As a goalkeeper for Trabzonspor in the seventies and eighties, Senol Gunes habitually won the Super Lig. During four different stints as coach for the same club throughout the nineties and beyond that habit was downgraded to the Karadeniz Firtinasi (Black Sea Storm) customarily finishing as runners-up; falling just short of glory on multiple occasions.
Even the veteran’s crowning managerial achievement could be viewed in a harsh light as a near-miss. His against-the-odds guiding of the Turkish national side to a World Cup semi-final in 2002 earned him the title of UEFA Coach of the Year but, while it was unquestionably an outstanding achievement to cajole a limited eleven so far in the tournament the narrowness of defeat to Brazil, it brought plenty of what-ifs. A subsequent move to Korea failed to redress what was now becoming a stigma with FC Seoul finishing second in the K-League in 2008 under his charge and when Trabzonspor lost out on goal difference to Fenebahce on his return his reputation was cast: Gunes was a highly proficient coach who couldn’t close.
The relief and validation of a first title win with Besiktas in 2016 can only be imagined then for the 63 year old. After 25 seasons managing seven different clubs in the top flights of Turkey and Korea, navigating his teams to five second places, three thirds, four fourths, and two fifths, Senol Gunes had finally emerged victorious over his peers. Maybe it was because the spell was now broken, but probably more so due to inheriting an already very good side and making them better Besiktas then repeated their feat last season. For the legendary figure in Turkish football winning the Super Lig was becoming a habit again.
There is something entirely apt, perhaps even poetic, about Gunes – a well-regarded old-stager with a long-standing doubt over his capacity to fulfil his ability – finally completing his otherwise impressive C.V. courtesy of a team largely made up of players who, until recently, shared his predicament. They are a Dad’s Army and he is their Sergeant Major and together they are presently righting reputational wrongs by seeking a third consecutive Turkish title and all while topping Group G of the Champions League. An avoidance of defeat at home to Porto a week on Tuesday and the Istanbul giants progress from the group stages for the first time in the tournament’s present format and furthermore will do so as seeded winners. From there who knows where this adventure ends?
Instrumental in stylish away wins at Porto and Monaco was Ryan Babel, a winger whose fine recent form has seen him return to the international fold for the first time since 2011; a player who is widely considered to have squandered his considerable talent after bursting brilliant from the Ajax academy. Then there’s the well-travelled Ricardo Quaresma, whose best football was always displayed on his native Portuguese soil: at Barcelona he flattered to deceive, while his disastrous spell at Inter won him the Bidone d’Oro, an award dished out to the worst player in Serie A.
From the bench Gunes can call upon Gary Medel and Alvaro Negredo, both ex-Premier League stars venerated in their own right but each now perceived to be past their sell by date despite being only 30 and 32 respectively. Less successful in his attempt at reinvention meanwhile Jeremain Lens has fallen foul of the passionate Besiktas faithful for reputedly refusing to take part in a recent league game at Aliaspor, but even so he was clearly signed to facilitate his hunger to prove himself after a woeful spell at Sunderland. Lastly there is Pepe whose global estimation as a formidable defender during ten trophy-laden years at Real Madrid means he has no requirement to prove anything to anyone following his summer move but his 34 years of age still very much puts him in the veteran bracket. Indeed he is the oldest of Besiktas’ golden oldies.
Gunes’ prioritising of experience was apparent from the get-go, but was especially pertinent in his recruitment during the last window. The average age of his five signings who have made a significant contribution this term is 30.1 years while more than half of the 15 players who have made seven or more appearances are over 30. It’s no surprise to learn then that Besiktas have the oldest squad in this year’s Champions League, a fact illustrated by their starting eleven against Monaco at the beginning of this month being the sixteenth oldest Champion’s League side ever. They are Besiktas, the proud Black Eagles of Istanbul, but they are also Final Fling FC.
That they are running rampant is not only a testament to the virtues of hard-earned empiricism in addition to the benefits of providing very decent players with a platform to revive ailing reputations: it is also credit to Senol Gunes’ shrewdness, slowly amassed from a career of near misses.
He had a point to prove and he proved it. Now he is affording his players with that same opportunity.