He was the first-ever Englishman to play in Turkey and knows what it's like to s
He was the first-ever Englishman to play in Turkey and knows what it's like to score in the Sükrü Saraçoglu stadium, venue for Saturday's showdown in Istanbul. TheFA.com's Richard Morgan talks to former England international Les Ferdinand about life in Turkey and England's Euro 2004 qualifying hopes...
Fifteen years ago Bobby Robson's England were also paired alongside Turkey in qualifying for the European Championships in Germany and an unknown 21-year-old reserve-team striker at Queens Park Rangers was on his way to Istanbul to play for Besiktas.
Robson's England hit Turkey for eight unanswered goals in one of those meetings, while Les Ferdinand went on to enjoy a hugely successful season-long loan under Besiktas' English manager Gordon Milne.
Back then, Milne was just one of a number of imported foreign coaches lending their knowledge and expertise to aid in the development of Turkish football.
"I think I was the first-ever English player to play in Turkey," remembered the man currently plying his trade with Leicester City. "I got 21 in 33 games in all competitions, so it went pretty well for me, although back then the standard of football was the equivalent to the top-half of the old Second Division."
And the Acton-born striker also recalled how: "the Turks were in awe of English football then, which was held in very high regard. England had just beaten Turkey 8-0 at Wembley and on Saturday's after games, everyone would rush to watch the old Match of the Day."
However, Turkish football has improved immeasurably since the late 1980s, with the national team qualifying for their first tournament in 42 years at Euro 96, before finishing third at last year's World Cup Finals. Now a victory for Senol Günes' side over England on Saturday will see them through to their third consecutive European Championship finals.
How then does the ex-England international explain this amazing turnaround in fortunes? "You have to remember that no Turkish footballers back then ever went to play abroad, unlike today where you have Turks playing in England, Spain and Italy," said the 37-year-old.
"And there was a great influx of foreign managers, especially from Germany, who had a significant input to the Turkish system and have certainly played a major role in the development of the national team. Also, the importing of foreign players to play in their League helped them to develop as well."
Ferdinand, along with fellow Englishmen Barry Venison and Mike Marsh, Welshman Dean Saunders and Scotsman Graeme Souness, made up the British contingent who all played some part in making Turkey the team they are today.
But it was a two-way relationship, with Ferdinand and Co. taking as much from their time in the land where east meets west as they put into it, a fact 'Sir Les' himself readily acknowledges.
"Going to play out in Turkey was a real apprenticeship for me as a footballer and there is no doubt that it improved me massively as a player and that it played a big part in the future success that I was to have in football following my year in Turkey."
After his reluctant return to west London, the big frontman would go on to score 90 goals in just 183 games for QPR, before playing with distinction for Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United and his present employers at the Walkers stadium, as well as being voted the 1996 Professional Football Association Player of the Year.
However, it was not just on the field of play that Ferdinand improved, but off it as well. "Culturally it was a great experience, a real eye-opener for me and the people treated me really well."
Ferdinand left Loftus Road in October 1988 as a reserve-team striker who'd barely been outside the confines of Ladbroke Grove, but returned the following June not just an improved footballer, but person as well.
From reserve-team to first-team, and not just with QPR, but on 17 occasions wearing the Three Lions on his shirt, scoring five times for his country in a disjointed seven-year international career. So how does Ferdinand compare Sven-Göran Eriksson's side to the various ones that he played in?
"This current England team have great ability, like England teams of the past too, but with this one you think that if they can get it right, then they can achieve great things. They are in control of their own destiny in the group and it is obviously a massive game, as the Turks will definitely be up for it.
"As a player, you don't really want to go out on the pitch thinking we only need a draw to qualify and I don't think that the England players will be doing that. I think the best policy, and this is what I believe the England players will do, is to play for the win and to go out there with a winning mentality and mindset."
In 1989 an Englishman's goal silenced the Sükrü Saraçoglu stadium (Ferdinand scored against arch rivals Fenerbahçe in that season's Turkish Cup final). Let's hope that 14 years on, we will be saying the same thing.
by Richard Morgan
Date of Birth: 8 December 1966
Place of Birth: Acton, London
Height: 5' 11''
Weight: 13 02
Clubs: QPR, Newcastle Utd, Tottenham. Leicester
Les Ferdinand's England career
1992/93: v San Marino, Holland, Norway, USA (sub)
1993/94: v Poland, San Marino
1994/95: v USA (sub)
1995/96: v Portugal, Bulgaria, Hungary
1996/97: v Poland, Georgia, Italy (sub)
1997/98: v Moldova, Saudi Arabia (sub), Morocco (sub), Belgium (sub)
Total: 17 caps, 5 goals
1999 League Cup (Tottenham)