Wanderer Jlloyd Samuel right at home at Esteghlal
By Richard Jolly (The National)
The path from the major European leagues to the Middle East has become well trodden in recent years. But, while plenty of players and coaches have left the United Kingdom for the UAE, it is rather rarer that a footballer swaps England for Iran.
That, however, is what Jlloyd Samuel has done. In January, the former Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers left-back joined Esteghlal Tehran on a short-term contract until the end of the season.
"A few people might raise their eyebrows and think 'why Iran of all places?'" the 30 year old said. "But it's been all about the football and I'm enjoying it. Obviously it's a new challenge, something out of the ordinary but I'm willing to take that chance."
An unconventional choice it certainly was, but Samuel had options, in both England and the UAE. "There aren't many jobs where you can travel the world," he said.
A Trinidad & Tobago international who has spent most of his life in England and now plays in Iran has ventured farther than most, but his long journey brought an immediate reward.
On March 15, Samuel won the first major honour of his career, lifting the Hazfi Cup, which guarantees Esteghlal a place in next season's Asian Champions League. After a 0-0 draw with Shahin Bushehr, he scored the third penalty in a 4-1 shoot-out victory. He also won the fans' man-of-the-match award
The initial contact with Esteghlal came through a friend but it helps he already had a colleague in Tehran, the former Wanderer Andranik Teymourian. "When I was at Bolton Andranik talked about it quite a bit," Samuel said.
The Iranian is injured, so the pair are yet to be reunited on the pitch. In his absence, Samuel, known as a quick, attack-minded left-back, has taken on Teymourian's job after being converted into a central midfielder.
"It's a slower game and their focus is all about keeping the ball," he said. "The first few games came as a bit of a surprise but the more games I play the easier I am finding it."
There are new experiences on and off the pitch.
"It's definitely a big challenge in terms of learning a new language, a new style of life and even a new position," he said.
"I'm lucky to have an interpreter to help me when I'm out and about, such as the times I go shopping. Tehran has been a safe place and I have no complaints so far. The people have warmed to me."
Born in San Fernando, Trinidad, Samuel grew up in East London. An eclectic CV features former Asian and European champions, in Esteghlal and Villa, as well as one of the most famous junior clubs in England. As a boy, Samuel was a Senrab teammate of John Terry, Ledley King, Paul Konchesky and Bobby Zamora while other alumni include Jermain Defoe, Sol Campbell and Ray Wilkins.
His exploits there brought Samuel to Charlton's attention. But, before making his debut, he was taken to Villa, who were accused of poaching the teenager.
He went on to make 199 appearances for Villa, interrupted only by a loan spell at Gillingham. When his contract expired in 2007, he signed a four-year deal with Bolton, featuring regularly for two-and-a-half seasons.
He did not take the field for Wanderers in the 2010/11 campaign, appearing only on loan at Cardiff City. The Bluebirds' 3-0 play-off semi-final defeat to Reading remains his final game in English football, although he went on trial at both Leeds United and West Ham United last summer.
While his time at the Reebok Stadium ended frustratingly, it did coincide with Samuel becoming a full international. After earning Under 21 caps for England and being selected for the senior squad by Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2004, he opted to switch allegiance and represent Trinidad & Tobago.
His Senrab teammate Zamora, also granted permission to play for the Caribbean nation, never did debut for them and went on play for England.
For Samuel, both international and Champions League football have come in unexpected places. Esteghlal are facing Al Jazira, Al Rayyan and Nasaf Qarshi in Group A of the Asia tournament. Al Rayyan were defeated 1-0 in the opening game and Samuel recalled: "There were around 80,000 watching the game. The Iranian people are very fanatical about football."
Their club sides have impressed the recent arrival.
"The standard of football is highly competitive," he said. "I would probably compare the level to the Championship. There are some very skilful and technical players who originate from places like Brazil, Germany, Portugal and Argentina. I'm the first British-based footballer to move over there, so that's a bit of history for me and Iranian football."