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Eskişehirspor await Scotland's Saints

"We know we are representing Turkey when we play," said Eskişehirspor coach Ersun Yanal as the Red Lightning prepare to return to European football after a 37-year absence.

Eskişehirspor coach Ersun Yanal
Eskişehirspor coach Ersun Yanal ©Bongarts

Eskişehirspor are hoping to spark a second golden age as the Red Lightning return to European competition after a 37-year absence, playing host to Saint Johnstone FC in the UEFA Europa League second qualifying round.

The Perth club are not exactly used to European nights – this is only their third season in UEFA club competition – but their hosts will not be expecting a walkover when the Saints come to Turkey. "We see the St Johnstone match as a first phase of a long challenge because we aim to be regular participants in European club competition and want to leave a lasting impression," said Eskişehirspor coach Ersun Yanal.

From Eskisehir, 330km southeast of Istanbul, the club were founded in 1965, taking their red-and-black colours from Stade Rennais FC, who had won that season's French Cup. Their rise was swift. Promoted to the top division at the end of their first season, under former Yugoslavia coach Abdulah Gegić, who led them from 1967-71, they twice finished as league runners-up and won the 1970 Turkish Cup.

Serbian-born Gegić was a visionary, with his tactics and cutting-edge training techniques helping Eskişehirspor confound the big Istanbul clubs for several years. His side also beat Sevilla FC 3-2 on aggregate in a 1970/71 tie in the Inter-Cities' Fairs Cup – the non-UEFA-affiliated precursor to the UEFA Cup and UEFA Europa League. However, the club have not played in Europe since losing a 1975/76 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup first-round tie to PFC Levski Sofia.

'Es-Es' went into something of a decline after that, sinking as low as the third division in Turkey, but crowds of 20,000 occasionally turned out at the Atatürk Stadium in those lean years, testament to the city's taste for football. They returned to the top division in 2008, and in 2011/12 rewarded their fans for their patience by finishing fifth in the table to trigger a return to Europe.

Coach Yanal – who replaced Michael Skibbe in December – is no greenhorn in European terms, with the one-time Trabzonspor AŞ boss having been in charge of Gençlerbirliği SK in UEFA competition as well as the Turkish national team. Defender Servet Çetin, a summer signing from Galatasaray AŞ, also knows his way around the continent, as does former Borussia Dortmund left-back Dedê and ex-Celtic FC and Fulham FC striker Diomansy Kamara.

However, the club's famous band – the 'Bando Es-Es' – will also be doing their best to encourage the club's exciting homegrown talents, with Yanal's expertise with young players helping to bring the best out of midfield pair Alper Potuk and Veysel Sarı.

"We know we are representing Turkey when we play," said the 50-year-old Yanal. "We have assembled a good team. We have enough class and experience to match more famous and stronger teams. All of our players see our Europa League campaign as a springboard in their careers."

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