Billy Mehmet almost broke into the West Ham United first team under Harry Redknapp when he was a youth player. Now he’s scoring goals for fun with Tampines Rovers in the S.League and heading their assault for multiple trophies this season…
Two current Tampines foreigners would remember the year 2003 vividly for contrasting reasons.
Jermaine Pennant, of course, will never forget scoring a hat-trick on his Premier League debut to help Arsenal thump Southampton 6-1.
It was not that pleasant for Mehmet, however, as he had to pack his bags after being released by the club where he spent his childhood before embarking on a nomadic career that would take him to Scotland, Turkey, Australia, Thailand, India, Malaysia and finally Singapore.
Mehmet was on the books of West Ham from the age of eight to 19 – training under the famed youth coach Tony Carr and even captaining the Academy side at one point.
“I spent 11 years there and it was a great experience,” he shared. “I had a lot of options like Arsenal, (Crystal) Palace and Millwall at that time, but I really liked it at West Ham and there was a feel-good factor right from the first training onwards.
“Tony’s been a big influence. Obviously you’ve seen the players that he had brought through; he’s the best coach in England at that level. He helped me a lot, sat me down to tell me what I should be doing and what I should improve on.
“He taught me the biggest thing in football – respect. And of course, putting on the captain’s armband was something that I’ll never forget.”
Mehmet’s stock was steadily rising back then as he soon got the opportunity to train with the Hammers' first team under Redknapp.
“One day I came in and was told to train with the first team,” he recalled. “Harry just said to me ‘you’re doing well, just train with us and get some experience’. I was even given a squad number (No.33).
“It was a great time because I got to train with Joe Cole, (Frank) Lampard, (Michael) Carrick, (Jermain) Defoe, (Frederic) Kanoute, (Paolo) Di Canio and Rio (Ferdinand); these are world-class players and people whom I really look up to. There was one day where we were playing ‘monkey’ in training and I was stuck in the middle for a long, long time!
“There were some days that you go into the dressing room and find out that your clothes may be cut up, or something of sorts. It’s just part of the learning curve and growing up at these clubs that you often take the stick. That helped me become a stronger person.”
I got to train with Joe Cole, (Frank) Lampard, (Michael) Carrick, (Jermain) Defoe... these are world-class players and people whom I really look up to
Unfortunately, Mehmet’s dream of playing in the Premier League fizzled out after sustaining a serious back injury at the age of 18.
“Things were going well until I broke my back unfortunately,” he lamented. “It took me a long time to come back and I was out for around a year.
“I worked hard to come back after an operation, played a few games in the reserves, but there was a change of manager. Harry was sacked and Glenn Roeder came in; he had his own style and ideas, so I ended up leaving.”
Mehmet admitted to getting all emotional on his final day as a West Ham employee, but was nonetheless determined to carve out a path elsewhere.
“Of course there were tears in my eyes when I was leaving the training ground for the last time,” he recalled. “I was living in a house with the other players and I had to pack my stuff to leave.
“It was a real kick in the back, but I don’t want to look back and have any regrets. In fact, having that back injury made me stronger and made me into the player that I am today. A lot of people gave up after such injuries but I didn’t; I just kept going.”
The then 19-year-old found a new home in Scotland where he stayed for seven long years till 2010. After two mixed years with Dunfermline Athletic, Mehmet left for St Mirren and that was where his career truly took off.
Scoring the decisive goal to help them secure promotion to the top-flight in his first year with the club, the London-born forward continued his prolific ways in the subsequent seasons to help St Mirren punch above their weight against the big boys.
Converting a penalty to knock Celtic out of the Scottish Cup (and send his club through to the semi-finals) in 2009 still counts as one of his favourite memories.
Mehmet went on to play in Turkey with Genclerbirligi S.K. and Samsunspor, in Australia with Perth Glory, in Thailand with Bangkok Glass and in India with Dempo SC before moving to the Malaysia Super League in early 2014.