It may not have the glamour of last night's game between Liverpool and West Ham United, it may not be able to boast Jürgen Klopp and Slaven Bilic, and it may not, in all honesty, be as good or amusing a game of football. But the other FA Cup Fourth Round replay is today and you absolutely should be watching Peterborough United play West Bromwich Albion. For two reasons.
Reason the first is the cup itself. The fourth round has been, thus far, distinctly quotidian. Upsets have been few and far between, and the giants have mostly gone about their business unmolested. League One Peterborough at home to Premier League West Brom is the last chance for this round to generate a little bit of fairy dust, else there are going to be some hard questions back in the BBC's Magic of the Cup Dept.
The other, better reason is that one of the most enjoyable footballers in the entire league pyramid plays for Peterborough, a player so appealing he can cause spontaneous alliteration to break out in even the most innocent of sentences. Erhun Oztumer is 24 years old, wears the No. 10 shirt and might just be composed of pure joy.
The (very brief) biography: Oztumer, born in Greenwich, south London to a Turkish-Cypriot family, came through the academy at Charlton Athletic but was released at the age of 16. In 2008 he headed over to Turkey, playing in the youth and reserve sides of a couple of Süper Lig teams, before dropping down to the fourth tier to play first-team football for Üsküdar Anadolu. Managerial uncertainty there sent him back to England and to south London, where he joined Dulwich Hamlet in the Ryman Division One South, the eighth tier of English football, where your correspondent was lucky enough to be able to watch him.
At the time, seeing him play on the chopped-up pitches of England's lower leagues was both exhilarating and surreal; looking back, it feels a little like cheating. He was simply exceptional: a skillful and graceful dribbler, a creative and imaginative passer, an assiduous worker, and a prolific and frequently spectacular goalscorer. In a league where football can often be a physical, rudimentary business, he was a trickster, thriving among the barbarians and flourishing in the mud thanks to his wit, skill and delicious left foot.
In his two seasons at Champion Hill he scored 60 goals, spearheading Dulwich to a title and promotion in his first campaign, then sixth place in the Ryman Premier League in the second. Add to all that a generally pleasant demeanour, an unimpeachable attitude and an obvious affection and respect for the club and everyone involved with it, from the fans to his manager and his teammates, and he was, in summary, exactly the player you'd come up with if you sat down and attempted to create the attacking heart of a football team from whole cloth.
Well, almost. The underlying theme of his career — until recently — has been one of 'brilliant, but ...'. For a footballer, Oztumer is unusually short; his song at Dulwich had him standing at "five-foot-two," and if that was mostly to enable a rhyme with "pink and blue," it wasn't far off. He was 5'3 at 16 and now, eight years later, he's still 5'3. That's why Charlton let him go, and that's why he was left to spend two whole seasons with Dulwich, when any taller player scoring goals in similar amounts and style would have been spirited up the leagues far sooner. It's not that the scouts weren't watching. They just weren't convinced.
Eventually, one took a chance. In the summer of 2014 Peterborough took him from the seventh tier up to League One, a jump of four divisions. In an interview with the Set Pieces, Oztumer cited the club's record of developing talent from lower down the pyramid: "You've got Dwight Gayle at Palace, Aaron McLean who came from non-league and went to Hull City, Craig Mackail-Smith. Players like that you look up to. That is Peterborough's philosophy, get players from lower leagues and work them up." But his hopes of making an immediate impact at a higher level received a combination blow: first a preseason injury ruled him out of the first few month of Peterborough's campaign, and then the manager who had brought him to the club, Darren Ferguson, was dismissed in February. His replacement, caretaker Dave Robertson, turned results around, but he did so without his diminutive No. 10.
But not to worry. This season in English football, unexpected success from the lower leagues has been something of a theme. Up at the top, Dele Alli has barged his way into the Tottenham and England team after arriving from MK Dons in the Championship, while Brendan Galloway, who left Milton Keynes in 2014, was thrown into the Everton first team at the beginning of this season and quickly earned himself the Premier League's highest accolade: a transfer rumour linking him with Manchester United. Then, of course, there's Jamie Vardy, formerly of Halifax Town, currently of Leicester and England, sitting on top of the Premier League and the goalscoring charts.
A couple of divisions further down, Oztumer's having his own breakthrough season, thanks in large part to Peterborough's decision to appoint Graham Westley, a manager with his own fair share of non-league experience. Where others saw a weakness, he saw possibilities. "Erhun is a footballing wizard," he told the Daily Mail. "He has the ability to score and create goals others cannot conceive. His height is a huge advantage. It assists his mobility and agility." That belief has been rewarded with six goals so far this season and performances like the one below, in which he looks perfectly at ease in his lofty surroundings. That was an accidental joke, but we've left it in. We can only apologise.
Westley thinks that Oztumer's good enough to play in the Premier League, and Crystal Palace, if the rumours are true, have been thinking about taking him there. As for the player himself, he seems confident. "Size doesn't matter anymore," he told the Mail. "Lionel Messi has changed everything. Look at some of the best players in the Premier League — Santi Cazorla, David Silva, Sergio Aguero — they're not tall, but they're brilliant."
Obviously, the rules of footballing inevitability require that after all the gushing above he either won't play — he was taken off after an hour of the first game — or he'll have a nightmare. Or West Brom will kick him into oblivion like the Pulisian monstrosities that they are.
But hey: that's football. Nobody watches it because good things are guaranteed to happen. We watch because they might. Given that Oztumer was never supposed to make it this far, the chance to see him test his talent against top-flight opposition is probably one worth taking. If nothing else, you owe it to SB Nation Soccer for making it to the end of this piece without resorting to the obvious giant-killing joke ... oh. Oh no. We were so close.