Wednesday, 23 December 2020

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

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. 

For more on Croatian sport, follow our dedicated TCN section

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Two Croatian Footballers Listed in 50 Worst Players in Premier League History

Famous English football magazine Four Four Two (FFT) is known for driving out a variety of lists, mostly about the best or worst transfers, young players, coaches and so on. This time, FFT announced a list of the 50 worst players in the history of the English Premiership. Among this lucky bunch, who were signed to a Premier League club and played at least one match, are two Croatian footballers, reports on April 1, 2019. 

You might recall that just last week, TCN remembered the Boško Balaban fiasco at Villa in the story From Balaban to Kalinic: Is There a Croatian Curse at Aston Villa?. It seems now that others have taken notice. 

Boško Balaban is the first of two Croatian footballers to take place in the top ten of this list. The Croatian striker signed a contract with former European champion Aston Villa in 2001 and spent the next two and a half years at the club. Balaban played in nine games, seven times entering the game from the bench and never managed to score in the Premiership.

“The Croatian had been Dinamo Zagreb’s top scorer for two years running when he signed for Aston Villa back in 2001, in a £5.8m, £20,000 a week deal. His time in Birmingham was a disaster – the striker made just two starts and seven substitute appearances over two and a half years, failing to score.

Weirdly, the drought ended as soon as he left Villa. Balaban scored 15 in 24 when loaned back to Zagreb, and was positively prolific after joining Brugge on a free transfer, netting 25 goals in 24 games in his first season, then 27 in 30 in his second,” writes FFT about their 10th pick. 

At the end of the list, in 47th place, is Nikola Jerkan. The former Croatian national team representative arrived in Nottingham Forest from Spanish club Oviedo for a million pounds in the summer of 1996, but never managed to be a force for the famous English club.

“The only real explanation for Nottingham Forest signing Jerkan (for £1m from Real Oviedo in 1996) was the overall reputation of Croatian players at the time. That was a golden era: Davor Suker, Igor Stimac, Slaven Bilic, Robert Jarni, Zvonimir Coban – so Forest were presumably enraptured by the centre-back’s performances at Euro ‘96 (where Croatia progressed to the quarter-finals).

Jerkan did perform well at the tournament, but there’s a reason why club scouts should be banned from international tournaments: they nearly always present a false economy. Reliably, Jerkan didn’t look anything like the same player in Forest red,” wrote FFT.

After Frank Clark left Nottingham, Jerkan was no longer in the plans of new coach Dave Bassett. He spent the next season on loan at Rapid Wein.

The worst Premier League signing ever is indeed Ali Dia, a Senegalese footballer who arrived in Southampton in 1996. The biggest fraud in the history of football was able to trick the leaders of the club and manager Graeme Souness and convince them that he is the cousin of legendary George Weah, who won the Golden Ball and was named FIFA World Player of the Year.

Dia also lied about having 13 appearances for the Senegal national team, though the club believed everything and happily gave him a one-month contract which was terminated after only 14 days.

Thus, the Senegalese amateur had two training sessions with Southampton, was registered as a professional footballer and was included in one Premier League game.

You can find the full list here.

To read more about sport in Croatia, follow TCN's dedicated page

Saturday, 30 March 2019

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

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.