One of the more interesting and unlikely pre-season fixtures of 2019 saw Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad travel to non-league Atherton Collieries.
Incredibly, on July 24, a bumper crowd of 700 witnessed the Colls beat the two-time Asia Champions League winners at Alder House, and The Sportsman was, of course, also there in attendance.
There was time to speak to Australia international Matthew Jurman. The former Brisbane Roar and Sydney FC player made the move to the Middle-East to Al-Ittihad in 2018, but England - particularly the North West - is familiar territory for the defender.
As a teenager Jurman was on trial at Bolton Wanderers alongside a compatriot and rather more familiar face to fans more accustomed to the higher leagues.
I was 16 when I went on trial at Bolton. There was a scout that would come to our school every year and he invited me and Aaron Mooy to trial and I didn’t make it and Aaron did and he’s gone on from there; now he’s at Huddersfield so it’s good to see him doing well. It was a good experience - the Bolton trial.
Jurman’s trajectory is arguably the more interesting and one which will be more relatable, and indeed encouraging, to footballers struggling to carve out a sustainable career.
The Wollongongan enjoyed a respectable period in his native land in the A-League but was released at the beginning of 2017. He then moved to South Korea to join Suwon Samsung Bluewings, winning the K-League Newcomer of the Year and also being granted his national team debut by Ange Postecoglou. Then Al-Ittihad came calling. He explained: “I was at the World Cup in Russia last year. I got a call from an agent asking if I would be interested - I had six months left on my deal - and that it was a good opportunity for me, and I’ve been there for about a year now.
It’s hard to sort of get the banter sometimes because it’s in Arabic most of the time. There’s a translator with us who translates the Arabic so I’m understanding some as we go along but it’s not an easy language to pick up.
Jurman signed with Al-Ittihad at the beginning of July 2018, in a deal reportedly worth $4million across two years. The 29-year-old was also part of the Socceroos squad that travelled to this year’s Asian Cup, featuring in the Group Stages against Syria. Australia eventually exited in the Semi-Finals to the United Arab Emirates.
The contrast of stage that Atherton Colls provided for the occasion, compared to what Al-Itittihad are accustomed to, didn’t go unnoticed by Jurman whose side play at the 62,000 capacity King Abdullah Stadium.
“There’s a bit of a difference between our stadium and this stadium. To be honest the fans of our club are just crazy for football and we’ll be getting at least 30,000 to games if not 40 to 50 depending on who we’re playing. There’s a bit of a difference but every game’s an exciting one.”
Jurman was pressed as to what level of football would he compare the Saudi League to the English league.
It’s hard to compare the standard from here to Saudi. I mean, there’s a lot of great players in the Saudi League including foreigners who come from all different countries.
I’d have to say at least Championship or some of the Premier League teams at the bottom. I really don’t know but I think we’d give them a good run for their money.
The final score between seventh-tier Northern Premier League side Atherton Collieries and eight-time Saudi Arabia champions Al-Ittihad: 2-0.