Just like his old club, former Hearts captain Alim Ozturk is aiming to end a mixed season with glory at the national stadium this weekend.
While the Tynecastle side are at Hampden tomorrow for the Scottish Cup final, the 26-year-old defender will be travelling to London to prepare for Sunderland’s League One play-off final showdown with Charlton Athletic at Wembley on Sunday.
The Dutch-born Turk, who left Hearts in January 2017 after two-and-a-half years in Edinburgh, joined Sunderland last summer from Turkish club Boluspor. After taking his time to find his feet on Wearside, Ozturk is now deemed a key man in Jack Ross’s team as they stand 90 minutes away from the English Championship.
“The most ideal situation would have been to finish in the top two and get automatic promotion but it doesn’t matter if you get to the Championship via the play-off final,” Ozturk told the Evening News. “The Championship is a big league and Sunderland need to be at least at that level. This club is far too big for League One.”
After finishing fifth in League One following a poor finish to the regulation campaign, Sunderland revived their promotion bid by beating Portsmouth 1-0 on aggregate in the play-off semi-final. Ozturk was wrongly sent off midway through the second half of the first leg at Stadium of Light but had the dismissal overturned on appeal and was able to help his team see out victory with a goalless draw in the second leg at Fratton Park.
“I was relieved that it got it overturned but I expected it as well because I knew I hadn’t touched the guy,” said Ozturk. “When you come back into the team and you have worked so hard to get your place back, it was annoying for me when I got sent off. But I knew, and everybody around me knew, it was never a red card. I was happy to be able to play the second leg. It was another clean sheet, which is perfect for me as a defender. We played two good games against Portsmouth and got the right result. Some people were talking about our form going into the play-offs, but in play-offs and finals, it’s always different. It’s just one or two games and it just comes down to who is the best on the day.”
This weekend marks Sunderland’s second visit to Wembley in less than two months after they lost to Portsmouth in the Checkatrade Trophy final at the end of March. Ozturk was out of the picture then but is now deemed a certain starter. “I played almost every game in the Checkatrade except the semi-final, when I was injured, so I expected to start the final,” he said. “But I was in the stand so I was disappointed. We had a lot of supporters there and it was an amazing occasion but this one is even more important. It’s really nice that I have another chance so soon to play at Wembley.”
After a poor start to his Sunderland career, which led to him going seven months without starting a league match, Ozturk got his reprieve after being pitched in for a Good Friday match against Doncaster Rovers. He started the last five matches of the regulation campaign before shutting out Pompey twice in the play-off semi.
Reflecting on his “difficult” first season at Sunderland, Ozturk said: “I’d had a busy summer. I got married and then I came back here to a new club and everything was new for me. I started the first couple of games and then I was out the team for a long time. I can understand why the Sunderland fans were not happy with me at the start because I was not happy about my performances either. I couldn’t recognise myself.
“I know my qualities and I know how important I can be for the team but it wasn’t me at the start of the season. It was strange, I didn’t know what was going on. But I feel good now. I’m fit, I’m playing games and I feel like I’m showing the real Alim. When you don’t play for a long time, it is annoying but I never doubted if it was going to happen for me. I was just thinking about waiting for my chance to show everyone who I am. I worked really hard every day to get that chance again and I think the supporters are happy with me now because I’m playing well. When you play well, they get behind you. It’s going well now.”
Ozturk is currently playing in front of ex-Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin and keeping former Tynecastle loanee Jimmy Dunne out of the team. As they journey to London tomorrow, the trio will be keeping an eye on events at Hampden. “I’m glad Hearts are in the final because I had a really good time there,” Ozturk said. “There are not many guys left from my time but John Souttar and Arnaud Djoum are still there and it would be great for them if they could win it. I don’t think I will get to see it because we will be travelling but hopefully Hearts win.”