Exclusive: Alim Ozturk opens up on Sunderland exit and reflects on two years at 'beautiful' club
There are always contrasting emotions at a moment like this and you can detect them all in Alim Ozturk’s voice, as he reflects on two years on Wearside.
There is regret, some sadness, and plenty of pride, too.
Ozturk is one of many footballers who will be feeling this in the weeks and months ahead.
When they were last on the pitch, everything was still to play for. Hopes and goals still in play, everything to prove and nothing yet lost.
What’s followed will leave many feeling unfulfilled.
That, though, is the way of things in these times. As Ozturk reflects on the disappointment that it has all ended this way, he has a regular refrain: In a time like this, what can you do?
From day one, Ozturk spoke and carried himself in a way that showed the pride he had in playing for a club of Sunderland’s size and magnitude.
That pride has never gone.
Memories of playing at Wembley, in front of bumper crowds week in, week out, will stay.
The overriding emotion, though, is disappointment at a job not quite done.
“When I came to the club, it was to get promoted,” he tells The Echo.
“We didn’t manage to do that so it feels as if my job there isn’t done, if you know what I mean.
“I wish I could finish it, but it’s been decided that I’m going to leave.
“I wanted to bring the club back to where it belongs, because it’s too big to be in League One.”
That Sunderland’s fate was ultimately not settled on the pitch adds to the sense of a story that didn’t quite reach a conclusion.
“You want to finish the season on the pitch and decide there who is going to be promoted,” he says.
“But with the pandemic, what can you do?
“I think any team would want to finish it on the pitch.
“Of course, the teams who are promoted will be happy. I think the right way was to finish it on the pitch but if it’s not possible, then what can you do.”
Ozturk’s release was surprising in some senses, and not so much in others.
Jim Rodwell and Phil Parkinson had both made clear that Sunderland were entering a period of uncertainty, that budgets could not be settled definitively until there was more information on when next season will start and how many, if any, fans will be allowed to watch.
Departures were therefore inevitable when so many contracts were expiring.
The squad as it stands, though, looks light at the heart of defence.
Letting Ozturk go, so dependable in the latter 18 months of his time on Wearside, represents something of a calculated risk.
The man himself is at peace with the decision, even if he had hoped to stay and have another go at promotion.
There was an amicable and respectful conversation with Parkinson, which comes as little surprise.
Ozturk won the respect of his new manager when he played through the pain barrier during a difficult midwinter run, and like his predecessor, there was nothing but praise for his professionalism from the manager.
“I spoke to the manager,” Ozturk says.
“He gave me a call and it was fair enough. He was honest, he explained what the situation was and there was no problem at all there.
“It was his choice and it’s part of the game.
“It’s a beautiful football club, and I wish I could have finished the job. When I arrived the only thing in my mind was to get promoted.
“So it feels like unfinished business.
“That’s the feeling that I have.
“It was a good time, it was a beautiful club to play for, but unfinished business is the best way to describe it.”
There is pride not just at being able to represent Sunderland, but at being able to prove himself on more than one occasion.
Ozturk’s start was difficult, he himself conceding at the time that the player fans first saw ‘was not him’.
It took a long time to get another opportunity but when it finally arrived, he took it.
Even then, there were times when he dropped out having seemingly done little wrong.
Each and every time, he battled his way back.
“My first year, the start was not what I wanted,” he says.
“I finished the first season well, we didn’t get promotion but for myself it was a good finish, I think.
“I wish we had won that game against Charlton, it didn’t happen and of course you want to finish the job the year after.
“I played quite a lot, I got injured before Phil came but I got the chance when I came back and played a lot of football.
“That was good but to finish it like this, it’s not the ideal way.
“[Overall] If you play in front of 30,000 people in League One, that’s an amazing thing,” he adds.
“The Boxing Day game, where the team plays for 43 or 44,000 people.
“Nobody else in League One could do that.
“I will never forget that.
“The final, too, we lost but it was an amazing atmosphere with 75,000 people.
“These kind of games, you don’t get to play a lot. That was a good experience for me.”
Ozturk is heading for a break, to allow the dust to settle and to weigh up his next steps.
It is a little too early to tell what is next for the 27-year-old.
Perhaps, too, time will allow that overriding sense of regret to soften. There is plenty to be proud of, to reflect on fondly.
Without hesitation, he says he will ‘of course’ always follow Sunderland’s progress.
“I’ll have to wait and see what will come my way,” he says.
“I need to make a good decision.
“I hope that Sunderland get back to where they belong as soon as possible.
“It’s a beautiful club and hopefully they get back at least to the Championship and hopefully then to the Premier League.
“I will always look out for how they do and I hope they get back as soon as possible.”
That warmth will be reciprocated from those on Wearside.
The job wasn’t quite done, but Ozturk was a true pro right to the last.