May 5, 2018. It’s the final day of the 1. Lig season, the second flight of Turkish soccer. Samsunspor, previously a fixture of Turkey’s top flight, the Süper Lig, needs a win to avoid relegation. They take a 2-0 lead into the half, thanks to goals from journeyman striker Göksu Türkdogan and former Fenerbahce prospect Gökay İravul. Then, disaster strikes.
Just twenty minutes after the restart, opponents Ümraniyespor have equalized. A few minutes later, Türkdogan again gives Samsunspor the lead, but, with just minutes remaining, Antalyaspor loanee Jean-Armel Drolé found Ümraniyespor’s third. At the whistle, Samsunspor was relegated to the third tier — the 2. Lig.
This was a new low, literally — since Samsunspor was founded in 1965, they had never sunk to the third tier. In fact, Samsunspor often competed at the highest level. They had finished as high as third in the top flight and competed in Europe on multiple occasions — even beating Crystal Palace in the UEFA Intertoto Cup, and winning the last edition of the Balkans Cup.
Samsunspor’s future was in danger. The financial situation for Turkish clubs is perilous, with many clubs failing to recover after relegation. Not to mention the huge exodus: Greek legend Georgios Samaras, top scorer Türkdogan, and many other key figures left following relegation. Despite this, the fans (known as Şirinler, or Smurfs) kept faith, and the club started its journey back to the top.
2018/19 Season — 2. Lig
Samsunspor started the season with a new manager, Taner Taşkın: a veteran of the Turkish lower leagues, but he hadn’t left a lasting mark anywhere he coached. However, that changed in 2018, as he gained momentum. A victory at the end of January left the club in 4th, just two points from first with 15 games remaining. Then came the bombshell: Taşkın had quit.
In his press release, which you can find on this website, Taşkın stated that he had lost the energy to manage after criticism from the fans. He also shared his confidence that the club would earn promotion: except, they didn’t. New manager İsmet Taşdemir did a good job, but they still finished in third. That meant they faced Sakaryaspor in the promotion playoffs.
The first leg of the promotion playoffs was held in Sakarya, a city roughly 350 miles away from Samsun. Not exactly an easy away day and the Sakaryaspor fans made sure it wasn’t with their atmosphere. Samsunspor missed several big chances and had a potential penalty denied, but a well-placed finish from former Samsunspor midfielder Serkan Odabaşoğlu was the difference.
The second leg in Samsun was controversial — Samsunspor had a goal taken away for a very tight offsides call, another taken away for a foul on the goalkeeper, and several more penalty shouts were denied. The series ended 1-0 on aggregate to Sakaryaspor, eliminating Samsunspor from promotion contention.
2019/20 Season — 2. Lig
The following season, Samsunspor took a Brescia-like approach when it came to managers. Remarkably, it worked. Taşdemir was gone by the start of the season, and he was replaced by İrfan Buz. Buz went undefeated in his ten games but left the club anyways. He was replaced by Recep Sermet Boyar on a caretaker basis — Boyar won all four but was not given the job.
The real replacement was Ertuğrul Sağlam, a manager who had been at Turkey’s highest level with several clubs, notably Besiktas and Bursaspor. With Sağlam, Samsunspor lost just once in the COVID-shortened season, winning the league by ten points. After two seasons in the third tier, Samsunspor was back in the second tier.
2020/21 Season — 1. Lig
Samsunspor had a busy offseason, bringing in a mixture of veterans and rising stars. They ultimately shelled out well over $2 million, with marquee signings including four-time Romanian champion Kevin Boli and two-time Serbian champion Tomané. Oddly enough, neither of them featured much.
Despite the not-so-useful signings, Samsunspor picked up where they left off the previous season — winning lots of games. They spent a large part of the season in a promotion spot (unlike the 2. Lig, two teams are automatically promoted in the 1. Lig) and even had a six-point advantage with eleven games remaining.
However, things took a turn for the worse. The club hit a five-game winless streak, including losses to Adana Demirspor and Giresunspor. At the end of the season, the top three teams were level on 70 points — Adana Demirspor, Giresunspor, and Samsunspor. Adana Demirspor and Giresunspor were promoted automatically because of their superior head-to-head record.
Samsunspor faced Altinordu in the promotion playoff: a club that finished the season with ten fewer points than Samsunspor. However, it was déjà vu for Samsunspor: the first leg, which was away, finished 1-0 to Altinordu. In the second leg, Samsunspor came down from 1-0 (2-0 on aggregate) to lead 2-1 (2-2 on aggregate) before giving up a devastating goal from the half in the final minute. Once again, Samsunspor was eliminated in the promotion playoffs.
2021/22 Season — 1. Lig
Sağlam left the club at the end of the season, and he was replaced by Mehmet Altıparmak. However, after just three wins in eight matches, Altıparmak left and was replaced by Fuat Çapa. Çapa saw better results, but hitting a patch of poor form (one win in six games) cost him his job. He was then replaced by Yücel Uyar, who had been the team’s manager twenty years earlier.
Uyar did not manage to help the team win promotion, as they finished in seventh place. However, they were six points off of the final promotion playoff spot and, throughout the season, looked unconvincing. Things would be done differently next season.
2022/23 Season — 1. Lig
This season, Samsunspor did a complete overhaul of the squad. Recent (and slightly disappointing) signings like Boli, Tolcay Ciğerci, and Vukan Savicevic were sold in the summer. Long-time starting goalkeeper Nurullah Aslan left on loan (he was re-loaned out in the winter).
They were replaced by an interesting group of players. Many of them were veterans of the Turkish lower leagues, like Barış Alıcı (who joined in winter) or Ahmet Sağat. However, signings also joined from France, Ukraine, UAE, and the Netherlands, with ages of signings ranging from 19 to 33. Even a former Barcelona prospect (Emre Demir) was brought in.
The managerial choices were interesting, too. They started the season with Bayram Bektaş, who lasted just five games and won once. Emre Bayraktar took over as the caretaker manager and won his only game before being replaced by Hüseyin Eroğlu: a German-born Turkish manager who had spent ten mixed years with Altinordu.
Since Eroğlu was hired, Samsunspor has been near perfect. He’s lost just two games as manager, winning the squad and fans over along the way. As of writing, Samsunspor has the most goals scored in the 1. Lig (58) and fewest conceded (23). Eroğlu has also given substantial minutes to rising stars such as Yunus Emre Çift and, prior to his injury, Muhammet Ali Özbaskıcı.
Having clinched promotion and wrapping up the 1. Lig title (they’re nine points clear at first), Samsunspor will be preparing for the upcoming Süper Lig season. Giving Eroğlu a full offseason with a decent budget will make this team even more exciting to watch. For right now, however, Samsunspor and their fans should celebrate the present: it’s been a long, hard climb up the Turkish soccer pyramid.
Image Courtesy of 𐰇𐱅𐰚𐰤, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
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