“Jim Smith told me about it and first of all I was like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ thinking it would never happen. The only thing I knew about Turkey at the time was from the film Midnight Express.”
In the list of the most tried-and-tested breeding grounds for young English strikers, a loan spell at Besiktas does not feature near the top. Barely a year after leaving Hayes for £30,000 to join Queens Park Rangers, a raw 21-year-old by the name of Les Ferdinand embarked on an eye-opening – and career-boosting – season in Istanbul.
The move hadn’t been entirely out of the blue. Besiktas manager Gordon Milne, just a year into a tenure that would later include three straight Super Lig titles, had been in touch with his friend and QPR boss Jim Smith. Ferdinand, in need of regular football, was soon on his way.
“I think the opening ceremony at the start of the season was something else,” Ferdinand later recalled to Sky Sports. “There was a slaughter by the side of the pitch and then they gave you a dove to throw into the air. It was all pretty surreal to me.”
Any doubts about his new surroundings were soon blown away. Ferdinand fired 14 goals in 24 games in 1988/89, helping Besiktas to the Turkish Cup, with a barnstorming solo goal against Fenerbahce and Toni Schumacher along the way.
He returned to Loftus Road – despite efforts to make the move permanent – as an immeasurably more rounded footballer, thanks in part to the benevolent defending in the Turkish top flight.
Ferdinand spent another three seasons working his way into the QPR first-team fold but, coinciding with the inaugural Premier League season, he finally found his goalscoring feet at the age of 26.
His 20 goals in 1992/93 was second only to Teddy Sheringham in the top division, but his personal brand of goal-plundering was, by this point, an eye-catching one.
Ferdinand’s QPR goals compilation is a hugely fulfilling watch, based mostly around a reliable template: get the ball, turn, gather some considerable steam, leave some hopeless-looking early 90s defenders for dead, rifle one into the bottom corner.
Pace and power, two attributes so easily awarded to any striker, are nothing without direction and purpose. Perhaps making up for some lost time on the Loftus Road fringes, Ferdinand was now looking for the most straightforward route possible, with emphatic results.
149 – Les Ferdinand scored the most goals without a single one coming from the penalty spot in Premier League history. Sir. pic.twitter.com/TLCNgTFGdU
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 8, 2016
Penalties might not have been Ferdinand’s thing, but a dead ball was just as inviting a opportunity as a retreating mid-table back four.
His goalscoring exploits that season inevitably led to England recognition, but his debut came amid a famously slapstick USA ‘94 qualification campaign that combined batterings of San Marino with nervous surrenders in Norway and Holland.
Ferdinand’s England career, sadly but also excellently, could therefore be distilled into 21 seconds of peak Graham Taylor:
Back on the domestic scene, QPR accepted £6m in the summer of 1995 as Newcastle finally identified their replacement for Andy Cole, who had left for Manchester United that January. Five years Cole’s senior, and signed for virtually the same fee, Ferdinand was unlikely to have much time to settle at St James’ Park.
With his stuttering formative years in mind, he didn’t waste his time now. The mandatory opening-day-of-the-season sunshine is always a good time for a big-money signing to find his groove, and Newcastle’s new no.9 cruised past Coventry.
The direct route remained Ferdinand’s favoured path to goal, as he embarked on a twice-weekly bid to score the most Les Ferdinand goal possible.
Another trademark strike (seriously, how satisfying do these goals look?) against Everton at Goodison brought up his century of goals in English football – he had taken his time to get there, but Ferdinand was now undoubtedly among the domestic striking elite.
25 goals wasn’t enough to secure the Golden Boot – nor maintain Newcastle’s momentum towards a league title, thanks to the relentless march of Eric Cantona et al – but the Premier League’s shell-shocked defenders probably contributed heavily to the vote for Ferdinand as the PFA Player of the Year. Bottom-corner rockets were matched by prodigious leaps, the sort of devastating aerial threat to which no striker under six feet tall had the right.
The 5ft 11in Ferdinand was punching above his height, and winning. “I don’t think it was something I learned, I was born with it,” he told FourFourTwo. “I used to play against defenders who were 6ft 3 and I’d make it my mission to outjump them – and I would.”
A smarting Newcastle then reinforced for another doomed title challenge – £15m prised Alan Shearer home from Blackburn, Ferdinand reluctantly gave up his shirt number, and a partnership was created that seemed too good to be true. Even with strike duos still very much in vogue, the prospect of two pure number nines working in tandem was either going to be devastating or diluting.
Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand celebrate for Newcastle United. pic.twitter.com/CeKP7toykv
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) March 6, 2017
Newcastle would fall short again, but Shearer and Ferdinand dovetailed. A half-century of goals between them was the fruit of their bustling labour, and another season’s worth of opposition defences were laid to waste.
“They are the best I have faced at any time as a defender,” Aston Villa defender Gareth Southgate said after a 4-3 defeat at St James’. “They are power, and if it’s not Ferdinand coming at you, it’s Shearer.”
Ferdinand’s continued domestic form earned him the chance of an international second wind under Glenn Hoddle, but the mid-90s competition for places alongside Shearer in an England shirt was huge. Tellingly, Ferdinand’s few remaining England highlights were served up by the ever-complementary Teddy Sheringham.
He may never have quite been in the right place at the right time to secure trophies and more individual honours but, in a Venn diagram of English strikers in the mid-1990s – between the target men, the speed merchants and the deadly finishers – Les Ferdinand should be placed safely in the middle.