We’re now well and truly in to 2018 and as such it’s time to figure…
Most Scottish football fans had probably forgotten all about Nadir Ciftci prior to his surprise loan move to Motherwell in January. Despite an impressive stint at Dundee United and a move to the biggest club in the country, his name on the preliminary team sheet against Hamilton on January 20 was the striker’s first start in Scottish football in just under two years.
Aside from a brief, potent spell while on loan at Eskisehirspor in Turkey, Ciftci’s time in Glasgow was either spent trying to convince a Celtic manager that he was good enough for a club that wasn’t entirely sure of the coach himself, or shipped out on loan to a wide variety of clubs. After Turkey came Pogon Szczecin in Poland and then Plymouth Argyle in League One.
Yet, over the course of the entire 2016/17 season, the forward played just 14 games and didn’t score a single goal. Ciftci’s career hadn’t so much as stalled but had rather completely skidded off the side of the road and found itself rolled over in a ditch. Then came Motherwell.
Well, actually, the correct phrase there would have been “then came Motherwell… again.” Because although Ciftci had faltered since leaving Dundee United, the Fir Park side had always kept one eye on the forward.
The first approach came last January when a last-minute loan deal was discussed only for it to fall through due to geography and a lack of time. If the club hadn’t been playing up north in Dingwall on deadline day, then a deal could have been struck, but the moment passed and Ciftci found himself on a plane to Poland instead. Another approach was made in the following summer, but again nothing came of it. At the third attempt, Motherwell finally got their man.
“To be fair, they’ve always been special,” Ciftci tells TheTwoPointOne when asked why he chose to move to North Lanarkshire. “Even going all the way back to my time at Dundee United. Every time we played them it felt like a different type of club. I’m not talking about the team. Every time we came here (Fir Park) or they came to us and we played them it just felt like the boys in the team or the club itself just had a different feeling.”
Ciftci also notes with some delight his friend and former Motherwell player, Henri Anier, telling him all about Motherwell’s positive and constructive attitude. As well as a convincing chat with Motherwell’s goalkeeping coach, Craig Hinchliffe, who struck up a friendship with the Turkish goalscorer as a coach in Dundee. All of which played a huge part in him drastically changing his plans ahead of the previous transfer window.
After a horrendous spell at Celtic and then disastrous loan spells in Poland and England the 25-year-old striker was planning on heading back to Turkey in January to get away from it all. By the end of 2016, Ciftci had not only become dismayed at the way his career was panning out but had completely fallen out of love with football and everything about it.
“Before January came I had already made a plan for myself to go back home to my family and I wasn’t really thinking about anything else, and usually when I make a decision I don’t tend to change it,” says Ciftci. “Obviously there were other things in the background that people don’t see – they only watch you from one Saturday to the next – but when I first spoke to Craig (Hinchliffe) about moving I was in a different type of mood and I just wanted to go back home to Turkey. I just wanted to be close to my family and I was kind of losing my interest in football. I lost the love of the game. Just everything around football wasn’t there for me anymore.”
He adds: “But for some reason when I spoke to them it just got into me straight away that I didn’t want to change anything anymore. I didn’t really think ‘Oh I know the league and I’ve played here before’ – it was just pure emotions and not about success or what I could get. It was more the case that the manager wanted to really help me out so that gave me a boost and that’s exactly what I needed in that situation. I really needed a little hand to push me up again. So I could stand up and get myself going again. And I thought that if I could get there I could give so much more back to the people around the club.”
Not only had Ciftci planned on pushing a move back to Turkey when the January window opened, but he had already begun weighing up options in the Turkish Super Lig. Plans had been made, contracts would have been drawn up and the young striker could have left these shores forever. Yet a sense of belonging at Motherwell changed all of that.
A huge part of Motherwell’s allure came from their charismatic manager. Having already guided the Steelmen to a League Cup final, whilst still chasing another day at Hampden in the Scottish Cup as well as a top six finish, Stephen Robinson not only sets his teams up to dominate and win games but also cheers from the sideline with all the gusto and determination of a seasoned conductor.
To take in a Motherwell game these days is a distracting task. You can either take in the football or sit back and admire the Lisburn Jurgen Klopp jump, scream and twirl on his heels to every kick of the ball. His players may be the ones running through walls for him but Robinson certainly makes it clear that he’s right there beside them for every step of the way.
Such a leader is exactly what Ciftci needed. When recalling the conversation he had with Robinson over the phone, prior to his loan move, Ciftci states that the ‘Well manager didn’t blurt out the usual spiel about how well he’d do at Fir Park, but rather explained the emotions and demeanour of his coaching and left it up to him to decide. “It was a very deep conversation and it touched me,” notes the striker. “It felt like he wasn’t trying to convince me to come, but was rather showing me the electricity and chemistry he had with his team.”
Indeed, Robinson’s ability to man manage is just as important – if not more so – than his ability to tactically set Motherwell up from one match to the next. Formations and systems are one thing, but the coach’s strongest attribute seems to be the manner in which he gets the very best out of his players. And that seems to come from the deep relationship he forges with them.
When asked about Robinson’s coaching style, Ciftci doesn’t hold back. “When he has to be a manager, he’s a manager. He’s your brother when he has to be a brother. He’s your dad when you need him to be your dad. He just knows exactly when to pick what he has to be. On the pitch, he’s the manager, or the coach or whatever. Outside of it, he has a great relationship with the boys in the club. And that obviously caught my eye. He’s got that mixture of what to do at the right times.”
Of course, Motherwell aren’t a charity or indeed a rehab centre for out-of-form footballers. They’re a hugely ambitious club on and off the field and while Ciftci feels at home at Fir Park he’s well aware that he must fit into the team and help them win games as he once did for Dundee United if he is to stick around or keep his place.
Brought in alongside Curtis Main as something of a two-for-one replacement for Louis Moult, the Turkish forward and his towering English counterpart have done well to strike up a potent partnership in Motherwell’s front line. And while Main may be stealing the headlines with five goals and two assists in his first 10 games for the club, Ciftci has already bagged eight key passes in as many games. In fact, the Turkish forward is averaging 1.74 key passes (passes that lead to a shot) per game, which is the highest average in Robinson’s squad this season.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when asked about his role in the team Ciftci is then quite happy to diminish the importance of goals. “As an attacker or forward or whatever you want to call me: you’re always going to be judged by goals,” he says. “I’ve never really been in the mindset of ‘How many goals can I score?’ – I’ve never started a season and thought I needed 10, 20, 30 goals to prove how good I am. For me, if I can give it to someone else for an assist I would be even happier than scoring myself. I’m not really worried about how many I score.”
Despite topping United’s goalscoring charts for two, consecutive seasons Ciftci was never a traditional No.9 or poacher for Jackie McNamara’s side. When asked about that period of his career he adds: “The manager (McNamara) would let the front four play wherever they wanted. So you’d maybe be on the team sheet on the left wing, but when it came to the game itself I was all over the pitch. But the main thing from the manager was that when we lost the ball we made sure the positions are being filled. So from then on, I was all over the field.”
And the striker is hoping to continue that trend at Fir Park. With Main as the more traditional target man for Motherwell’s quick, counter-attacking football, Ciftci is far more comfortable filling in the spaces behind or either side of his talismanic teammate. And certainly has no intention of playing as the physical striker in the box that some still insist is his best role. Growing up in the Hague and learning how to play football through Holland’s famed youth academies, Ciftci has always been a player that looks to exploit space across the pitch while getting as much of the ball as he possibly can.
“When you play No.9 people want you to stay in the box and wait for the chances but I’ve never been able to do that,” he adds. “Even when I was younger and a No.9 for the Dutch national team. I’m always looking to link up with someone. I’m just not the kind of guy who’ll wait around in the box for 90 minutes and in the 91st minute the ball is swung into the box and I then score a goal. I have to have the touches, I have to have a feel of the ball or I just get lost in the game. I can’t wait till the 90th minute to have a first touch or a first shot. I need to get involved. So what position do I play? I guess a little bit of everything.”
Despite his tendencies to drift in and out of games and demand the ball on the ground when his teammates would rather punt and charge, Ciftci is enjoying the challenge of fitting into Motherwell’s unique and undoubtedly successful style of play.
When asked if it’s his ideal way of playing football the Turkish forward gives a one-word answer – “No!” – before bursting out with laughter. “Of course, I’m not the smallest guy. So I can fit in with a physical style of playing. But I think the manager has made a mixture of physical and technical players really well.
“We’re not going to get bullied. We’re not going to get overrun. Physically, we have to match everything on the pitch first. And then the game opens up and then that’s when we play. So I think what he (Robinson) has done really well with bringing in me and Curtis (Main) is that he’s got players that can play football as well as being physical. So when the game opens up for us we can get the ball down and play. We have the players in the team that can force things and open up games.“
Although it might not be Ciftci’s favourite type of football, he can’t help but admire the way his new team play and appreciate how he fits into Robinson’s bigger picture. Like a cog in this rumbling, intimidating steel machine, Robinson’s Motherwell seem quite capable of achieving something far greater than the sum of their parts.
And what about after this season? When footballers are asked about their future they tend to blurt out some cliche about only worrying about the here and now and they’ll cross that bridge when it comes. But, as seems to be the case in many aspects of his life, Ciftci is quite candid when asked where he’ll be playing next season.
“The situation is out of my hands,” he notes with a sigh. “My contract is still at Celtic and I don’t know what they’re thinking of doing with my final year. But I’m going to give everything for this club and if it means I can stay longer then I’m more than happy with that.”