Joining a British club trying to rebuild under a new regime after relegation is nothing new for Alim Öztürk.
Four years after arriving in Edinburgh to help Hearts roar back to the Scottish Premiership in the wake of their administration-induced demise, the 25-year-old defender has pitched up in Wearside intent on sparking another recovery at Sunderland, who will start the season in England’s third tier after a chaotic few years in which they have plummeted from the Premier League to League One.
Öztürk was among Hearts’ first signings in summer 2014 after Ann Budge, Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson arrived to kick off the Tynecastle club’s resurgence. Within two years of joining from Dutch side Cambuur, he was captain of a team which had re-established itself in the upper echelons of Scottish football by finishing third in the Premiership. After positive talks which led to him signing a two-year contract with Sunderland last week, Öztürk sees no reason why his new club can’t enjoy a similar renaissance under new owner Stewart Donald and new manager Jack Ross, a former coach of the Turkish defender’s at Hearts.
“When I went to Hearts, they were in the same position as Sunderland are now, looking to get back on track after relegation,” Öztürk told the Evening News, speaking from his honeymoon in the Maldives after tying the knot in the Netherlands recently. “I got the same feelings when I went to Sunderland as I got when I first went into Hearts. There’s a new chairman and a new manager and I feel like the club is ready to turn the corner. Jack Ross is a sensible guy and wouldn’t have taken this job if he didn’t think the club was ready to move in the right direction. No club wants to get relegated but we have seen before where big clubs get relegated and they come back stronger. It can give you a chance to rebuild and do new things. I hope we can do the same at Sunderland as we did at Hearts.”
Ozturk, who will meet his new team-mates for the first time on Sunday when they fly out to Portugal for a pre-season training camp, returns to British football 18 months after vacating the scene when his time at Hearts ended under a cloud and he moved to Turkish second-tier side Boluspor. He is excited by the opportunity to represent a club with one of the biggest stadiums in England and clear potential to return to the Premier League in the next few years if they can establish a more coherent strategy under their new management.
“My period at Hearts was really good, and I wanted to experience British football again, playing in full stadiums with passionate supporters,” said Öztürk. “My initial intention was to stay in Turkey for next season but if I could find a good club, I was open to moving back to the UK. It was only a few weeks ago the opportunity first came up to go to Sunderland, and after we started talking, it was all done really quickly. It was a really easy decision. I had a good relationship with Jack at Hearts, so that was important but the main thing is that the club is amazing. I saw the training ground and everything – the stadium is amazing and the facilities are really good. I’m really happy.”
After an enjoyable period of playing regularly for Boluspor as they narrowly missed out on promotion to the Turkish top flight in consecutive seasons, Öztürk feels he is entering the peak years of his career with a wealth of good experience behind him. “When I went to Hearts, I was only 21 so I was really young,” he said. “It is really important for a footballer to play regularly and I feel the experience I have had of playing regularly at Hearts and also in Turkey has made me a much better player. I’ve played in Holland, Scotland and Turkey already, and every country has its own style, so I’ve learned lots of different ways of playing. I am used to the physicality of British football, which should help me, but in League One, they play more games than in Scotland. That is something I feel good about though.”
Ozturk has seen one of his former Hearts colleagues use League One as a pathway to the more illustrious English Championship. “Jamie Walker went to Wigan in January when they were in League One and now they are in the Championship, but for him it was a little but easier because he would have seen Wigan were already near the top of the league when he signed,” said Öztürk. “If I can do the same as Jamie, it will be great. I’ve signed for two years so if everything goes well and we get promoted to the Championship, who knows what can happen after that.”