WWhen Ankaragucu host Besiktas on Sunday, a former MK Dons striker will take to the field looking to showcase his talent on Turkey’s biggest stage while keeping his eyes firmly on the World Cup in Qatar.
To complete the similarities, like Dele Alli, Gboly Ariyibi spent some of his early years in Nigeria. The two will face each other at the Eryaman Stadium in the Süper Lig, where they are a long way from home.
This isn’t the first time they’ve met. Ariyibi, then from Chesterfield, was an unused sub against MK Dons in 2014 and the future England international made an impression. “I remember watching him and seeing his maturity as a player, he was already a notch above League One back then,” says Ariyibi. “I knew he wouldn’t be around long.”
The way to the Turkish capital was a detour for Ariyibi. He came through the ranks at Southampton but was released without a performance. He played Sunday league while testing himself at clubs across the country from Bolton to Bournemouth and even showed up at Leyton Orient, boots in hand, hoping to force them to give him a chance. Eventually his then agent Lee Payne set up a process with Leeds, Ariyibi boarded the train at London’s King’s Cross and never came back.
Ariyibi made the transition from amateur football to playing in front of 30,000 spectators in the league in a matter of days. After a year at Elland Road he moved to Chesterfield from where he moved to Nottingham Forest and then spent two seasons on loan at MK Dons and Motherwell. He went to Greek Super League team Panetolikos to show he could make it in a top division where two successful campaigns were enough for Ankaragucu to call and wanted Ariyibi to help them get out of relegation the first time around recover.
“It was an incredible feeling, not only for the players but also for the fans,” says Ariyibi. “There were many expectations of a team that made one of the most famous Turkish clubs. It was a surreal moment to make history and be a part of it. When we had the celebrations, you could feel the hustle and bustle of the city. The support has been second to none throughout the season and you can really see how passionate they are. Definitely my best experience in football.”
Ankaragucu are back at the top of the table alongside Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Sunday’s opponents Besiktas but are without a win in three games and are without their titular head coach. “We come into the game as underdogs but with the support of our fans we can beat anyone in this league.
“For Alli, it will be a million miles from Anfield or the Emirates. Eryaman Stadium can be a difficult place for an opponent and the fans – on both sides – will give their all for 90 minutes and more.”
His close friend Uche Ikpeazu recently left Middlesbrough to join Ariyibi in Turkey at Konyaspor. He asked for advice and Ariyibi will be happy to share his insights with Alli. “It’s always nice to see people from England abroad and I really think a lot more people should get out of their comfort zones.
“They have quality players here and a lot of big names like Alli himself. I have a lot of football friends in England and they call me for advice. If I were Dele, I would also feel comfortable knowing that there are other native talents in the same situation.
“Playing in another country is never easy, it can sometimes be very difficult to adapt to a new culture. People don’t recognize the victims and being separated from your family can be challenging. Some of us play in the Super Lig and it’s nice to know we’re all connected in some way. I wish him all the best.”
Will Ariyibi want to swap shirts with Alli? “I suppose he’ll want mine,” he jokes.
Home is Oxford for Ariyibi; he has a great affection for Quarry Rovers and coaches Neil McCrea and Darren Gallacher who helped him get to this point. Joining Ariyibi in Ankara are former Real Madrid winger Jesé Rodríguez and ex-Manchester United striker Federico Macheda. Jesé won two Champions League titles after coming through the ranks at Madrid, while Macheda is famous for his dramatic late-teenage win over Aston Villa at Old Trafford.
“I grew up as a Manchester United fan and my idol is Cristiano Ronaldo so it’s a great honor to have people who have trained, played and won titles with him as my teammates. Having that kind of talent can only make you better and is a huge game changer since the Southampton release all those years ago. Learning from players with these careers is amazing and humbling.”
Ariyibi left England because he wanted to play at the highest level. He hopes reaching Turkey’s Super Lig could help boost his World Cup ambitions. He represented USA in the age group and believes playing against sides like Besiktas can show he’s ready for the full international stage.
“It has always been a dream of mine to be at a World Cup. That would be an honour, we know how football is and anything can happen. I feel like this season is one of my most important.” A sentiment Alli could share.