Al-Habsi: 'After God, John Burridge is the main person'

From a remote Oman village where camels roam, to keeping goal for Wigan in the Premier League, it's been quite a journey. And he puts it all down to his unlikely guru, he tells Ian Herbert
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They are well past the £300m spending mark at Manchester City but when the Abu Dhabi ruling dynasty tune in to see their club play Wigan Athletic at the Etihad Stadium this afternoon, they will be reminded of an elusive acquisition for whom they would surely still give the earth.

The Emiracy has poured everything into its own football infrastructure, yet by one of those ironies that the sport can throw up, it is neighbouring Oman – with its relatively basic facilities centred on Muscat, a four-hour drive from Abu Dhabi's capital – which has produced the Middle East's one and only Premier League player.

Ali Al-Habsi cost Wigan about £4m – four months' pay for Carlos Tevez – to sign permanently this summer and he actually rejected the chance to sign for City five years ago because the comparatively dazzling prospect of playing for Sam Allardyce's Bolton Wanderers had also been put before him. "Don't get me wrong, but six years ago Bolton were the better side," Al-Habsi says. "Good call, that one, Ali," it is tempting to reply, in the modest surrounds of Wigan's training ground, but this player is one of too modest and earnest proportions for that.

The story of how Al-Habsi – who did not even decide to be a goalkeeper until his brother first put the idea to him when he was 17 – made it from a remote Omanese village where goats and camels roam to the Premier League is an extraordinary one, though it is a measure of his own modesty that this is the first time he has told it to a newspaper. The man on whom it has all hinged is John Burridge, the indefatigable former Aston Villa and Crystal Palace goalkeeper who was on the coaching staff of the Oman national side when he spotted Al-Habsi saving a penalty in training with the Under-17s, demanded that he train with the senior squad and promptly dedicated himself to proving his belief that the teenager would make it all the way to the Premier League one day. "After God, John Burridge is the main person," Al-Habsi says of his mentor. That would have made a good banner at Villa Park in the mid-1970s but the 29-year-old's earnest countenance reveals that he is not joking.

Al-Habsi had only just started trying out goalkeeping with his local side Al-Midhaibi, in the Omanese third division, when the chance encounter with Burridge occurred, and it is a measure of the awe in which he still holds him that the Englishman remains "John Burridge" to him – never "Budgie" or plain "John". "John Burridge was watching some games and he saw me playing, and after the game he spoke with the coach and said I need him to train with me in the first team," Al-Habsi recalls. "I was so happy, you know! To train with the first team! After that, when I met John Burridge, I remember one thing he just said to me. He said 'concentrate, train hard and one day I will take you to the Premier League'. I was laughing. I said 'this is a joke'. He said: 'No, this is serious. I will take you to Europe and I won't stop until I take you there'."

How on earth could Burridge have foreseen quite such promise in Al-Habsi, whose comfort at Premier League level has seen him play major roles in the survival of Bolton in 2008 and Wigan last Spring? "I looked at the size of him and thought 'shit'!" reflects Burridge, now based in Dubai after a second period of work with Oman ended in January. "I tested his jump. He had a metre standing jump. His father has a Tanzanian heritage and you see that in him. He's got that African jump. He could bounce!"

The two must have cut an odd pair on the lush training fields of Muscat, in one of the most beautiful parts of the Middle East. Al-Habsi didn't have a word of English, so Burridge taught him and received some Arabic skills in return. "To be honest at that time I didn't know anything about him," Al-Habsi recalls of his mentor, whose career covered 30 clubs, almost 800 games and so many managers it is impossible to keep count. "When I saw him he said 'I played in the Premier League' [of its day]. I didn't know about his story. Then I started to hear about him and I've seen some videos now. You could see from the training that something was not normal or usual! The way he likes the football. He loves football. He loves it. He is pushing, pushing me. He is really strong, really tough and he loved training every day – everything, fitness, drills. I was really pleased to meet John Burridge."

Al-Habsi remembers the heat of the six months in which Burridge made a goalkeeper out of him. "In the summer we are training in 50 degrees. In winter it's good, but in the summer it's hard; really, really hard." Burridge remembers the workrate of the teenager who, as he recalls, would make the 16-mile journey to their work-outs on the bumpy, 12-seater rural penny buses. They'd start work at 5am, before the heat of the day made their work unbearable. "He'd run down from the bus stop, work his bollocks off and then run back to take it home," is Burridge's recollection. Al-Habsi also juggled a job with 12-hour shifts as a fireman at Muscat Airport, as Al-Midhaibi were not a professional club. Another of his nine brothers – he also has six sisters – worked as a chef at the station. "When you work at an airport you don't have too many emergencies and Oman airport is not a busy one," he says. "My brother made sure I went to train with John Burridge and then came back. It fitted in well. I knew I wouldn't be there for long because at that time there was the contact starting with teams in Europe, through John Burridge."

They included Bolton, where in a trial he made an impression on Allardyce. "Everything went well," Al-Habsi reflects. "Big Sam was interested." Burridge also remembers a fortnight's work-out at Carrington with Manchester United, standing behind the goal providing instructions and encouragement to Al-Habsi in Arabic after a particularly hefty challenge came in from Ruud Van Nistelrooy.

The problem was a work permit, so the journey from rural Oman to Lancashire had to take a three-year detour through Norway, where the First Division side Lynn Oslo signed him. "It was very hard," Al-Habsi says of the time he had waved farewell to his father, Abdullah, a school bus driver, and his mother, Aza. "I was the first player from the Gulf to play in Europe and everything is different – culture, weather, everything. I was thinking 'If I make it in Norway and improve, one day I will be there in the Premier League.' I was really working hard and concentrating every day." He played half his first campaign, was a regular by his second, which he concluded as the club's player of the year. In 2004/05, he was the league's second best goalkeeper as Oslo went to the cup final and finished sixth in the table. "It was just fantastic, great for me," he reflects.

The same could not be said of Burridge who tells how the Omanese federation did not want Al-Habsi to leave the country, which may have contributed to the new national coach Milan Machala directly telling Al-Habsi he lacked the ability to make it. Burridge says he responded by shoving Machala, an action which led to instant dismissal.

"It was a new thing for Oman, having a player leaving the country," says Al-Habsi. "It was difficult for people to understand, but John Burridge kept to his word and got me to the Premier League."

Al-Habsi's grounds for preferring Bolton to City included the better chance of first-team action. "David James was England No 1 at the time and he was at City," he recalls. But first-team football was hard to come by at the Reebok. "When I got to Bolton it was a different story," he says. "Jussi Jaaskelainen was one of the best goalkeepers in the league. I was 23, so the training and the experience were fantastic, but with time it became harder for me. I played with Sam for two years – and had no games. When Gary Megson came [as Sammy Lee's successor at Bolton] I played in Europe [during Bolton's run to the last 16 of the Uefa Cup] and when Jussi got injured at the end of the season, I finally got a chance to play. I played 10 fantastic games and I was so happy because I helped the team to stay in the Premier League. But the next year I did not play any games – not even the Carling Cup games – and I was so disappointed because when I had a go with the gloves I had shown what I could do. Megson left and when Owen Coyle came I went straight away to him and said: 'I'm nearly 29 now, I want to play first team. If I'm not going to play with you please let me go.' Wigan came and I was so happy. I say thanks to Roberto Martinez. He is a great manager. He gave me the confidence and the chance. I proved myself." He did. Suffice to say that Al-Habsi was named Wigan's player of the year after last season's loan campaign.

To have made Oman a Middle Eastern standard-bearer of a kind unrelated to petrodollars is a source of unmistakable pride to an individual whose references to Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said reflect his national pride. Oman's domestic football scene pales by comparison with the wealthy United Arab Emirates league but Oman's victory in the Gulf Cup of Nations tournament in 2009 – with a breathtaking stop from Al-Habsi against Saudi Arabia in the last 10 seconds – demonstrates that riches are not everything.

The question for Abu Dhabi is whether a future Al-Habsi lurks within their youth football system. Burridge, who thinks so, has shown that an appreciation of the Arab mentality is as much part of the process of delivering it to the Premier League as good English contacts. "Developing young players in the Middle East is about understanding how they think," he says. "It's not all about shouting." In the meantime, the improbable partnership goes on. "He texts me before every game and I'll speak with him too," Al-Habsi reveals. "Yes," confirms Burridge. "I watch his games and I might have something for him, like 'get away from your near post' or 'work on your kicking more'. But it's generally 'best of luck son. No mistakes'."

My Other Life

When you're an Omanese in England the internet is your friend. I read the news about my country and about the football there. The Oman league, of course, but the Saudi Arabian league too. Most of my time is taken up with my family. I like to take my daughter to nursery and I come back to training at Wigan after that. My wife, Basma, who is Omanese, is studying at university in Manchester, so I like to do my bit around the house. Because we are Muslim I go to the mosque. Every weekend after a game I go to a restaurant in Manchester – Middle Eastern, of course – my own food!

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