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INTERVIEWS: There was a tear in my eye when my parents came to watch

Dean Furman on his career, playing in South Africa, and playing for his country

29 August 2020

Having moved to England from South Africa at the age of 5, the young Dean Furman quickly found himself the target of scouts who patrolled the local parks and pitches around London.

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Spotted and courted by Chelsea, he went on to spend just under 10 years with the Stamford Bridge outfit, at a time when they were on the rise and challenging for the top honours both at home and in Europe.

“I was playing for my local side down in London, which is where I grew up once I moved to England, and I was scouted at the age of nine,” he explained. “I was at Chelsea until I was 18, which was an incredible upbringing.

“When I went full-time at the age of 16 I had Brendan Rogers as my youth team coach and I’ve got so much to thank him for. He was incredible on and off the pitch. A lot of us lived away from home at the time, and although it wasn’t too far from my home it was too far for me to travel every day, so I was in digs.

“We signed boys from Bristol and Manchester, so Brendan almost became a bit of a father figure to us off the pitch and he really taught us what the real world is all about. On the pitch, he’s an incredible coach, and it’s no surprise to see how well he’s done in his career and where he is today.

“It was an unbelievable time when I look back at it. As I went full time it was when Roman Abramovich came in and the money started flowing. I was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry, Didier Drogba and Ajern Robben. It was crazy because they were incredible players. To be a young player watching how they train and look after themselves was a great way to start my career.

“It was also at the same time as Mourinho took over, and the club had a philosophy where the first team, reserve team and youth team should all work the same way. Mourinho came in with a 4-3-3 and a diamond, so that was how we all played, and we had similar training philosophies.

“Working under Brendan was incredible. His knowledge of the game and the way he developed young players and made us understand the game from a tactical point of view was second to none. It was a great foundation for my career and I’m very lucky to have done that.”

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On the catalyst behind his move north of the border, he said: “At the age of 18 Chelsea actually signed a player who ended up coming here in Tom Taiwo, and another lad from Leeds [Michael Wood] who were both central midfielders, and I knew that was the end of my time there.

“Brendan had links in Scotland and he sent me up to Celtic for a trial. I was up there for a week and while I was there somebody asked me to go into Rangers. At the end of my week there they offered me a contract, and I had an incredible few years at Ibrox.

“It allowed me to become more involved in the first team than I was at Chelsea. I was training with some really good players, the likes of Barry Ferguson, Kevin Thompson and Dave Weir, who were all top players.

“I was on the bench most weeks and I ended up making my debut at the age of 19. The first team experience I got there was so valuable to me at that age, I had to step up from the youth team at a massive club and it really gave me a taste of being in the first team.”

From Rangers it was a loan spell in Yorkshire which tempted him back into the English leagues.

“Stuart McCall, who is a Rangers legend, spoke to Walter Smith about me going to Bradford on loan,” he told us. “I think Stuart used to watch the reserve games on Rangers TV and he came in for me. At the time, I’d just made my debut, and I was hoping I would get a few more goes in the first team at Rangers.

“They went and signed Pedro Mendes and Steve Davis and I very quickly realised with the amount of quality players they had that there wouldn’t be much space for me. I jumped at the chance to go to Bradford because it was an opportunity for me to play regular first team football, and I absolutely loved my time there.

“It was a fantastic season, but unfortunately we just fell away from the play-offs towards the end, so it ended poorly, but the season was fantastic for me. I was playing every week in front of 14,000 fans and it opened my eyes.

“It really made me want to play every week. I didn’t want to go back and play in the reserves or be on the bench after that. That season really gave me a taster of training throughout the week, then being an important player on a Saturday.

“That was why I didn’t really want to go back up to Rangers. They did offer me a new contract, but I knew I needed to be playing every week. I got my move to Oldham on the back of my season at Bradford and that was where I really established myself as a first team player.

“It was a tough first season under Dave Penney, we were fighting relegation for most of it. In my second season under Paul Dickov we were more successful, and he made me captain at the age of 23.

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“That was a huge responsibility as a 23-year-old, especially when there were 30-year-olds in the dressing room looking at me and probably thinking ‘what can he tell me about what I need to be doing.’

“I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me that role. I really enjoyed that responsibility and my time there as a whole.”

But, just over five years ago, an opportunity arose which he just couldn’t ignore.

“My career was going along nicely when the opportunity to go to South Africa came about, and I took a bit of a different turn,” he explained. “I had an absolutely fantastic few years and it was very successful in terms of lifting trophies for one of the top clubs over there.

“I was born in South Africa so I’ve got aunties and uncles over there and things like that. It wasn’t like we were going to a strange place where we knew no one. We had a lot of support over there. I do remember bits about growing up over there, I moved over to England when I was little. Going back brought the memories back to life and it was a fantastic five years.

“Football wise it was great for me over there, but in terms of living I immersed myself into a different culture and a different way of living. I met so many amazing new people and experienced so many new things, it was a fantastic five years.

“I was very lucky to be able to pair that with a really great footballing journey. It is something I would definitely recommend to players, go and try something different, because you can always come back home having had a great experience. Some of the highlights of my career were made during those five years.

“I did make sure I got out and about because when you’re from a place, you often don’t explore it. Going back over there meant we tried to live as tourists as much as we could. Whenever we had an opportunity, whether it be a weekend off or just a few days, we’d go on a safari or to Cape Town or Durban and explore the country. It’s an incredible place with so much to offer, and we really made the most of it.”

In terms of the football, the continent of Africa brings with it the added challenge of intense heat and humidity.

“If you’re asking me how you get used to it … you don’t,” he said. “A 3 o’clock kick off at 35 degrees, playing at altitude, is something I don’t think you will ever acclimatise to. It is incredibly tough.

“It’s a summer league over there, so it’s on at the same time as it here, and an afternoon game is just a complete nightmare. We tried to get as many 7 o’clock games as possible because at least it’s a little bit cooler, because it just isn’t something you ever acclimatise to.

“All you can do is get on with it and find the extra energy and reserves from somewhere. You accept that if you’re playing on the African continent then the heat is something you have to contend with. I don’t think we’ll see too many of those temperatures up here, and I’ll have to get used to playing in the cold again, but I’m very excited for it.”

An obvious question to ask is how the football played in the Premier League over there compares to the football played in both the English and Scottish leagues, where he initially earned his stripes.

“That’s a question I always got asked over there as well,” he told us. “It is different. I would say it’s far more physical here, probably more direct. I think there’s an emphasis over there on playing out from the back and keeping it on the floor.

“The speed of their game is very quick and there’s a lot of combination play. What I will say about the football in South Africa is that it’s not necessarily the biggest footballing nation in terms of the size of the player, so everything has to be on the floor.

“It’s more about those combinations and the one-twos and trickery. Over here it’s definitely more physical and more about getting the ball in the box and into key areas as much as you can. It definitely took some adapting when I first went over and I picked up a few too many yellow cards because I was doing tackles I would have got away with over there, and they weren’t accepted over there.

“Yeah, it took a bit of getting used to, but it was great for my own game and for me to be able to immerse myself in a different style and way of playing football. The great thing that playing in South Africa gave me was the chance to win trophies.

“You’re playing in the top league and there are quite a few cups and trophies to go for. As one of the top teams you’re always one of the favourites to win it. I think I was in seven cup finals, we won four of them, and we went to the final of the equivalent of the Europa League which involved travelling throughout Africa. We played in Tunisia, Congo, Guinea … it was literally all over the continent.

“Ultimately lifting trophies and being in cup finals with 45 or 50,000 people there is what you remember. I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve had that experience of that kind of success and it’s something I hope I can help bring to this team.”

Hand in hand with the domestic success came 56 international caps, which endeared him to not only the SuperSport United fans, but also those of his country.

“All I can say is that it really has been incredible,” he continued. “I’ve probably ticked off two thirds of Africa, I’ve played in three African Cup of Nations competitions and I’ve played against the likes of Brazil and Spain. It’s been absolutely amazing to rub shoulders with some of the best players in the world.

“It’s been a heck of a journey and one that I’m very, very proud of. To represent your country is one of the highest honours you can receive as a player. I’m very proud to have got over 50 caps and I’ve loved every minute.

“My debut was away against Brazil and I had to pinch myself when it was all happening. I was looking down the line when we were doing our national anthems and I’m seeing Neymar, David Luiz, Hulk, Marcello … and that’s just unreal.

“The occasion when there was a tear in my eye was when my parents came to watch when I played a friendly in Poland. It was a very special moment for them when they saw me standing there as the anthem came on, and that was emotional for us all.

“It’s been another tough journey because travelling on the continent in Africa isn’t quite what getting across Europe is like, there are some real challenges, at times, but with those challenges have come some of the best experiences of my life.”

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So, having experienced and thoroughly enjoyed a completely different way of life, what was it that brought him back to England?

“We’d made the decision to come home before the pandemic hit,” he revealed. “As soon as my wife fell pregnant we decided we wanted to be closer to our family.

“My parents live down in London and my wife’s family are all in Manchester. Obviously the pandemic hit and things took a turn for the worse, and it made everything slightly more difficult. We’re still here, we’re smiling and we’ve got a beautiful little girl, and we’re very happy to be back with family.”

“It wasn’t a smooth journey home,” he added. “I sent my wife back just before South Africa went into lockdown, she managed to get a flight the day before everything stopped.

“I left her at the airport and told her I would get back when I could. It was a stricter lockdown in South Africa than it was over here, so you could only go to the grocery store or pharmacy, you weren’t allowed to go out for a run or anything like that.

“I was there for about two-and-a-half months by myself. I had a lot of flights cancelled, and we’d almost accepted the fact that I might not get home in time for my daughter being born. It was a bit of a tough time, and thankfully I made it home in time for the birth!

“I’m happy to be back, it’s nice to be back with the family. On the football side of things it’s great to be back in the dressing room with the lads, and I can’t wait to get stuck into League Two.”

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