My dad is born in Najaf, Iraq. His father was Iranian but his mother is Iraqi. He moved to Ireland when he was 22, which is where he married my Irish mother. Most of my father’s family currently live in Iran. My dad would drive me to training at a young age whilst listen to news about Iraq. He’d make sure my brother and me knew we are Iraqis and would never forget that. He’d always push me to continue improving and working hard. When he’d watch my matches, even after I’ve performed really well, he’d still find something to pick on and make me work on it.
Growing up in Ireland was tough. Most people know little about Iraq, besides war and terrorism. I’d explain that Iraq is different to what they’d see in the media. Growing up, I appreciate my mixed background much more. Being Iraqi is all about passion, wearing your heart on your sleeve and working hard.
Aged 11 to 16, I played for the best youth club in Ireland called St. Kevin’s Boys. I’d represented Ireland at U15, which is the first stage of international football in a player’s career. I’ve always been a centre-back because I’m tall, strong and I love to fight for the ball.
My first professional contract was with Premier League side Burnley, in 2009. Owen Coyle offered me a great four-year contract, which was a dream come true. This meant I’d have to move to Burnley on my own whilst only 16 years old. It was difficult at such a young age since you’re away from family and friends. Owen Coyle really made me feel wanted.
I’d played a few games with the youth team that season and got a chance for my reserves debut aged only 16. I was told on Thursday morning that I’d play the next night against Liverpool in a televised match. Kenny Dalglish was their manager and we beat them 3-1. The manager showed a lot of faith in me by choosing me at that young age. I scored a header after only 10th minutes and won Man of the Match. I stuck with the reserves afterwards and continued training with them.
Burnley was relegated from the Premier League that season and Owen Coyle was fired. I thought playing in the Championship would help me get more first team opportunities. The new manager Brian Laws gave me my first team debut vs. Charlton in the Championship, aged 17.
Burnley had four experienced centre backs and it was tough to get any game time, but I believed in myself and knew the time would come when I’d make it in the first team. I’d played in the League Cup, vs. Burton Albion but Brian Laws was sacked since we were not in a playoff position. This put pressure on the next manager, Eddie Howe, who focused only on playing experienced players. This meant I didn’t have a chance with the first team.
I’d suffered a horrible injury to my quadriceps during that time. It was my first real injury and the medical team failed to correctly diagnose it. They tried to correct it through physiotherapy but I knew something was seriously wrong. A scan showed a huge tear and they apologised to me, saying it was a ‘medical error’.
It was horrible unable to play for four months. You’d spend hours alone in the gym trying to recover when your team is outside training. On my return to full training, I tore another muscle in the same leg only two weeks after. The whole season was a write-off.
Sean Dyche took over at Burnley, where he still manages. I was completely out of the picture during that time because there was huge pressure on him for promotion to the Premier League. The club wouldn’t allow me to go on loan due to there being only three other centre backs at the club.
Derby County, who were in the championship, offered me a one year contract with Nigel Clough as manager. They were concerned with my previous injuries and didn’t want to risk offering a longer deal. During my preseason with them, I tore my quadriceps again. This was second time in 19 months and I was devastated, because I came to Derby to start a fresh chapter in my life.
I moved to Turkey with Bucaspor, who play in the second division. Looking back, I felt that I’d rushed into that move. Not speaking the language made it difficult and there were complications with my paperwork and apartment. They also refused to paying me my wages. It was only once I’d taken them to a FIFA tribunal that they accepted to release me.
Swansea City offered me a 6-month youth loan. Playing in England was a huge relief and it was great to play regular football, even if it was just for their reserves. I soon joined Irish Premier League side Bohemian FC, where I played frequently.
Carlos Queiroz called me at the end of the season and invited me to train with the Iranian national team in Doha. There has been offers from Naft Tehran and Zob Ahan as well as talks of Persepolis wanting to sign me but I’ve refused to play there.
I stayed in Ireland, this time with Drogheda United. The contract ensured I’m free to leave if an overseas club approached me. I played a few times during the season but suffered yet another grade two tear in my calf during a game.
MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps offered me contract, which I signed in June 2016 but I was unable to play for them until the following January. I signed and trained with them but my quadriceps once again suffered another rupture. We mutually agree to cancel the contract and I returned to England for rehab at St. George’s Park. They have the best physiotherapists in the country and looked after me until I made a full recovery. The English FA paid for all of this.
Iraqi Pro Players contacted me and I confirmed that I’d love to represent Iraq, which made many Iranian fans unhappy. I was called up to train with the Iraqi team but there were issues with getting my Iraqi ID.
Radhi Shenaishil, then manager, was highly supportive. He spoke to my father and made him aware of the project he was creating – he’d invited many expat players including Brwa Nouri, Shwan Jalal, Kais Al Ali and Rebin Sulaka. The Iraqi fans were amazing and send me so many messages every single day. They made me feel really special and I knew that they loved football.
I joined the national team for their preparation prior to friendlies with Uzbekistan – they were getting ready for World Cup Qualifiers with Australia and Saudi Arabia. I’d recovered from my injuries fully and was training regularly. It was great and I got to know many of the players – Radhi and Alaa Abdulzahra really welcomed me.
Radhi and Basil Gorgis said they would get my paperwork ready but it dragged on. I returned home to negotiate with a few clubs. The issue with the papers was due to my father’s ID expiring. This meant my grandmother had to leave Iran and travel to Iraq in order to prove I’m Iraqi. The FA could have done so much more to help with this issue – my dad travelled there twice at his own expense and we’re still waiting 18 months later. When Iran wanted me, they offered me a passport in two weeks. Since Radhi was fired, I’ve not heard a thing from the Iraqi FA or the new managers.
Southend United offered me a deal but were worried about my injury history. There was also talk of teams in the Middle East wanting me, as well as an official offer from Muangthong United, in Thailand. I wanted to stay in England – traveling there would make it really difficult to return to England in the future. I’ve been training with Bury FC to keep fit for the current period as they’re close to where I live.
Ross County and Dundee United in Scotland have contacted my agent in the last few weeks, as have Wickham Wanderers in League Two. I’m studying what the best deal for me is as there are a few more weeks left in the transfer window and another opportunity might appear.
Speaking to IraqFootball.me, Neil Yadolahi wanted to convey the following message to Iraqi fans worldwide:
“I’m feeling really good right now – I’ve stayed fit for a while and I’m fully recovered from my muscle injuries. This is the best I’ve felt in a few years. I’m still working with specialists on my leg and I have a programme to make sure I don’t get injured again.
I’d like to apologise to the Iraqi fans because I’ve been quiet for so long. I don’t speak Arabic well and what’s been said in the media is nothing to do with me. I want to represent Iraq only and I want to pay back the fans for the kindness they’ve shown to me. I haven’t turned my back on them and wish that my paperwork could be completed soon so that I can finally represent Iraq.”