After Lovre Kalinic and Bosko Balaban, Will Aston Villa Ever Buy Croatian Again?

By 23 December 2020
After Lovre Kalinic and Bosko Balaban, Will Aston Villa Ever Buy Croatian Again?
Miro Gabela/

December 23, 2020 - As Lovre Kalinic returns to Hajduk, reflections of an Aston Villa fan on buying Croatian.

It has been exactly 40 years since that memorable season, the last time Aston Villa were League Champions, 12 years before the Premier League was even thought of. 

As an impressionable 10-year old, I went to as many games as I could with my father, starting with a 1-2 away win against Leeds at Elland Road. 

We weren't expecting much from the season, but it turned out to be amazing. 

We were very rarely outside the top two all season, as we battled it out with Bobby Robson's Ipswich Town, and I remember spending my 11th birthday locked out of Villa Park along with 8,000 other fans who couldn't get a ticket for what was billed the championship decider against Ipswich. We lost 1-2, but it did not matter as Ipswich imploded, and Villa were crowned champions at Highbury on the last day of the season, despite losing 2-0 to Arsenal. 

The most amazing part of the season was that Villa only used only 14 players all season. These days, many clubs use 14 in a single match. Eight players played every match, all 42 of them, and with the exception of Irishman Eamonn Deacy who made 11 appearances (6 starts), the Villa team was entirely British. As was the manager, the legendary Ron Saunders.

A different world, when football was about football. And Villa were not the only team out of the Big Six to do well. Nottingham Forest won the league in 1978, then the European Cup twice, a trophy Villa picked up on May 26, 1982, in Rotterdam, as Peter Withe's shin proved too much for Bayern Munich. 

It was also the start of the arrival of the foreign superstar, which brought a lot of glamour and excitement. Spurs started it all with the arrival of Argentinian World Cup winners Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa in 1978. What started as a trickle soon became a rush, and these days there are only a minority of home-grown stars playing for the big teams.

Exotic arrivals began to arrive, some who were internationally famous, many who were not. Some from countries the average British fan had heard of, many that they had not. 

Slaven Bilic was the first Croatia arrival in 1995 and he was a huge hit for both West Ham and Everton, followed by Aljosa Asanovic to Derby. I had to await until 2001 for Villa to go Croatian, with the arrival of... 

... Bosko Balaban. 

Regularly cited at the top of lists of the worst Premier League buys in history, Villa parted with £5.8 million for Balaban, who made just 9 appearances in a Villa shirt, 7 as a sub. He failed to find the net once. After a loan period back at Dinamo Zagreb, Balaban eventually moved to Club Brugge. 

It was to be almost 20 years until Villa bought Croatian again, goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic, for £7 million from Gent, where he was named Best Goalkeeper in the Belgian League. I was very excited by the signing, having seen his keep goal at Hajduk, where he broke the record for longest time without conceding a goal. He would surely be a bigger hit than his Croatian predecessor. 



He made his debut in a 3-0 FA Cup loss with Swansea, followed by a 3-0 loss on his league debut against Wigan, followed by a 2-2 draw against Hull. 8 goals conceded in the first three games. He went on to play a total of just 7 times for Villa, a cost of £1 million a game, before slipping down to fourth in the goalkeeping pecking order and being sent out on loan to Toulouse last season, where he played just 4 times. 

With big-name signings of Tom Heaton and Emi Martinez competing for the number 1 spot, Kalnicic's Villa career has effectively been over for some time, and yesterday it was announced that he would be returning to Hajduk on loan next month. 

Kalinic is not the only one going full circle after a rough patch. So too, it seems, are Villa. Not only have they made their best start to a season in 20 years, but their team is predominantly British once more, and managed by an Englishman. The team that spanked champions Liverpool 7-2 earlier this season had 8 British players in it - it would have been nine had Heaton not been injured - with all seven goals made in Britain (Watkins hattrick, Grealish double, Barkley and McGinn). 

I wish Kalinic well  - he certainly has a job to do at Hajduk. It would be great if he can rediscover his old form and restore Hajduk to its former greatness. And if Villa could start to emulate that 1980 magic. Ah, a blogger can dream... 

But don't expect Villa to be in the market for Croatian players and time soon. 

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