x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Omani goalkeeper in the line of fire

Ali al Habsi, the Gulf's first star in top-flight English football, and his mentor talk to Paul Radley about the goalkeeper's rapid rise to fame.

Ali al Habsi was limited to just ten appearances at Bolton Wanderers because of the fine form of Jussi Jaaskelainen.
Ali al Habsi was limited to just ten appearances at Bolton Wanderers because of the fine form of Jussi Jaaskelainen.

When Ali al Habsi initially aspired to become the Gulf's first Premier League footballer, the idea of being on the receiving end of a Carlos Tevez masterclass on a rain-lashed afternoon in Wigan probably did not feature in the fairy tale.

As he picked the ball out of his net during his side's 2-0 defeat to the world's richest club on Sunday, the Omani goalkeeper might have pondered just how far he has travelled in a career which he hopes is still just starting.

Autumn in the north west of England could not be much further from the spartan playing fields of Mudhaybi, the Omani village where he grew up.

In his youth, the idea of making it to the top in European football fuelled him during the 5am training drills he ran in the morning heat. After completing his night shifts as a trainee fireman, he would head straight to the football pitch to train.

He would almost certainly have been a fireman today, like two of his nine brothers, had he not made it in football. "I am very proud that I was a fireman," he said of his apprenticeship in Muscat.

His career diversion came about thanks to a chance meeting with an expatriate who knew a thing or two about English football, having played 771 first-class matches there.

"I thought, 'This boy wants it'," said John Burridge, the former Manchester City goalkeeper who was working with Oman's national football team. He became al Habsi's mentor, and recalls those early morning, beat-the-heat practice sessions.

"His dedication was unbelievable. He used to catch a minibus down, then run a kilometre and a half from where that dropped him off, just to get to training. "He was making about 200 riyals (Dh1,900) per month to do what he did. That was dedication."

The coach and protege differ when they recall their first meeting. Burridge swears he was first struck by a 14-year-old al Habsi's athleticism when he saw him playing a game of volleyball at the sports centre he was using.

"He was a volleyball player, without a word of English," Burridge said. "I asked him if he played football. He didn't understand me, so I asked him in Arabic, 'Do you play football, young man?' I told him I would come and watch him play."

That was the start of their unlikely alliance, although al Habsi remembers it differently. It may stem from the fact that references to volleyball are usually taken as an insult by goalkeepers. Burridge himself frequently berates the general standard of goalkeeping in the Middle East by saying: "They are all volleyball players."

"The first time I met Budgie I was still under 16, playing for the national team in a friendly," al Habsi said. "I saved a penalty, and after the game, I met Budgie.

"The first time I was with him he told me I could make it to the English Premier League, but that I would have to work really, really hard if I was going to do it.

"I had a really tough time with Budgie, but I worked really hard, and I am happy with where I am now. If it wasn't for him I wouldn't be here now."

Now aged 28, he is just starting to see the fruits of 14 years of hard labour. Patience is a virtue not always in ready supply in football, but al Habsi is blessed with it.

And fortunately so, given the amount of time he has been forced to wait for his break. When Burridge first took him to England to trial with Manchester United, aged 21, he impressed to the extent that they wanted to sign him immediately.

"I thought everything was coming true," he said of his trial with United. "I was so young, and we went to Old Trafford. One day we got to play at the ground. I couldn't believe it, but with hard work it was possible.

"Of course, it was a dream to be at Manchester United, to be playing on the same field as some of the best players in the world.

"But I didn't want autographs. I was there to train and to show them what I could do."

Al Habsi's spirit was dented when he was denied a work permit; he could not fulfil the criteria of having played in 75 per cent of Oman's matches over the previous two years.

Burridge talked to City and Bolton Wanderers as well, but the problem seemed insoluble until Sam Allardyce, Bolton's manager at the time, hit upon a plan. He suggested al Habsi be sent to play club football in Norway, with Bolton footing his wage bill.

Two seasons later, after al Habsi helped Lyn Oslo to third place in the Norwegian league and won the goalkeeper-of-the-year award, he was eligible for an English work permit and returned to Bolton in 2006.

However, even since then his patience has been tested. He got only sporadic chances to play - when Bolton's stalwart keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen was injured.

Even when his eye-catching form kept Bolton in the Premiership in 2008, he was quickly shuffled back to No 2 when Jaaskelainen regained fitness in time for the next campaign.

Having since been loaned to Wigan, he is likely to forgo playing for Oman in the coming Gulf Cup, especially now that he has leapfrogged Chris Kirkland, the England international, as his new club's first choice between the posts. He knows a chance of a run of games in the first team of a Premier League team is to be treasured.

"It is important to me that I play well every single week," he said. "I can't do anything more than train hard, be patient and do fantastic in the games."

Burridge hopes this season will be the breakthrough campaign for his apprentice, likening his situation to that of Joe Hart last season. Hart clearly was highly regarded by his parent club, Manchester City, but was allowed to go on loan to Birmingham City.

His form there was so good, it led to him becoming the undisputed No 1 for both City and England this term.

Burridge is aware that his charge is now in the shop window. With giants like Manchester United and Arsenal apparently in the market for goalkeepers, he spies an opportunity.

"When he finishes with Wigan, there will be a lot of big clubs looking for goalkeepers, and Ali has the potential to be best goalkeeper in the league," Burridge said. "I have no doubt about that. I realised it when I first saw him when he was 14. He has to prove to people he can play Premier League football. This is his chance. Nobody knew they could trust Joe Hart till he went to Birmingham City."

To his credit, al Habsi refuses to indulge in blue-sky thinking. "I have to concentrate on my game now, and make sure I do my job," he said.

"What is next year? I don't care, to be honest. The most important thing is to play well for Wigan, give 200 per cent, win as many games as possible. This is my target. I never think about next year."

pradley@thenational.ae