Just eight months ago, Lee Erwin’s career appeared to be drifting into Journeyman territory after a short but bumpy stint in Iran followed by unspectacular stints in Ross County and St Mirren.
The danger was not only that he lacked a Scottish Premiership road, but that his career would be linked to the 2015 incident, when he swallowed a left hook from Rangers defender Bilel Mohsni after Motherwell’s victory in barrage.
He broke through at Fir Park, where he impressed and won a move to Leeds United in the Championship, but he’s one of those common stories of young Scottish players for whom the trajectory is soon flat and, before long, they’re gone from the scene. absolutely.
Erwin has not disappeared for all that. He joined Finland’s Veikkausliiga and has just finished the regular season with FC Haka as the league’s top scorer, with 14 goals to his name – and 18 in all competitions.
He was converted to No.9 and, as Haka finished fourth, he will feature in the play-off final for a Europa Conference League spot next week.
It was his team’s last game on Sunday before the decider, but he was suspended due to accumulated yellow cards so he could return home to see his family, including his one-year-old daughter. He had missed just six minutes of 26 league games but was relieved that Honka striker Agon Sadiku, four goals behind him in the standings, was not on the scoresheet to make him sweat on the shoe. ‘gold.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t care because I didn’t expect it at the start of the season, but when you have a season like this and you get so close, it’s a good thing to cross the line,” Erwin says.
“It feels good to be back to play and score. For years I played in different positions and moved from wing to wing, but now I’m just a number nine. I never thought I would be a good centre-forward because I liked to float.
“It’s the first time in my career that I’ve left thinking I’m going to score today and I know exactly what my job is. I’m at an age now where I had to settle for a job. That’s the big difference, knowing on Friday that I play and even if I didn’t score in the 60th minute, I can’t manage.
In 12 months at County he managed just one goal in 22 appearances and in over 18 months at St Mirren he scored four in 42 appearances. His career was at a critical juncture and he knew he had to find a club that would get his career back on track.
“I could say the lack of playing time was the reason it didn’t work out in Scotland, but I had chances and never took them. You have to raise your hand for that.
“Honestly, I didn’t care where I was going at the turn of the year. I knew my options were going to be limited in Scotland and you could step into your comfort zone 10 minutes from home, so I just wanted to get back to playing and see where that takes me.
“I am now reaping the benefits. Since I’ve been here, I’m much more focused because I’m only here to play football and nothing else. The good thing is that the Finnish season hadn’t started yet and the manager told me that I was going to play here, so that gives you confidence.
He has slight gripes with referees mistaking his Scottish accent for a dissent when he asks a question and road names signifying satnav journeys become like orientation challenges, but he’s better for the experience .
A Turkish club tried to sign him in January but Haka wanted to hold him back as they aimed to make Europe for the first time in over a decade, but Erwin knows that with his deal at the end of the season, no matter where his future lies, he won’t be back in the UK.
“Most of the interest is overseas because my stock is higher in Europe,” he says.
“When you come back here, people tag you on what you did here before. People will look at me five years ago and think, ‘No, I’m not touching it.
“There may be a perception that I’m not crazy or that I don’t work hard, plus my goalscoring record wasn’t good enough. I have to accept that, so in my eyes my future is far away. from here (Scotland).
“With European teams it’s a clean slate and they’ll only judge you on this season, so I want to keep experiencing new things. I don’t want to sit here in four or five years to fend for myself in Scotland. As you get older, you realize that there are other opportunities that you might not have considered.
There are teams in Finland, Turkey and Greece all watching Erwin, but he won’t be taking his family with him. It is a difficult task for a professional to uproot his whole life and immerse himself in a new culture and a new style of football, let alone do it alone.
Erwin went to Finland to enjoy his football again and boost his profile, but he faced the downside of following the money after moving to Iran in 2018.
He signed for Tractor Sazi, which is based in Tabriz, the country’s fifth largest city. Former Celtic striker Anthony Stokes and former Rangers winger Harry Forrester were both at the club as the team sought to sign foreign players to win the league.
Erwin had joined Kilmarnock, where he scored seven goals in the 2017/18 season and at Tractor he scored four in his first seven games, but the reason he ended up in Scotland within four months had nothing to do with football.
“Iran would have been good if they had been more professional. It was good on paper, but once the passport and payroll issues started it became difficult.
“We couldn’t go home unless we had a club stamp. I went there for three months and came back for a month when I tried to terminate the contract, but then I had to come back for a month. It was even worse.
“It’s something to look back on anyway. They are crazy about their football in Iran. People were waiting in our hotels to take us to their restaurants for a free dinner. We would have crowds of 70,000 people. My last game was 90,000, that’s crazy.
“The level was really good because we had a lot of Iranian national players, including the captain.
“But it was sleeping, working out, eating, working out. That’s it. It was life.
On paper, the move sounded good. The money was much better than he would have been offered in the UK and they were staying in a five star hotel.
Due to the sanctions imposed on Iran, receiving his salary meant a trip to Dubai or Turkey. They also had a bonus credit card that was loaded with money after games based on performance, but he found he was unable to spend it all, so he decided to start buying devices. Apple to take home.
Being able to return home at certain times was expected and important to him, and when it proved difficult, if not impossible, he knew his time was up.
“The contract said your family would get all those flights, but when I tried they said I needed a special stamp from the club and I couldn’t because I wasn’t married.
“A lot of other things happened, but what finally worked for me was when we had a few days off and we were going to Dubai for a few days. I asked if I could go home , but they said I couldn’t leave because I needed an exit stamp. It got to the point where they said, ‘If you win, you can go’.”
How did it go then? “We won 4-1 and I scored three in seven minutes,” he laughs.
An Iranian club came back for him this summer, but he says he wouldn’t be mentally able to deal with it anymore.
Finnish culture is different from Scotland and the unease is limited to goofy initiation games where newcomers have to choose between wearing a diaper or a thong in the showers and having to drink hot cider and wear a sponsored snapback in a half-time interview, even if they don’t win.
MALI ⚽️@FCHakaOfficial Johtaa Valkeakoskella 2-0!
— Veikkausliiga (@Veikkausliiga) October 2, 2022
“There’s a guy from the press who talks to us after every game and after every game he asks me what my goal is,” he said.
“It’s his first question every time and at first I just said I wasn’t putting a number on it but as he went on he kept asking. I don’t know what he wants me to say but at least now I can say that my goal was to finish top scorer!
The 21-year-old Erwin was wanted by English clubs after scoring against Rangers in a home-and-away game to keep Motherwell in the Premier League. It ended in infamy after Tunisian defender Mohsni responded to Erwin by shoving him full time assaulting him and sparking a scrum in the middle of the park.
“People seem to think I get asked about it all the time, but it’s only when Rangers play at Motherwell that it comes up. I’ve been to Rangers games since and every once in a while someone says something, but that doesn’t bother me, I’ve had worse parties!
Erwin sealed a move to Leeds in 2015 aged 21 after just one season as a starter in the team. He got a bit of a backlash from some fans over what they saw as disloyalty getting him through two knee surgeries, but he thought he was just an ambitious boy.
“People say I went looking for money, but I didn’t even know how much I was paid. I just went down and signed him because it was a huge club,” he says.
“Tell any 21-year-old, ‘Do you want to go to Leeds?’ and they would say yes. You can say I should have stayed another year and played, but what if you redo your knee and that move isn’t there then?
It’s an example of how temperamental football can be. Erwin was loaned out, released and then moved from team to team without finding a home, but in Finland he found a platform that once again binds him to big moves.
If he can help secure European football for Haka then he will have come full circle this 2014-15 season at Motherwell when he got a taste of the big moment.
Now he wants it for the remaining years of his career, wherever the furthest place is.
(Top photo: Craig Foy/SNS Group via Getty Images)