From Balaban to Kalinic: Is There a Croatian Curse at Aston Villa?

By 30 March 2019

March 30, 2019 - One of England's finest clubs and some of Croatia's best talent should be the perfect mix, but... 

Life is quite hard if you are an Aston Villa fan.

It didn't always used to be that way. I fondly remember the 1980/81 campaign, when the lethal strikeforce of Peter Withe and Gary Shaw pipped Bobby Robson's Ipswich Town to be league champions, and that fateful day in Rotterdam on May 26, 1982 when Withe's shin was enough to defeat the mighty Bayern Munich and make Villa European champions. 

But since then... 

As with all other clubs, Villa started buying foreign talent, and there were arrivals from former Yugoslavia. First came the Serbs, and one of my favourite nicknames of all time, Savo Miss-A-Lot-Evic, as Partizan Belgrade striker Savo Milosevic signed on the dotted line for £3.5 million in 1995, before treating us to a 3-year masterclass in how not to score goals. His compatriot Sasa Curcic joined a year later and was an even bigger flop, soon leaving Villa Park for a failed career as a Serbian reality TV star and love guru. 

But it was the arrival of the first Croatian star which is best remembered by Villa fans and the Premier League as a whole. A star whose impact was so memorable that he features without fail on every list of worst signings in the history of the Premier League. 

I remember being really excited at the signing of Bosko Balaban in 2000. Croatia were the new hip team on the European scene, having finished third in the 1998 World Cup in France. And Villa had unearthed one of its finest talents!

Or so we all thought. 

Signed from NK Rijeka for £5.8 million on wages of £20,000, according to Wikipedia, "Balaban failed to find any form for Aston Villa, making just nine appearances, seven as a substitute, in two and a half years. He was loaned back to Dinamo Zagreb for the 2002–03 season, scoring 15 times in 24 appearances. In December 2003, Aston Villa released Balaban from his contract and he signed for Club Brugge on a free transfer."

Where he went on to be a huge hit, as did Savo Miss-a-Lot-Evic elsewhere. The curse of Aston Villa.

One of Balaban's few Villa appearances was actually in Croatia, as Villa went out of Europe in one of the worst performances in its history as Villa were knocked out by Varteks. As The Daily Telegraph notes of Balaban's contribution in Varazdin in 2001:

"Juan Pablo Angel replaced the ineffective Bosko Balaban for the second half, in which Villa showed more urgency, forcing Varteks to defend for long periods."


{YouTube screenshot - Lovre Kalinic displays excellent eyebrow control)

Years passed.

I moved to Croatia, even relocating to Varazdin, scene of Villa's humiliation in 2001.

During my time in Dalmatia, I watched a very promising (and very tall) young Hajduk keeper called Lovre Kalinic. I was even there the day he set a new record for consecutive clean sheets in the Croatian league (17 from memory). And so when I heard rumours a year ago that Villa were trying to sign him from FC Ghent, where he had been named the goalkeeper of the year in the Belgian league, I was rather excited. Memories of Bosko and that dark night in Varazdin were banished to history. A Croatian hero was coming to rescue the Villa. 

Kalinic eventually did sign at the beginning of this year, for a fee of £7 million, a little more than we paid for the Bosko wonder all those years ago. 

And the goals went in, and continued going in. Far from being a stabilising addition, the already leaky defence seemed to get worse with the new arrival. After just a few games, he was dropped to the bench but not before this impressive face-off with leading scorer Tammy Abraham, see below.  

A Championship club with a £7 million goalkeeper on the bench. How much worse could it get? New number 1 Jed Steer took his opportunity well, keeping 4 clean sheets in his first 5 games. The international break should have given Kalinic some breathing space, but his performance as Croatian number 1 in the 2-1 defeat in Hungary brought on more criticism, this time from his fellow countrymen. 

The £7 million goalkeeper fell further down the pecking order on his return, not even making the bench as substitute goalkeeper in today's 2-1 win over Blackburn Rovers. His place was taken by 21-year-old Montenegrin stopper Matija Sarkic. 

Has the Croatian curse struck again at Aston Villa? Or will Kalinic regain the keeper's jersey and become the first Aston Villa Croatian legend? Time will tell.