Ex-Gladbach talent Joy-Lance Mickels on adventures in Azerbaijan

Attackers in the TM interview

In his youth in Gladbach, Joy-Lance Mickels played with today’s second division professionals such as Kiel’s Marvin Schulz or Kaiserslautern’s Marlon Ritter. It was unthinkable at the time that Schulz and Ritter should gain a foothold in German professional football, since Mickels was considered a future hopeful striker for the first team, especially in the A-Youth. But the attacker was denied the breakthrough as well as a deployment in the Bundesliga. He has meanwhile ended up in Azerbaijan at Sabah FK via various stations and shows there what distinguished him as a young player – scoring goals. At Transfermarkt, Mickels talks about the exotic adventure, training sessions at Schalke under coach Roberto Di Matteo and his bumpy path to professional football. He also explains why his career has not been straightforward.

In the 2012/13 season, Mickels showed his strength and potential. In 26 games in the A-Junior Bundesliga he scored 17 goals for Gladbach and thus as many as, for example, the former Schalke talent Max Meyer. He even scored a hat-trick in the game against Bayer Leverkusen. At the time, the door to professional football was wide open – especially after an internal friendly against the pros, where he scored. “At that point, I had a firm belief that I was going to be a part of the first team. However, I was put off again and again for a variety of reasons. And I honestly have to admit that this situation also weighed on me because Gladbach was my club and it would have been a dream to become a Bundesliga professional there. After several discussions between my advisor and the club management, they explained to me that they think a lot of me, but that I should first take the detour via the second representation. From today’s perspective, I should have made a cut and left the club. But I definitely wanted to make it to Gladbach and that’s why I stayed,” explains Mickels.

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But the time in the reserves was not crowned with success, the then 19-year-old made only four brief appearances in the 2013/14 season without a goal. Even worse: Mickels injured his knee and was out for months. It was also signaled to him that his time with the “foals” was coming to an end. He drew hope in the difficult phase thanks to a request from Schalke’s reserve and the then NLZ manager Oliver Ruhnert. “Oliver Ruhnert came forward out of nowhere and wanted to sign me despite my injury. I still remember his words: ‘Joy-Lance, we know what you can do, so we want to get you.’ I don’t think you can get any greater appreciation as an injured player. That’s why it was an affair of the heart for me to switch to Schalke,” he says. After his return to team training, the then professional coach Roberto Di Matteo noticed him and took him to the winter training camp. “The time was incredible for me. After the first training session, Roberto Di Matteo came up to me and said to me: You’ll stay with the pros for now. A dream came true for me at that moment, also because Schalke is an incredibly great club. The squad at that time was peppered with a large number of seasoned Bundesliga players, and being able to train with professionals like Boateng, Choupo-Moting, Huntelaar or Höwedes was fantastic,” emphasizes the native of Siegburg.

There was a specific reason why he didn’t make it into a Bundesliga career, as he reveals: “I wasn’t as professional as I should have been. My discipline wasn’t ideal either. In the games for the second team I wasn’t there mentally. It’s difficult for a young player to train with the pros and then play with the amateurs. Today I can only give every young player one piece of advice: Use every form of match practice.” He continues: “To be honest, I would have needed someone at my side to shake me up and take my hand. Not every young player can be left alone. When you’re in that bubble as a young player, you take everything for granted. That is often the reason why you fail.”

Mickels: Azerbaijan move was “exciting, interesting and exotic at the same time”

In 2016, Mickels went to Alemannia Aachen for one season, then to Wacker Nordhausen in the Regionalliga Nordost. At that time, the north houses were planning a major attack in the 3rd league – and spent a lot of money on it. Third division experienced players like Tino Berbig, Marco Sailer, Nils Pichinot or Nils Pfingsten-Reddig were just as much in the squad as young talents like Lucas Scholl. The two and a half years in Nordhausen evoke mixed feelings in Mickels. “From a sporting point of view, it was actually a good time. We had a great team with great characters. The team would have had the quality for the third division. However, teams like Energie Cottbus and Chemnitzer FC were much stronger than us over the years. Nevertheless, in retrospect it’s still annoying that we didn’t make the climb,” he says. Meanwhile, he remembered that he was confronted with racism for the first time.

“At an away game I was called a ‘fucking nigger’ by fans of the opposing team after a normal duel. At that moment I had to swallow and thought to myself: This is an isolated case that shouldn’t really happen. It got particularly tough after the game when I wanted to get on the team bus. Suddenly there were six or seven people shouting at me: ‘Now get on the team bus and off to Kenya.’ They clapped and laughed dirty. I was about to cry because for the first time in my life I felt lonely and alien. Luckily my teammates were there for me. To this day I still wonder what goes on in the minds of these people,” says Mickels. In January 2020 he moved to Carl Zeiss Jena in the 3rd division.

The stay at the former second division team was short-lived because Jena was relegated to the regional league. Mickels’ performances attracted the interest of Dutch second division club MVV Maastricht, which the attacker joined. There Mickels developed into a top performer, contributing seven goals and four assists in 28 games in his only season. The left winger was expecting to continue playing in the Netherlands with Almere City and FC Emmen keen on signing, but the tide turned when Sabah FK approached him. Sabah is no ordinary club from Central Europe, but based in Azerbaijan, which is why Mickels had to listen to a few sayings from his environment. “Many of my friends said to me: If I move to Azerbaijan, I can end my career right away, because the step is like ending my career. But I didn’t let these voices get to me. For some reason I found the offer exciting, interesting and exotic at the same time. In the end I thought to myself: I only have a short time as a professional footballer. Why don’t I try it? Especially since you may be able to take part in the Europa Conference League,” he says.

In the initial phase in the new adopted country, he experienced a culture shock: “After two weeks, I actually wanted to give up everything. At that time I was still living in the hotel, didn’t have an apartment in Baku and almost nobody spoke English. I also had to get used to the training conditions, which are not comparable to those in Germany or the Netherlands. It wasn’t until I was able to move into an apartment in downtown Baku, get real contact with the locals and settle into the team that everything changed.” Sabah, which was founded just five years ago and is in the small town of Masazir, very close to Baku-based initially enjoyed an underdog role in Azerbaijani football as the yearly favorites for the championship were Qarabağ FK and Neftchi Baku – at least that was the case before Mickel arrived. After fifth place last season, Sabah are within striking distance of leaders Qarabağ this season, five points behind after 14 games. Meanwhile, Mickels is his team’s top scorer with seven goals and is third in the league. His aggregate tally is 21 goals and 12 assists in 41 games for Sabah.

Mickels: Hoping to qualify for international business with Sabah

He knows exactly why things are going so well for Mickels in Azerbaijan. “I’ve gotten to an age where you reflect more on your actions. I used to spend a lot of time on the PlayStation, now I spend a lot of time in the weight room and taking care of recovery. I also pay attention to good and healthy nutrition. The league is very robust and physical. The defenders are classic calf biters. Here you are physically challenged in every game and it gets to your bones,” laughs Mickels and emphasizes that football is becoming more and more important in the country: “We players are recognized and addressed even in a city of over a million inhabitants like Baku. The TV ratings are very good, football is on everywhere. But I would like more fans to come to the stadium. We have more than 10,000 spectators for top games, but only 3,000 for normal games. Although the cheapest tickets only cost the equivalent of three euros, people often don’t come – on the grounds that they don’t want to spend three euros if their team loses under certain circumstances.”

At Sabah, Mickels has the status of a crowd favourite, and various fan banners with his likeness adorn the stadium parapet. He was particularly taken with one of the things he isn’t on: “Of course it’s an unbelievable honor when you recognize yourself as ‘Black Panther’ on a banner, but the best moment for me was when I saw a big poster discovered congratulating us on the birth of our daughter with the words, ‘Welcome to the Sabah family.’ It got me emotionally.” Mickels has now also arrived in Azerbaijan off the pitch. He raves about the hospitality of the people and the good weather: “I got to know the people here as incredibly warm and open. For us as a family, Baku is a very livable city, with many relaxed, quiet corners. It’s only difficult when it comes to the road conditions. Experiencing Baku without traffic jams is almost impossible. Everyone seems to use a taxi, also because it is extremely cheap. I pay almost four euros for the 15 kilometers from Baku to the training ground,” says Mickels.

He goes on to say: “Azerbaijan, but also my little family, really grounded me. If I had one wish, it would be health for my entire family. In terms of sport, I want to continue to have a good time, and maybe we can qualify for international business.” The team is currently on course to achieve that goal, as the first three teams are traveling to Europe .

Interview by Henrik Stadnischeko

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