Joe Kendrick

Irish Soccer Pro’s Move to Baku Turned Sinister

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By Gavin Gummiskey

BAKU (Irish Times)  — When investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova began reporting on the family wealth of Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev — including his daughter’s control of the construction company that built a €115 million Eurovision auditorium where Jedward had a damp night in 2012 — someone broke into her apartment and installed hidden cameras.

Considering the state phone company came out to connect the line for the devices that recorded a sex tape of Ismayilova and her boyfriend, which was eventually released online when she refused to be blackmailed, the story of a Ballybrack boy stranded in Baku seems tame in comparison.

But in 2009 life at Neftçi PFK became so intimidating that Joe Kendrick’s wife Laura called FIFA (International Soccer Federation). Seconds after lodging a wide-ranging complaint the phone rang in their apartment as the young couple and baby daughter Lana were plunged into a scene from “The Lives of Others.”

“It was someone in broken English saying ‘you need to leave the country’ and ‘don’t make phone calls like that again,’” said Kendrick.

Just two months into a two-year contract, the Dubliner had been repeatedly told to leave Baku by officials at Neftçi. Intimidation became the norm. A drive home from training cost $300 for a broken tail light. When pointing out that the light was fine the policeman smashed it before their eyes. Pay the bribe or see what happens.

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“We couldn’t go out at night as people would be following us.”

The former Ireland under-21 left-back cannot prove he was being followed. He was told it was probable. So they stayed in as a precaution.

“It was horrendous,” said Kendrick from his home near Newcastle where he currently manages Prudhoe FC. “Just horrendous.”

Openly unwanted by the club from the moment German manager Hans-Jürgen Gede was sacked not long after his arrival, the 26-year-old had nowhere else to go, having uprooted his young family from Drogheda to Azerbaijan.

Kendrick claims that the new manager, Boyukaga Aghayev, who remains a prominent figure on the local club scene, strongly suggested he leave without pay before making clear his displeasure to the Azeri players when Kendrick refused.

Zaur Tagizade, the current Qarabag assistant coach, also attacked him.

“I was attacked by him at training. He was basically told to attack me and injure me.”

Even after the alleged assault it became an impossible situation as to leave mid-season would render his contract null and void. So he dug in, trained with the youth team and initiated legal proceedings with FIFA via a German lawyer.

This was the experience of the only Irish professional footballer to sample life in Baku. The same oil rich city in a poverty stricken country where Ireland go in search of their first competitive victory under Stephen Kenny.

To understand how Kendrick ended up with the Neftciler (‘the oil workers’) we go down a dusty road familiar to most Irish teenagers who join English clubs.

Joe Kendrick, in blue, in Azerbaijan

Four years at Newcastle United ended with a move to 1860 Munich only for a foot injury to spoil any chance of a Bundesliga career. So began his descent into the lower leagues in England before Drogheda United offered him a fleeting taste of Champions League football against Dynamo Kiev.

“At the same time the club went into examinership, so I was scrapping around,” Kendrick explained. “We had just had our baby girl, Lana. I loved Drogheda. We had a very good team, loved the fans, we were playing good football under Paul Doolin, who was the manager who got the best out of me.

Enter Dutch agent Rob Groener with a bizarre yet lucrative opportunity.

“Baku? I had to look it up on the map. They had watched the Kiev game and seen a few Drogheda players, so some of us went over to have a look around the place, see if we like it. We went over — John Tombouras, Adam Hughes and Eamon Zayed as well — for a week of training.”

Kendrick and Tombouras decided to stay.

“The coach was German (Gede) and I speak German as I spent a year playing over there so we got on really well. And former Dutch international Rob Reekers was the assistant manager. Two really good guys.

“It is hard to explain what happened after that first week. I signed a two-year contract and went back to Ireland to pack up the house, say me goodbyes but when we went back to Azerbaijan it was a different story.

“I did have three or four offers on the table from English clubs but financially it was a good offer. That was the main thing.”

 

‘We do not want you’

When Gede left the walls began to close in.

“They go through coaches every year. There was a massive change straight away — you need to leave the club, they said, you need to leave the country, we do not want you anymore.”

“When you go to collect your salary they would take money out of it. They would fine me for missing training after giving me the wrong venue. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong!’ Well, we are fining you.”

“An Azeri coach [Aghayev] took over and he basically said — obviously you are a good player, we like you, but because of the contract you are on we want to get rid of you. By the way, we are going to make life horrible for you for the foreseeable future.”

He said Azerbaijani players were encouraged to injure him and other foreign players.

When contacted by the Irish Times John Tambouras confirmed that the duo experienced a “shambolic time” at Neftçi. Neftçi shipped on six foreign players before the 2009/10 season, including Kendrick and Tambouras, but they signed five new foreigners, including Uruguayan striker Walter Guglielmone — who is Edinson Cavani’s brother and current agent — but he too was gone by the next summer.

After nine months they simply terminated Kendrick’s contract.

“I had already started legal proceedings with FIFA’s resolution chamber. FIFA decided that the club were in breach of contract so me and John got paid in the end but it was horrendous.”

The presence of Reekers, capped by the Netherlands just after Euro 88, ensured that some professional contacts were close to hand.

“Luckily, the manager got sacked but the assistant manager didn’t. (Reekers) got banished to the youth team with me and John. He wasn’t coaching, it was the same situation, they didn’t want to pay him. They do it every year when the manager leaves, they tend to say ‘well, let’s get rid of his players now.’ They have had lots of cases against them. When I spoke to the guys in FIFA they said ‘we know them very well.’”

Even his departure was fraught with problems.

“I feared for my safety. When we went through the airport on the way out they went through our bags and tried to charge us thousands of pounds to leave the country.

“You wouldn’t believe it. At the time you are young and a bit daft but now, thinking about it, it was absolute hell.”

Aliyev has ruled Azerbaijan since 1993, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, while his father Heydar Aliyev was head of the KGB branch in the region and in 1982 became the first Azerbaijani promoted to the Soviet Politburo.

“It’s an absolute dictatorship,” said Kendrick. “There are no human rights. They might pretend there is, but there is none. It is a dictatorship of the worst kind.”

Afraid

Amnesty International and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists lend weight to his opinion. In 2013 CNBC reported that the Central Election Committee accidentally announced that President Aliyev had received 73 per cent of the vote before the polls had opened.

“The people are afraid to say anything. There are pictures everywhere of the guy who runs the country.”

Come 2019 Aliyev gave Boyukagha Aghayev the title of Honoured Master of Sports.

“Through the international community, the oil workers, we met some really good friends,” said Kendrick. “But it was very, very corrupt. A really unsafe place. Everything is bribes, which is a shame because there was some really good Azeri people that we met but they are always taking because they got nothing.”

For the past decade multiple media outlets have framed Baku as the ‘new Dubai’ for wealthy tourists while sports washing events like Formula 1 and Euro 2020 have a wider reach than recent rulings by the European Court of Human Rights condemning the smear campaign against and imprisonment of Ismayilova.

“I’ve got friends who are still there — not football friends, (actual) friends — and the country is still the same.”

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