Omer Riza's pathway to success that has foundations at Cambridge United and Histon
Omer Riza ponders over the description of him being a fighter.
It is not instantly dismissed out of hand but a slight adjustment finds a far more apt appraisal – determined.
It is easy to imagine that the 40-year-old could be jaded and burdened by everything that the professional game has thrown at him, but that could not be further from the truth.
Knockbacks at a young age, limited opportunities to show his ability, a global ban, a decade-long legal battle, 200 job applications, it is a list that would have sunk lesser individuals.
Remarkably, though, there is not a hint of bitterness from Riza, who has had to overcome more obstacles than most.
His love for the game is a story of resilience and perseverance, in which Cambridge has twice acted as a springboard to new opportunities – at Cambridge United and Histon.
“Cambridge was the first part of my senior playing career, and Histon was the first part of my coaching career,” says Riza.
“It’s all quite funny really that it’s all come by way of up there.
“I think it’s because of the way the people are in general, there is not too much pressure and stress and you’re able to go and work in your own way and structure and get the performances you’re looking for.
“I’m very proud they are part of my history. The clubs, the city, I love Cambridge.”
Riza is most widely remembered at the U’s as part of a brilliant attacking quartet alongside Dave Kitson, Tom Youngs and Shane Tuder during the 2002/03 season.
But by that point he had already dug deep to succeed.
There were rejections as a young boy at Leyton Orient and Watford, but he made his way to Arsenal to earn a senior deal.
A congested queue for a first-team spot included the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Ian Wright and Nicholas Anelka so, after one substitute appearance, he switched to West Ham, where the frustrations continued.
Temporary moves followed to Barnet and the U’s under John Beck in 2001, and it was that time at the Abbey Stadium that persuaded him to return permanently in the summer of 2002.
“After loan spells, I was ready to be playing full-time senior football,” says Riza. “We were flung together and let the reins go, so to speak.
“Shaggy (John Taylor) was the manager and we weren’t a hard four to control, but we had loads of energy, we were able to go and beat people, we were powerful in our own individual ways and we were a very tough four to play against.
“We scored a lot of goals that year. If it wasn’t for us conceding a lot, we really should have gone up.
“We clicked, we were young, we all wanted to achieve, we had a good group of seniors and younger players together.
“It was a young attacking team. The rest of the team were quite young as well, the older heads were Terry Fleming, Paul Wanless, and even Andy Duncan was young.
“Dave was one of my best partners in the course of my career, and the proof is in the pudding with what he went on to achieve.
“I think if we had met further down the line then we would have been even more of a problem, as we were quite young at the time.”
The quartet were broken up in the March when Youngs was sold to Northampton, but Riza’s career was revitalised and his 20 goals helped earn a move to Turkish Super League side Denizlispor.
“My aspiration was to go and play higher, like any young player,” says Riza. “I think if we had got promoted that year it would have been a different story.
“It was always going to be difficult for the club to keep us together unless they showed intent and, at the time, they didn’t really do that.”
The Turkish League was attracting world-class players, the likes of Anelka and Robert Carlos, so it was the ideal move for a 23-year-old.
Riza found himself a team-mate and partner of Turkey international Ersen Martin and Brazil international Marcelino Paraiba.
He loved his playing time in Turkey, but things took a turn at Trabzonspor, who he joined in 2006.
When a new board took over, they started paying players’ wages through backdated cheques.
“I wasn’t conforming to just being quiet,” says Riza. “If something wasn’t right, I made a point of saying it.”
He found himself left out of the squad as a result, and then left the club after his contract had been broken.
The Turkish Football Federation found in favour of the club and gave Riza a four-month global ban, but it would only be activated once he had signed for a club.
“After what I dealt with coming back from Turkey, it was 15 months before I got playing after the ban which set me back quite a lot in my career,” he explains.
“I couldn’t really find my feet after that, not because I didn’t want to but a long time out trying to find your old form and managers not being able to really wait for that, it was a hard task.
“Running on your own on the streets and thinking about all the things that have happened and gone wrong, how you’re going to correct it and how you’re going to find that form again, who is going to want you, it’s endless.”
Riza was offered an opportunity at Shrewsbury in 2009, but was then back in Cambridge in the summer of 2010 at Histon, and about to begin the next chapter of his career.
David Livermore was the Stutes’ boss at the time, and the pair were lifelong friends, having been at school, the same grassroots side and at Arsenal with each other.
“It was a good opportunity to go and help him and support him, whilst playing as a striker and also coaching all the attacking players so it was my path into coaching, if you like,” says Riza.
“It was a lovely little club. It had a great little set-up, great people.
“We had a good structure in respect of staff, good structure in respect of a young team and I think it was more a question of where the people that had the club wanted it to go and were they able to provide what was necessary for that to happen. I think that was where it fell a bit short.
“It was a case of strong together with a young team and we had to work on getting them up to the level that they needed to be to perform and perform against senior opposition.”
A few more stops in non-League as a player, and as a manager at Cheshunt, followed before a bigger break arrived on the coaching front at Leyton Orient.
Riza was asked by another former U, Danny Webb, to train the O’s under-16 team, moving through the ranks to become assistant and, when Webb was sacked during a turbulent time at Brisbane Road under former owner Francesco Becchetti, he was asked to take over on a caretaker basis.
Amid the backdrop of much off-the-field turmoil, Orient ended up being relegated to the Conference and Riza’s contract was not extended.
But he could not find another role in the game.
“I applied for about 200 jobs, abroad, in America, in colleges, in universities here, non-League clubs like the Ryman League, academy jobs,” he says.
“I had all the qualifications but I just couldn’t get a job – it was either you’re over qualified, not bringing finances to the club, or we’ve already filled this position.
“I would go for an interview and I would get a call the night before from another mate of mine saying it’s already gone, but I would still go and do the interview.
“I drove three hours for a job that I knew was already gone, but I did it anyway because I wanted to show myself to them as I thought, you never knew they may do a U-turn.”
The opening arrived at Watford as part-time coach of the under-15s and under-16s, and he is now a full-time member of the academy staff, working as assistant to under-23s manager Hayden Mullins.
Riza had helped coach England under-15s, but it was announced last year by the FA that he would be part of the Elite Coach Placement Programme as one of the BAME coaches involved in the national set-up with the Three Lions’ under-16s.
How he has been able to turn around difficult situations just underlines Riza’s strength of character.
In what can definitely be described as a fascinating career, Riza is pragmatic about it all.
“Don’t get me wrong, there have been times when it crossed my mind (to quit), but I love football and everything about it, what it’s given me, what it can give me and where it can take me,” he says.
“Life is full of problems and issues that you have to overcome to become better and stronger, and gain experience from them.”
He added: “I’ve definitely done that and I think it’s made me who I am today. I like to think that I learn the bad things people do and make sure I don’t take that with me, and learn the good things people do and take that with me.”
More by this authorMark Taylor