He arrived in Scotland as a refugee from war-torn Somalia, and in just 10 short childhood years, he’s been a cause celebre, a wonderkid and a totem of cultural diversity. Now ‘Celtic’s’ Islam Feruz is spending his final days before his 16th birthday as the invisible man.
But where now and what now for Feruz, the first player to be selected for Scotland under the so-called Gordon Smith Rule, a new Fifa edict allowing a UK passport holder educated for at least five years in one of the home nations to represent that country?
What we do know is that the flamboyant attacker, with the mesmerizingly quick feet is unlikely to go to ground for long. He seems set to re-materialise at a Premiership club in the not too distant future – possibly even within a matter of days.
What we do know is that the flamboyant attacker, with the mesmerizingly quick feet is unlikely to go to ground for long. He seems set to re-materialise at a Premiership club in the not too distant future
According to a number of media outlets, Feruz will make the move to Stamford Bridge, pocket £2,500 per week in wages and set up home in a penthouse flat near the stadium, with Chelsea footing the bill.
Rumours emanating from Feruz’s school, the appropriately culturally diverse Hillhead High School (that boasts over 30 different nationalities on its school roll), had suggested serious interest from moneybags Man City and the champions Man Utd. So far, that interest, like the suggestion of an £8,000 per week salary package and even a Humvee jeep being offered as a signing inducement by one Premiership suitor, remains the stuff of urban myth - symptomatic of the unfortunate hype Feruz's prodigious talent has consistently aroused.
What isn’t in dispute though, is that to Celtic’s dismay, a legal loophole, means that any English side can sign Feruz for a compensation fee of up to but not exceeding £300,000.
Feruz cannot formally sign professional terms for Celtic until his 16th birthday later this week, but the Premiership big guns are poised to pounce, denying Celtic a major windfall. Under the comparable English FA legislation, Feruz cannot sign professional terms, in England, until he is 17 years old. As a result he will remain on youth terms for another year – a fact that delimits the compensation to be paid to Celtic by his new club.
It is an undoubted kick in the teeth for Celtic, who helped the player and his family settle in Glasgow after fleeing war-torn Somalia in 2001. The bitter civil war cost the lives of two of Feruz’s grandparents and forced the family to flee to the UK via Yemen by boat. They were saved from deportation by the late Celtic legend Tommy Burns, who personally lobbied immigration officials on the family’s behalf, becoming something of a mentor to the player in the process.
Feruz cannot formally sign professional terms for Celtic until his 16th birthday later this week, but the Premiership big guns are poised to pounce, denying Celtic a major windfall.
Privately Celtic put the hours in too. The Hillhead catchment area might as well be in a whole different galaxy such is its contrast to the urban blackspots of Castlemilk and Sighthill, where the family lived initially. And with the family’s welfare safeguarded by Celtic youth supremo Chris McCart, Brian Meehan and another Celtic employee John Simpson, Celtic have played their part in ensuring a harmonious transition to life as an Old Firm hot prospect.
It is for this reason that Celtic fans feel most aggrieved about Feruz’s premature defection. In their heart of hearts they will have reasoned that Feruz would move on eventually (whether or not he fulfilled his potential). However, robbed of their chance to see their poster boy run out in a competitive game wearing the green and white hoops, they would at least expect Feruz to do the right thing and ensure a decent payday for Celtic.
As it is, Celtic are clearly resigned to losing a player that, were he to have completed his apprenticeship at Parkhead successfully, would have been a massive on-field and commercial asset for the club and an ambassador for a devolved, modern, multicultural Scotland.
His nominal manager Neil Lennon had hoped that Feruz, who arrived from Somalia in 2001, and who has been at Celtic since the age of nine, would sign a professional contract when he turned 16 this week. But the Celtic boss has already confirmed to the BBC that: "As it is, I have not seen Islam since the start of the season."
He said: "We have done everything we can to keep the player and done more than enough to make him feel at home here."
"He does have other people in the background who are advising him."
"My take on it is that they are advising him wrongly, but we seem to be powerless in that situation."
The root of any perceived change of heart is being laid at the door of a new French agent, employed to replace the ‘firm but fair’ ex-Hearts midfielder John Colquhoun. Billy Stark, another ex-Celtic star, currently Head Coach of Scotland’s U21s, confirms the impression that Islam Feruz is on the missing list although he is keen to refute the suggestion that an increasingly petulant Feruz insisted that he represented Scotland at U17 level, despite being only 15.
Stark says: “No, that is something that would never happen at any age level. He was offered the option of stepping up to the U17s and that is what he decided to do.” I first heard tell of the Celtic prodigy in 2008, when I found myself sitting next to a Premiership scout at Motherwell. He was keeping tabs on The Steelmen’s Jamie Murphy but as the game ebbed and flowed the conversation turned to the then 12-year-old Somali. As he positively enthused about the youngster’s pace, balance, ability with both feet and emphatic finishing he confirmed that: “Not just every club in the Premiership but also most big clubs in Europe are tracking him. He is the one serious player in Scotland at the moment.”
And it is worth putting that comment into context. It was uttered at a point where Wigan’s James McCarthy was still a Hamilton player being pursued by a gaggle of Premiership clubs, Jamie Murphy was breaking through to Motherwell’s first team and a 17-year-old John Fleck was forcing his claims for regular inclusion at Rangers, having just become the youngest ever player to play in a senior British Cup final. Islam Feruz, by contrast, was still in his first year at secondary school.
“Not just every club in the Premiership but also most big clubs in Europe are tracking him. He is the one serious player in Scotland at the moment.”
By 2009, Feruz reached a wider public consciousness, making his Parkhead bow with a cameo appearance in the late Tommy Burns’ testimonial. Celtic youth coach John Sludden told The Daily Record that Feruz was in the same ballpark as Paul McStay, Charlie Nicholas and Aiden McGeady in terms of raw ability.
With the player having, announced his arrival to the wider world with a bravura Man of The Match performance, and a deftly finished winning goal in Scotland Under-16s' Victory Shield win over Wales, Sludden said: "When Islam first came into my Under-14 team he was just 11 and we gave him 20 minutes of a game.
"Even then you knew this boy had a lot of talent - the way he just glided past people who were much older.
"He is two-footed and even then he had a presence on the park and the arrogance to take people on and nutmeg them.
"We have taken him under our wing for the past two years and it has been a joy to watch his progress.
"He is a very strong kid. I was brought up with Paul McStay and Charlie Nicholas and Islam has similar ability on the ball.
"I have also been lucky enough to watch McGeady and Islam is also up there with him."
In the past 12 months though, Feruz’s reputation appears to have lost some of its lustre there are whispers of an increasingly poor attitude and of his Celtic handlers growing increasingly frustrated by the unsolicited gifts from rival clubs.
On the eve of his coming of age, Islam Feruz has been damned by the euphemistic indictment that his ‘head has been turned’ by all the attention, perhaps even fatally. Surely though, it was ever thus? Football is awash with folklore of the nearly men, bright stars that burn out too fast or fail to consolidate their precocious early progress. In this respect, Islam Feruz is no different to the likes of Cherno Samba (currently on trial with Alfreton Town), John Megicks (just released by Cambridge), Sonny Pike (currently studying at the University of Dundee) and Adam Pepper (Aberystwyth Town) who were equally highly touted a decade or so ago.
For footballers, even supremely talented footballers, the margins between success and failure are perilously fine. It is a fact that will surely not be lost on Islam Feruz’s family. Having experienced both great loss and hardship en route to a better life in Western Europe you can certainly understand the parental instinct to advise their son to take the money and run - whatever the rest of us might think.
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