Park, as can be measured by the scenes at his final game for the club in May 2009. Instead of a preponderance of blue and white colours in the crowd for the league game against West Bromwich Albion, the red and white of Turkey was the order of the day. After the final whistle, Tugay would emerge from the tunnel back onto the pitch for a final time to salute the fans who had waited, demanding the chance to deliver a final farewell. All corners of the ground rose in salute as he reappeared. Banners and a hardly original chant of ‘Tugay, you are my Turkish delight’ echoed around the ground as he took the final salute hand-in-hand with his daughter.
A player who had arrived at the club with many pundits describing his move as a last payday wind down to the end of his career had confounded the critics. Longevity, rather than long lay-offs had been the characteristic displayed, and Blackburn fans loved him for it. A humble man, it was clearly an emotional occasion for the player, but for a cult hero, it was highly appropriate.