The Celtic striker has completed a loan move with Motherwell until the end of the season. Craig Fowler looks at the deal and what it means for Ciftci and his new club.
The first time Nadir Ciftci played up front for Dundee United - at least, the first time I recall him doing so - was a Sunday match away to Ross County, live on Sky Sports in mid-September.
Until that point, the summer signing hadn’t shown much in a Tangerine jersey, bar a couple of goals in a League Cup victory at Dumbarton. He’d largely been situated on the wing and looked every inch the mercurial wide man - gifted yet ineffective.
Then manager Jackie McNamara used him through the centre with the supporting triumvirate of Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Gauld and Gary Mackay-Steven buzzing around him. It worked to perfection.
United ran riot that day and Ciftci was at the heart of everything, even managing to get himself on the scoresheet in a 4-2 victory which flattered the home side. With his bulk and technique, he was able to hold play up, but also displayed a deceptive burst, either in terms of movement, physicality or the power of his shot, which meant him such a dangerous opponent.
The next clear memory I have of Ciftci is watching him, almost studying him, in a 2-1 victory over Hearts later that season. This was a Hearts team headed for an inevitable relegation, so there wasn’t much within the home ranks to entertain. Instead, it was the opposition striker who mainly grabbed my interest.
He didn’t even play that well, guilty of either being over-elaborate or slack in his passing on too many occasions, but there was still something joyful about his display: the way he played the game at a different speed to everyone else, how he was able to hold off players without much fuss, and, of course, a silky smooth touch. Ultimately he would make his mark, netting a belter from 25 yards that all but sealed a United win.
That season he would score 17 goals and follow it up with another 16 the campaign after. When he signed for Celtic it made perfect sense from a talent perspective - though I always had reservations about someone so languid fitting in at Parkhead - because he was undoubtedly one of the league’s best players.
That was in 2015 and it feels like a long, long time ago, Since then Ciftci has played for four different clubs and failed to perform at any of them. His latest stint with Plymouth Argyle was very much his nadir (pun definitely intended) as he scored zero goals in eight games for a team rooted to the bottom of England’s League One, only to watch them begin to rapidly climb the table once he was dropped from the side.
Now he looks set to find himself another temporary home in Motherwell. Recent events would tell us it’s the worst possible move the Steelmen could make. The last thing they need is a forward who will fail to contribute as they desperately search for a successor to Louis Moult. However, he’s still only 25 years old, and we all still remember the Dundee United version of Nadir Ciftci. For a little while longer, clubs are going to convince themselves that they are the right team, the right environment, the right manager to get Ciftci back to his best again.
He better be at his best, because Motherwell really need someone with a bit of quality in attack. That’s why the team worked so well earlier in the season, and why the house of cards came crashing down following the injury, and now exit, of Louis Moult. It was a well-organised XI full of players willing to work themselves into the ground and bully the opponent, and the really talented guy up front who’d win the game. Sure the defence and midfield have since dropped off as well, but that’s also down to a lack of confidence and the increasing pressure with each passing loss. Fixtures like the defeats to Hearts and Kilmarnock, games where Stephen Robinson’s men deserved at least a point and got nothing, highlighted a team crying out for a bone fide match-winner. Finding someone like that, especially in the January window, is a very tough task. That’s why the Ciftci gamble is ultimately a necessary one.
There is a difference between the two strikers, though, which is why they’ll need Ciftci to return to his United form. Even if he’s half the player he was on Tayside, which would be a success by recent standards, it’s still unlikely to work.
Moult, in addition to being the biggest threat, was also someone who enthusiastically grafted for his team. Ciftci has never been that player. He was forgiven for this at Tannadice. In his first season, he was the fulcrum of an awesome attacking team, and it was their naivety and lack of defensive solidity which meant they underachieved by ultimately finishing fifth and losing the Scottish Cup final to St Johnstone. In his second term, especially after the departures of Armstrong and Mackay-Steven in January, following Gauld and Andy Robertson from the previous summer (What. A. Team.), he was the leading man. Supporters could complain about his inconsistency, his lackadaisical demeanour, and his fiery, troublesome temper, but at the end of the day he was going to be the player, more than any other, who decided whether they won or lost. The team was built around him. It’s not going to be that way at Fir Park. However, if they can forgive his idiosyncrasies, and give him a free role in attack, then this could be the move he’s been looking for.
Here’s hoping it does work out. Firstly, it would be a shame to see Motherwell continue their slide towards the bottom of the table having been one of the brighter stories from the first half of the campaign, just because they had to give into football’s cruel nature and sell their star performer before he walked for nothing. And secondly, it would be great to see Nadir Ciftci back playing every week in this country, entertaining the crowd and the Scottish football public as a whole with his unconventional antics.