When Ankaragucu host Besiktas on Sunday there will be a former MK Dons forward taking to the field, aiming to prove his talents on Turkey’s biggest stage, while having half an eye on making the Qatar World Cup.
To add to the similarities, like Dele Alli, Gboly Ariyibi spent a number of his early years in Nigeria. The two will come face-to-face at Eryaman Stadium in the Super Lig where they find themselves a long way from home.
This is not the first time they have met. Ariyibi, then of 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 playing maturity, he was a cut above League One, even then,” Ariyibi says. “I knew he wouldn’t be there for long.”
The route to the Turkish capital has been circuitous for Ariyibi. He came through the ranks at Southampton but was released without making an appearance. He was playing Sunday league while he trialled at clubs up and down the country from Bolton to Bournemouth, and even turned up at Leyton Orient with boots in hand hoping to force them to give him a chance. Eventually his then agent Lee Payne set up a trial with Leeds, Ariyibi got on the train at London’s King’s Cross and never came back.
Ariyibi went from amateur football to playing in front of 30,000 people in the Championship in a matter of days. After a year at Elland Road he dropped down to Chesterfield from where he earned a move to Nottingham Forest, then two seasons on loan at MK Dons and Motherwell. He headed to Greek Super League team Panetolikos to show he could cut it in a top division where two successful campaigns were enough for Ankaragucu to come calling, wanting Ariyibi to help them bounce back from relegation at the first time of asking.
“It was an amazing feeling, not just for the players but the fans,” Ariyibi says. “There were a lot of expectations for a team that has made one of the most illustrious Turkish clubs. It was a surreal moment to make history and be part of it. You could feel the buzz around the city when we had the celebrations. The support was unmatched throughout the season and you can really see how passionate they are. Definitely my best experience in football.”
Ankaragucu are back to the top table, alongside Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Sunday’s opponents Besiktas but are winless in three matches and have dispensed with their title-winning head coach. “We go in as the underdogs but we can beat anyone in this league with the support of our fans.
“It is going to be a million miles away from Anfield or the Emirates for Alli. Eryaman Stadium can be a difficult place to come to as an opponent and the fans – from both sides – will be giving it everything 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 insight with Alli. “It is always nice to see people from England abroad and I genuinely think a lot more people should come out of their comfort zones.
“You have quality players here and lots of big names with the likes of Alli himself. I have loads of football friends in England and they call me for advice. If I was Dele I would also feel comfortable knowing there are other homegrown talents in the same situation.
“Playing in another country is never easy, it can be very tough at times adapting to a new culture. People don’t realise the sacrifices and being away from your family can be challenging. There are a few of us playing in the Super Lig and it is nice to know we are all connected in some way. I will wish him all the best.”
Will Ariyibi want to swap shirts with Alli? “I assume he will want mine,” he jokes.
Home is Oxford for Ariyibi; he has great affection for Quarry Rovers, and coaches Neil McCrea and Darren Gallacher, who helped him reach this point. Alongside Ariyibi in Ankara are the 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 famed for his dramatic late winner as a teenager against Aston Villa at Old Trafford.
“I grew up as a Manchester United fan and my idol is Cristiano Ronaldo, so to have people that have trained, played and won titles with him as my teammates is quite an honour. Having these sort of talents around can only make you better and is a big turning point from being released at Southampton all those years ago. Learning from players with these careers is great and humbling.”
Ariyibi left England because he wanted to play at the top level. He hopes reaching the Turkish Super Lig could help boost his World Cup ambitions. He represented USA at age-group level and believes facing teams such as Besiktas can show that he is ready for the full international stage.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to feature in a World Cup. That would be an honour, we know what football is like and anything can happen. I feel like this season is one of my most important.” A sentiment Alli might share.