It was quite an introduction to English football for Ali Al Habsi. The Omani goalkeeper was not yet out of his teens when he was playing for Manchester United reserves against the first team.
“Ruud Van Nistelrooy caught him with an elbow right across the face and he went down,” recalled John Burridge, Al Habsi’s goalkeeping coach, in conversation with FourFourTwo Arabia.
“I shouted at him in Arabic [Burridge helpfully replays the words used] to get up and send him to hospital.” The youngster was soon bundling the Dutch striker into the back of the net. “Sir Alex looked at me and winked. He thought Ali was brilliant and wanted to sign him.”
Ferguson was not the first or the last to have the same opinion and desire. Manchester City and Bayern Munich were also interested. Sixteen years on, the 35-year-old’s standing as one of the best Arabian goalkeepers of all time is secured. In terms of a European career, none can match his exploits, and it is fitting that it took one of the biggest clubs in the Middle East to tempt him back to the region.
Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal have had some great goalies in the past but Al Habsi has global experience.
“His time in Europe really helped him,” Oman national team coach Pim Verbeek told FourFourTwo Arabia. “To play 50 matches per year at a high level and to train day in, day out with good players made him the goalkeeper he is today.”
It has also made him a star. Spend any time in Oman and it is quickly apparent just how big. The former fireman’s genial face graces all kinds of billboards advertising products both world famous and domestic.
Now 35, he has a chance to add an Asian Champions League medal to go with that of the English FA Cup. Al Hilal’s upcoming quarter-final against Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates is a big game. But the big stage is a familiar place for the giant who played over 100 English Premier League games. Nobody from the UAE or Saudi Arabia, bigger football nations than Oman, has managed one.
Looking ahead to the titanic Asian tussle around the corner, Al Hilal fans may be pleased to know that perhaps his best performance in Europe came in a continental competition.
In 2007, he went to the Allianz Arena with Bolton Wanderers and, at times, almost single-handedly kept Bayern Munich at bay in a UEFA Cup match.
It was confirmation that the man from Mudhaibi had come a long way from when he started working with Burridge. “When I first saw him, he was 16 and useless,” said the former Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Southampton goalkeeper. “He was terrible with his legs but there are things that are God-given and he had those – bravery, spring and agility. The rest can be coached.”
So Burridge, who famously told his wife to throw fruit at him without warning and at any time to keep his reflexes sharp, started coaching and Al Habsi started improving. So much so that soon the Englishman wanted to take his protégé home.
There was, he claims, resistance from then national team coach Milan Macala and the Omani federation. “They didn’t want him to leave, players don’t go to Europe from this part of the world. I nearly smashed Macala in the face after he told Ali he would never play in the English Premier League. He told me not to build his hopes up. I said: ‘I played 771 games for some big teams. He is better than me. If I can do it, he can for sure.’”
Such sentiments may have been accurate but were not enough to secure a UK work permit even with interest from Manchester United and City. Sam Allardyce at Bolton offered to pay the player’s way in Norway if he would return to the Reebok upon getting the correct documentation.
“He had to get his games in,” said Burridge. “I had to persuade his parents to let him go to Norway. To give Ali credit, it is cold there but he went. He suffered at times but he soon was awarded the league’s best goalkeeper award. “
After three seasons, the UK visa came through as did the move to Bolton. After waiting to go to England’s top tier, it was then doubly frustrating to come up against another obstacle. It proved to be almost impossible to dislodge Jussi Jaaskelainen, a talented and popular Finn who was in the form of his life.
Al Habsi’s UEFA Cup heroics proved that he had what it took to succeed and in the summer of 2010, he went to Wigan on loan with the move made permanent a year later as the Latics paid over $5 million.
There were some successful times in Wigan though injuries took their toll and after a spell in the Championship with Reading, this summer he arrived in Saudi Arabia. With the AFC Champions League final not far away and, if it goes ahead, the Gulf Cup in Qatar in December, the next few months will be big ones for the big man who is still Oman’s best goalkeeper.
“I am sure he will be number one for the upcoming years,” said Verbeek. “Ali is the best in everything a goalkeeper needs: experience, reaction anticipation, personality, presence and he is a great shot stopper. He is still motivated to train and to be the best.”
That determination to always improve may not only lead Al Hilal to a third continental championship, it may have a wider impact.
Burridge helped India’s Gupreet Singh move to the Norwegian league and tried to take Singapore’s Hassan Sunny to Leicester, and hopes that Al Habsi can inspire continental counterparts to travel and youngsters to pick up the gloves.
That can only help the Asian goalkeeping scene, one that is not the strongest in the world. The continent is not known for producing goalkeepers but there is talent there according to Burridge who still lives in Oman.
“There are good goalkeepers in Asia. In West Asia, it is the same but the problem is that they are not nurtured properly. They are good but the mentality is wrong.”
“When you make a mistake here, people say it is no problem. Do that in England and everyone will start shouting and swearing at you.”
Burridge provides a few handy examples of the kind of thing he means and makes no apologies.
“You have to handle it. I was at him constantly every day. Everyone is too nice in this part of the world. Ali is nice too but he has the mentality and was tough enough to survive. He is the best goalkeeper in Asia and can help Al Hilal become the best team in Asia.”