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Omer Riza exclusive: Starting at Arsenal; inspired by Moyes; tipping one Watford youngster for big things

Omer Riza has no regrets as he reflects on his experiences in football that have made him into the man that he is today. In an exclusive interview with, Riza is thankful for a career that saw him develop out of the Arsenal academy and into a career in Turkey and the English Football League.

“Every experience was different and at every age I went through different experiences that made me who I am today as a person and as a coach," Riza explains.

The former forward struggled to establish himself at the Gunners and moved to West Ham where, “I had to learn to play in a different way and different style. I then went abroad and it was hard for me to leave my country for places where I didn't know the language. I can't say there was a best or most difficult experience because they were all part of my journey and made me the person who I am today."

Unable to establish himself in the fold at Arsenal or West Ham, Riza took the gamble few English players take and moved abroad. He signed for Denizlispor and kickstarted his career, but how does he feel about his time in Turkey?

"I moved to Turkey in 2003 and I left in 2008 and I enjoyed my time there a lot. I had a lot of success and learned a lot from the people and their footballing philosophy. The stadiums have evolved a lot there; they are all newly developed and the fans are so passionate."

On the current state of football in Turkey, Riza is a little more critical. He says: “I think the structure at the club level and FA needs to be improved a little to make sure there is a fair playground. There is a great prospect there if things are done in the right way. We can't have any more people coming onto the pitch and punching the referee. We don't need that in the game."

In December 2023, referee Halil Umut Meler was hit in the face by MKE Ankaragucu's president Faruk Koca. MKE Ankaragucu had conceded a 97th-minute equaliser against Rizespor and, following the final whistle, Koca stormed onto the pitch in pursuit of the referee. The Turkish Super Lig was suspended for a week after the attack.

On the Turkish national side, Riza believes there is hope for a nation brimming with emerging talent. “I think with the new manager, [Vincenzo] Montella, they are in a good place. They have very talented young players and if they create the right balance with the senior players, they will be a very tough opponent for anyone."

Turkey will be aiming to do better in this summer's European Championships than in 2021, when they were dumped out of the group stage having scored just one goal. How does Riza believe England will fare in the tournament?

"England look very strong. They have got a great squad from back to front and a really good manager in [Gareth] Southgate and an assistant like [Steve] Holland. They can win it but we need to see if we make the most of those big moments. That has been our problem in previous years. We have not been able to manage those moments. But I think we have a really good chance".

One of England's star players is Bukayo Saka who, like Riza, came through the academy at Arsenal. Saka has become Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta's key player. How does Riza feel about the transformation of his old club under the Spanish manager?

“I think it has been amazing. Last season they did okay even though they had a bad period in the most important part of the season. Last summer they signed very good players and for me have created a fantastic group. There is great harmony in the team and their performances have been very good this year. Mikel has done a great job there and has implemented an attacking philosophy into the team. Also, Edu, their director, has done a really good job there and you can see that everyone in the club from the directors to the staff and players are together towards one goal — winning."

Riza experienced a similar success-driven dressing room when he came through the Arsenal academy, but suggests that made it trickier for young players to make their mark on the side.

"I was at Arsenal from the age of nine until 19-years-old, and I felt very proud to play for the club that I loved. In the time that I was coming through the different age groups of the club, other important players have come through like Tony Adams and Paul Davies. We were a very talented generation coming through and we won different titles. I made my debut at 19 years old and it was very difficult because at that moment there were lots of important players on the team. It was also always very difficult to make debuts and play in these top teams like Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool."

Even if it was just in training, Riza argues that Adams was the toughest defender he ever faced. “I have had the honour to play against lots of very good defenders. Tony Adams was almost impossible to pass because he was so fast and could read the game so well."

But after leaving Arsenal, he was faced by another English great at West Ham. “When we did one-against-one, and I was against Rio Ferdinand, it was impossible to pass due to his physicality and strength. Another defender whom it was impossible to play against was Diego Lugano. He was such a nasty defender and would make your life so hard during the game."

Like Arsenal, West Ham have also impressed the former striker. He explains: "West Ham has always been a club trying to maintain a position and I think in the last couple of years they have done very well by playing in Europe season after season and winning a European cup."

Riza was full of praise for Arteta, but how good a job has David Moyes done at the Hammers?

“Moyes has implemented a clear strategy for the team, every player there knows very well what to do on the pitch; they are in a good place. In front of them are some of the best teams in the world and for the moment it is very hard or almost impossible to compete with them. Moyes has done a great job and I respect him a lot for what he has done and has given to the club. As someone who is aspiring to have a career as a coach, he is one of the coaches I look up to and follow."

Riza has been making steps towards his dream of becoming a professional coach by learning the ropes at Watford where he became assistant manager. Riza puts his success at the Hornets down to his perseverance.

“I have worked hard during my six years at Watford. I left Leyton Orient as a first-team manager to go to Watford as a part-time coach taking the under-15s and 16s. From there I progressed as a full-time coach taking the under-18s and 21s. Then I joined the first team as the assistant manager. I enjoyed being on the first team because it was my intention from the beginning and I worked hard to achieve it."

What was the most rewarding part of being a coach at Watford?

“The proudest moments for me at Watford are seeing the players having good careers. Seeing players that I have trained and are in the first team, or even after leaving for different clubs, calling me. What stands out is my progression from part-time coach to being part of the first team. Also, I have built a great relationship with all the staff and players during my six years at the club."

Watford are languishing in the lower-half of the Championship and Riza suggests that they are suffering because the league itself is so unpredictable. Riza states: “I loved [the Championship]. It is a relentless league and so many games are of high intensity with everyone able to beat everyone."

But who has been the best team this season?

“There are some standout teams there and I think Leeds will win the league because they are a really strong side and have a great dynamic. They have four or five ways to beat the opponent and are very unpredictable in their approach to the game. Leicester and Ipswich have done well this year and have kept their form during the season."

Have there been any young players that have caught the eye of the coach?

“[Crysencio] Summerville is a really good player that I like a lot. Also, Watford's Ryan Andrews has a lot to learn but can be a great fullback in the future. They are my standout talents this year."

As the season reaches its conclusion, and teams begin their early preparations for the following campaign, where does Riza's future lie?

“I have to see what becomes available because I know I am ready and I want an opportunity to show my skills and show that I can do it. Hopefully, I will get that opportunity with an important project that can permit me to work and implement my philosophy. If not then I am open to continue as an assistant coach and learn more and develop more."

On whether he would be open to move abroad, as he had done as a player, to find new opportunities, Riza is not closing any doors. “I am open to everything and, to be sincere, maybe sometimes going abroad is easier for young coaches to have a chance to show our skills and develop more. I am open and I am looking forward to what the future will bring for me."

- adapted by Jack McRae

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