STEVIE MALLAN was convinced it was all a wind-up. A stunning switch to the Turkish top-flight? Aye, right.
“I’m thinking to myself: ‘Why would they want me? I can’t even get in the Hibs team — what chance have I got against Fenerbahce and Galatasaray?” says Mallan, speaking from his hotel room in downtown Malatya, just 180 miles from the border with Syria.
But Yeni Malatyaspor did want him. Desperately. So much so, that when their January loan swoop for the player appeared to be faltering, they made an even more persuasive pitch.
Mallan was left with an almighty dilemma. Stay and continue the increasingly frustrating fight for a place at Hibs, or embark once-in-a-lifetime adventure in the Super Lig, leaving his partner, Hannah, and two dogs behind for four months.
Difficult conversations were had at home — no family will be able to visit him due to the ongoing Covid crisis — and sage advice from Easter Road captain David Gray, once of Royal Antwerp, was received.
And on January 31, Mallan touched down in Istanbul to complete the formalities of the move.
“I didn’t want to be looking back on my career in 10 years’ time and think: ‘I really wish I’d gone for that’,” said Mallan. “Four months out of an entire career is, in the scheme of things, nothing.
“David Gray was one of the people I asked about it and he told me it was a hard opportunity to turn down.
“He went across to Antwerp as part of that link with Manchester United and said he absolutely loved it — it’s a learning curve as a player and a person. A lot of other players have told me that they’d love the chance to go abroad, too.
“But that’s not to say it wasn’t a massive decision. The pandemic means no-one can come over to visit, which is going to be tough, and the hardest part was probably telling my missus about it. She’s been left on her own with work and two dogs!”
Even if a disbelieving Mallan was initially unconvinced by his own worth in Turkish football, he quickly illustrated it after just 39 minutes of his debut, rattling home his first goal for Malatyaspor in a 2-2 draw with Göztepe.
“We’ve got about 26 boys here so if I was murder that could have been me finished right away,” he laughed. “The gaffer could have rightly gone: ‘Who’s this guy?’
“So that was a wee bit of extra pressure and made that goal really important.
“Going off my first game, the league is a superb standard — which was a relief, because they take training really lightly. People were barely touching each other and I’m thinking: ‘Jesus Christ, what have I done?’ Going from training with big Daz [Darren McGregor] to that was some difference!
??????? | Stevie Mallan
Monday – Joins Turkish side Yeni Malatyaspor on loan ?
Thursday – Scores on his debut ?
What a week it’s been for the Hibernian loanee ????pic.twitter.com/CO65rSIzje
— Switch the Ball Podcast (@switchtheball) February 4, 2021
“But then you get into the game and, bang, it’s high-tempo and technically brilliant.
“When I think about the quality that’s going to be on the pitch when we play Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, Besiktas — I’m pinching myself.”
The laid-back nature of training is not the only thing that took Mallan aback. Malatyaspor have a French and English interpreter on staff, ensuring the message of manager Hamza Hamzaoglu gets across.
Each player also has a personal room at the training complex, allowing them to relax and regroup on a daily basis, as well as sleeping there the night before home matches.
This is no small-time club and they have a suitably manic fan-base.
“You get treated like royalty,” Mallan smiled. “You just don’t realise how much football means to people until you are in the middle of it.
“I’m already getting stopped in corridors of the hotel my fans, shouting: ‘If you need anything, just call’. I’ve had to mute my notifications on Twitter because from the moment I signed, it’s just been message after message!
“The passion is unreal and the only thing I’m gutted about is that I won’t experience the full stadiums over here.
But whether Mallan will grow sufficiently fond of his new surroundings to make his move permanent — there is an option to do so within the loan deal, but he is contracted to Hibs until June 2022 — is another matter entirely.
“I’ve got a year left at Hibs so my plan is to come out here, do well and get back in that team,” adds Mallan. “That will be a conversation I need to have with the gaffer at the end of the season.
“To come out here permanently would be a whole other decision because I don’t think my missus would come across and, without friends or my partner, that’s a really difficult life long-term.”