It’ll be a homecoming of sorts for Gael Bigirimana tomorrow night as Glentoran head to his old stomping ground, Motherwell. Some 18 months on from his Fir Park departure, the Burundi international is returning to Lanarkshire with The Glens.
The Steelmen are looking forward to European football for the first time since 2014. Whilst the league campaign hasn’t gotten off to the best of starts, not winning any of their opening five Premiership matches, there is still excitement in the air ahead of Europa League qualifying action.
They’ll be expected to progress past their Northern Irish opponents at Fir Park. Bigirimana spent 18 enjoyable months with Stephen Robinson’s side, taking in two cup finals, but now has his eye on a Lanarkshire victory with Glentoran. Reuniting with old friends is also on the agenda.
“I didn’t expect to be back at Fir Park so soon,” Bigirimana told NTOF. “As people say, football is a small word, but I’m looking forward to the occasion and the challenge. I want to go there to help Glentoran progress to the next round.
“When I was at Motherwell I made some lifelong friendships. I’ve spoken to David Turnbull a few times even before this. I’ve spoken to a few of the staff there, Andy Boles, and I’m always speaking to Charles Dunne. We’ve been having some banter and I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a tough game and I know the season hasn’t started good for the Well.
“But the next game in football you’re always looking for it to be the beginning of the turnaround. Unfortunately, we are the team that Motherwell will be looking to turn their season around against. It’s either you go through or out, it’s going to be tough. God willing we catch Motherwell on an off day.
“I was there for nearly two years and I made friends and memories with not only the players but the staff. The kitman, groundsman, dinner ladies, the people of Motherwell. They take care of the place. Fir Park is known for its atmosphere with their faithful fans and they will be missed. But for us we need to create our own atmosphere.”
It hasn’t been easy for Bigirimana since his departure from Motherwell. Initially joining Hibs on a six-month deal in January 2019, he left the Easter Road club the following May, spending almost all of his time since then as a free agent.
A good international spell with Burundi couldn’t help him claim a club until October last year when he signed for National League club Solihull Moors. That was only a short-term fix and again the former Newcastle midfielder found himself in the free agency wilderness. A move abroad fell through as the 26-year-old was once again left with few options and the pandemic certainly didn’t help matters.
But as he’s already mentioned, football is a small world and your contact book is key. It just happened to be his former boss in Lanarkshire that gave him a helping hand to Northern Ireland as Bigirimana described the ‘passionate’ Lisburn man.
“Since I have left Motherwell, I’ve went to Hibs before going to the African Cup of Nations as a free agent which went well,” the Glentoran midfielder explained. “I expected to go to the EFL and for some reason I was stranded for three months without a club. It got to October and I signed with Solihull Moors until the end of 2019. I had an opportunity to go to Croatia and had a contract, but then it didn’t go through last-minute due to somebody else’s injury – then the COVID came!
“So for the last five months I’ve had to train myself. It was actually Stephen Robinson who recommended me to Glentoran. He said (to Glentoran) ‘speak to him and see if he’d like to come.’ I was speaking to the guys here for a few weeks and it just seemed like the right thing for me, to play with freedom and see where it takes me.
“He’s a passionate man, all the things he does are out of caring. He loves the game and loves to win, things to be done right. You can’t knock that out the man which I respect. When you’re on the pitch and emotions are high, things are never personal.
“He’s not a mean person, he doesn’t do things to be horrible, he does things because he cares. He shows that on so many players who’ve come through and gone on to do well. He loves the club and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be as passionate.”
‘That’s just David’
One of the players Bigirimana knows could cause the East Belfast side problems is Motherwell’s main creative force, Turnbull. It’s widely known that Celtic have stepped up their interest in the midfielder destined for great things, the transfer rumour mill saying he could even be playing in green and white by the end of the week.
With Celtic boss Neil Lennon saying yesterday he has ‘no idea’ whether the transfer will be completed, it would suggest Bigirimana could get to see his friend play in claret and amber up close and personal, perhaps for the last time, on Thursday night.
At 21, Turnbull’s former teammate knows he destined for the top – as the quiet academy product does all the talking with his feet.
“From the first time I saw David in a pre-season game… when you are in football, you know when you see a footballer,” said Bigirimana. “You know when one is different. The club knew about him, it was just a matter of time. Him doing what he does? That’s just David!
“He’s quiet. Even on the pitch he isn’t that vocal, but his ability speaks louder than his voice. With the ability he’s got, you can’t teach that. No matter the level he goes in at, he’s got the ability where you can’t get the ball of his feet. If you are good at that, it doesn’t matter who you play against it. The ball never stops, it’s always moving with him.
“Whether it’s Celtic or the Premier League, he’s only getting better, he’s only young, and when you go higher playing against top players you raise your standards even higher. It’s not for me to say whether he should stay or go, but David will do what the best thing is for him and Motherwell will do the best for the club.”
Glentoran will be looking to cause an upset at Fir Park but despite their opponents’ poor form of late, Bigirimana is well aware of the task at hand. He knows the quality that resides in the claret and amber changing room, a third-place finish not coming around by sheer coincidence last term.
The team who play their football at The Oval are well-versed in battles from adversity, having turned around from potential financial disaster to winning the Irish Cup and full-time status alongside their place in Europe. Bigirimana is hoping more special memories are created under the Fir Park lights.
“Glentoran is almost all full-time, they’ve really turned the club around,” he said. “The win against HB Torshavn showed the resilience of the boys that if needs be, we can grind. That’s a very positive sign as the team is still new, there are a few players who haven’t played together. As we keep training, the more we will improve.
“We are aware of the form Motherwell are in so just because the season hasn’t really kicked in doesn’t mean we can go there and walk all over them. I’m aware of the players that are capable. I played with Chris Long in England, there’s ability there 100%.
“It’s just things haven’t worked and we need to be focused on the day. It’s a cup final. At the end of the day it’s 11 v 11 and one ball, all the speculation can go on but for me it’s not going there with arrogance or fear. I’d be more than grateful to put one in the top bin!”