The curious case of Islam Feruz

Why is it that a potentially supreme Scottish talent is destined to wither on the vine?

By Chris Collins

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

People who know about these things caution against exaggerated judgements on any sportsman in the infancy of their career, no matter their potential. The type of hyperbole that leads Stevie Fulton to be compared with Roberto Baggio is to be avoided.

However I am going to ignore all that. My theory is this: had Islam Feruz stayed with Celtic rather than move to Chelsea at the age of 16 he might by now be Scotland’s No.10 with Gordon Strachan arranging his team around him.

A disclaimer. This assertion is based not on the underwhelming nature of the last two years of his fledgling career, but on the testimonies of those who worked with Feruz between the ages of 12 and 18 and on the incredible potential displayed by the adolescent player before London, big cars and an unfortunate disregard for good advice came into play.

The waves of excitement the prodigious young striker created among the Scottish football fraternity and beyond as he emerged through the youth ranks at Celtic have receded and the dwindling band of observers who retain an interest are left wondering if he will ever showcase his talent at the highest level.

As he approaches his 21st birthday, Feruz’s career is still in its infancy. But his personal narrative could fill a book. His story so far is one of hope and identity, littered with small controversies, unfolding on a downward arc. At this juncture, the inescapable conclusion is that a potentially supreme Scottish talent is destined to wither on the vine.

So far has his star fallen that the perception of him amongst football observers in this country oscillates somewhere between unfavourable and indifferent. For a player who ran the show at under-17 international level when aged only 14, this is unfathomable. Aged 16, Feruz was Scotland’s youngest ever under 21 cap. He was coveted by English Premier League clubs and many major European clubs from the age of 12.

Those who saw him break through believe that had he followed the path laid out for him at Celtic he would be on the cusp of national hero status by now, an asylum seeker contributing to the sporting and cultural life of the nation at the highest level. Yet in his truncated loan spell at Hibs last season he managed just six substitute appearances. Is there a coherent explanation?

We begin in Somalia, the country of Feruz’s birth. Today, the East African nation is inching towards something resembling stability. The chaos and violent disorder of the 1990s has largely dissipated although it ranks low on most quality of life indicators.

Back in 1995, this nation of 10 million people was suffering from the worst excesses of a civil war which had begun four years earlier.  Vicious factional fighting between armed groups had resulted in copious bloodshed; the country was a failed state with no central authority; regional control was exercised through barbarity. Even the United Nations seemed to have given up on Somalia, withdrawing from the country altogether. For most Somalis, the only hope for a decent life was to leave.

Islam Salieh Feruz was born into these unfavourable circumstances on 10th September that year. There is little information about his very early life though we know Feruz was born to mother Aisha who had an additional three children to protect. Two of his grandparents had died in the civil war. He and his family moved from Somalia to Yemen when he was five years old – they may also have spent some time in Tanzania – before eventually coming to Castlemilk in Glasgow.

The extensive post-war housing scheme on the south side of Glasgow, referred to by Glaswegians as Chateau Lait, has produced the likes of Alan Brazil, Ray Houghton, Jim McInally, Andy McLaren, and more recently the Irish internationals Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy.

By the age of 11 Feruz was representing Celtic’s under-14 team with distinction. John Sludden, his youth coach at the club for three years and now the manager of East Stirlingshire, likened his ability at that age to that of Paul McStay and Charlie Nicholas. Sludden wanted to nurture and protect what he saw as a unique talent.

Others had differing agendas. Agents from England and Europe were beginning to offer unsolicited gifts to the family. Celtic kept a watchful eye on such matters but there were other issues. Feruz was already on the radar of youth justice agencies around the city after various scrapes and misdemeanours. Perhaps it was just part and parcel of a young foreign boy assimilating to a new language, country and culture. It caused those in the youth set-up some concern and certainly spoke to a personality unaccustomed to deference.

Five thousand miles from Somalia, on the day of Feruz’s birth in 1995, Tommy Burns was guiding his Celtic team to a 3-2 victory over Aberdeen at Pittodrie. To the youngster’s good fortune, the pair would get to know one another because of Burns’ role in the Celtic youth set-up the mid 2000s.

When Feruz and his family were threatened with deportation back to Somalia in 2007, Burns’ intervention was critical. He personally lobbied immigration officials on the family’s behalf, citing the contribution Feruz would make to Scottish sporting culture over the next few decades. The family were successful and became naturalized UK citizens. The club moved them from Castlemilk to upmarket accommodation in the Charing Cross area of Glasgow. Feruz was attending Hillhead High School, and he became the first player to represent Scotland at youth level under new school qualifications rule, a home nations agreement ratified by FIFA which states that anyone who has been educated in the country for five years is eligible for the national team.

The Celtic hierarchy, youth coaches, and Tommy Burns in particular had put everything in place for Feruz to thrive.

Feruz left Celtic shortly after his 16th birthday. The club received £300,000.  Then manager Neil Lennon went on record to say: “We have done everything in our power to keep the player and done more than enough to make him feel at home here. He does have other people in the background who are advising him. My take on it is that they are advising him wrongly but we seem to be powerless in that situation”

Subsequent comments made by the player after he had moved to Chelsea about this period of his life explain
1why Feruz is not exactly remembered fondly by Celtic fans.

In 2012 Feruz tweeted: “Celtic did f*** all with me staying in this country, get your f****** facts right and stop going with the story you read in the papers.”

The quote prompted a rebuttal from Gerry Collins, ex-Partick Thistle manager and lifelong friend of Tommy Burns: “It’s disgusting what the boy has said and shows a terrible lack of respect for everything Tommy did for him and his family. He hasn’t achieved anything yet in the game and I can tell him this, whatever he does go on to achieve in football will be down to Tommy Burns and he should be eternally grateful.

“I remember Tommy telling me he had discovered a gem in Feruz but the family were facing deportation to a war zone and the issue became something Tommy fought tooth and nail to prevent. Football was a secondary issue, it was an act of humanity and compassion from Tommy, which was typical of the man.”

Billy Stark, who delivered the eulogy at Burns’ funeral and was at the time the Scotland Under-21 manager was similarly disappointed at Feruz’ expletive laden tweet: “It’s hard to put into context the lack of gratitude this kid shows with these comments, it’s very sad.”

Feruz was active on social media gloating about his role in the reaching the FA Youth Cup final with Chelsea, taking a not so veiled dig at the club that developed and nurtured him in the process: “Here’s a fact for you tweeps. 6-7 years at Celtic, n never reached a cup final. One year at Chelsea, what happens ??”

Feruz regularly posted provocative remarks on social media in his early days at Chelsea, one of which included him sporting a Rangers shirt. His relationship with Celtic was now non exisitent and fans of the club who remained aware of his career were rarely to be heard wishing him well. It wasn’t always like this though.

There was a time when Feruz was hailed as the next Celtic and Scotland hero and for valid reasons. It is possible the majority of football watchers in Scotland have yet to see Feruz play, either in the flesh or on television. He never played in Celtic’s first team except for an appearance in a Tommy Burns memorial match aged 14. He is yet to make the breakthrough at Chelsea and was unimpressive in short loan spells at Blackpool and Hibs. His potential can only really be appraised on the basis of his reputation as youngster at Celtic, his Scotland youth international career and his appearances for Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup.

However as a teenager he was that good. In the 2009 Under-16 Victory Shield match against Wales, 90 per cent of the half-time and full-time analysis on Sky Sports was devoted to Islam Feruz, who was the youngest player on the pitch and three years younger than many of his opponents. Despite his diminutive stature – he still measures only 5ft 4in at the age of 20 – he bulldozed his way around Ninian Park that evening, his temples moist with sweat on a cold night, felling opponents like skittles and harassing players into mistakes. He displayed his full repertoire of skills and feints with craft, guile and precision, completing his performance with a sublime chip over the Welsh goalkeeper for the winning goal. It was a startling demonstration of his potential. Anyone watching on TV that night would have heard comparisons with Wayne Rooney being aired for the first time. To this observer his style was more reminiscent of Sergio Aguero; Feruz looked every inch the intelligent frontman – well balanced, razor sharp, able to shoot with either foot with no advance warning and ice cool in front of goal.

Fans in Scotland have seen their fair share of exceptional talents over the last 20 years but for the most part they have arrived from foreign shores. Purists long for the day another Johnstone, Cooper, Dalglish or Baxter will emerge. It explains partially why even those who did not achieve at a high level but played with skill and imagination – think Chic Charnley or Andy Ritchie – are revered as cult figures. More often than not, we bear witness to honest and adequate professionals, so when a genuine natural talent emerges, it quickens the pulse.

From an early age Feruz looked like one of those players with the rare ability to soar above tactical orthodoxy at any level of the game. His credentials were further asserted with a perfect hat trick (left foot, right foot, header) in Scotland Under-19’s game against Switzerland. Yet again, playing years above his natural age group, Feruz was by common consent a superstar in the making, with one English Premier league scout remarking to Billy Stark that every serious club in Europe was monitoring him. At 17, Feruz was a potent blend of talent and purpose: short frame, quick feet, a mix of intelligent positioning and off-the-cuff spontaneity. Goalscoring to him seemed as natural as breathing.

In 2012 his two goals for Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup final, where he played with vigour and skill throughout, further bolstered his reputation. Having already scored a blistering 25-yard goal at Old Trafford in the semi-final and twice against Nottingham Forest in the quarters, he was the star of the tournament, yet to celebrate his 17th birthday in a competition full of 19-year-old players.

It was soon after he made his debut for Chelsea on a pre-season tour of the Far East that things began to stagnate. His loan spell at Blackpool was probably best remembered for an amusing if thoroughly unprofessional tweet he sent after a coming on as a sub in a 7-2 defeat to Watford at Vicarage Road. “This team take more kick offs than corners” he tweeted just hours after the loss. Unsurprisingly, it went down like a lead balloon with the Blackpool hierarchy.

There is very little to say about his sojourns to clubs in Russia and Kazakhstan – for good reasons. Feruz went AWOL after one day at the Kazakh club’s training camp in Turkey, and returned to London after only 48 hours in Russia. In between times he irritated SFA officials by openly discussing his desire to play in the African Nations Cup, hinting that he could be eligible to play for several countries because of family connections.

By 2015 he was no longer in the frame to represent Scotland at any level, no further forward in breaking through at Chelsea and underwhelming audiences when he turned up for various trials and loan spells in the UK and abroad. One positive detail from this disappointing period did emerge however: Feruz had purchased himself an £80,000 Porsche.

At the time of writing there has been a warrant issued for his arrest. It is reported that Feruz failed to turn up at Glasgow Sheriff Court to answer charges of dangerous driving and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by giving a false name when he was stopped in his Porsche.

If Feruz is looking for positive sporting examples he could do worse than look at the experience of his fellow Somalian-born athlete Mo Farah. From late 2005, Farah lived in a house in London with elite Kenyan runners. “The Kenyans trained hard and I mean really hard. At the end of the session I was knackered. After their runs they would spend 45 minutes doing stretches. After food, they’d sleep. In the afternoon they trained again, it was an almost monk like existence. What was I thinking? How could I ever hope to beat the Kenyans in a race if I wasn’t taking my career as seriously as they did? It was like a switch had been turned on inside my head, I knew I would have to work even harder than before.”

You hope a similar switch is flicked for Feruz before too long. To be fair, Alan Stubbs remarked on his talent and positive personality as his loan deal at Hibs was cut short last season and there is no clear evidence of a lack of training ground application. Murmurs about his general attitude have always been present however and his tendency to attract trouble, ungracious comments about Celtic’s role in his development, the entourage of advisors and propensity to flaunt his lifestyle on social media do not augur well.

It would be a pity if Feruz’s explosion on to the international youth scene comes to represent the high point of his career. It should have been an opening chapter. History is littered with spoiled canvasses, unfinished symphonies and abandoned novels and if Feruz ever has cause to sift through the debris of a journeyman career he may live to regret his lack of focus. It is still within his gift to redefine his destiny. He may yet take a delayed, circuitous route to the top. Having followed his career from the outset, I certainly hope so.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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