BY GREG KITCHIN
It is the obvious comparison, smoking on the pitch as well as off of it. The rumours are true; Robert Prosinečki didn’t spend his half times at Portsmouth listening to Graham Rix’s probably not-so inspiring team talks and tactical innovations. He was in the gents having a crafty cig. Just ask Linvoy Primus (a man so pleasant he cannot physically lie) and he will tell you the same. Prosinečki didn’t need to listen though, because this was a footballer so vicariously talented that the English Championship was just child’s play to him. It is a wonder how this mercurial, overweight, cigarette-puffing 32-year-old playmaker wound up on the south coast at all, but Fratton Park is a richer place because of it.
Milan Mandaric, a Serbian-American businessman, had taken over Portsmouth in 1998 and they continued a habit of flirting inappropriately but never quite committing to relegation to the third tier. Things had got just a bit too serious in May 2001 when a final day 3-0 win at home to Barnsley was required to keep the Blues in the division. This wasn’t the vision of English football Mandaric had signed up for. This trend needed to be arrested and quickly. It needed a talismanic figurehead to be the face of this ‘sleeping giant’ breaking free of its English Division 1 snooze and start mixing it with the big boys. Mandaric had just the man for the job, ‘a present to the Pompey fans’ he said; and what a present it turned out to be.
Let’s give this some context to really demonstrate what a coup for Mandaric this was. Prosinečki was a bona fide superstar throughout the early 90s, but his rise to prominence did not come about without controversy. Even as a 17-year-old, who scored on his professional debut at Dinamo Zagreb, his father fell out with then head coach Miroslav Blazevic, who famously claimed that he would eat his coaching certificates if Prosinečki ever became a successful footballer. A move to Red Star Belgrade swiftly followed. At Red Star, he flourished and soon become one of Europe’s hottest young talents, winning three league titles, one Yugoslav Cup and the crowning glory – the 1991 European Cup in which Prosinečki opened the scoring in the penalty shoot-out. These four trophy-laden years led to a €15million move to Real Madrid, and despite the massive expectations on the young Yugoslav, injuries and a perceived lack of adherence to the expected lifestyle meant he never reached his potential.
He spent three more years in Spain after his stint at Real Madrid, turning out for then Primera Division side Oviedo, as well as Sevilla and Barcelona (becoming only the eighth footballer to play for Real Madrid and then Barcelona). Internationally, he has the claim to have played for both Yugoslavia and Croatia, turning out for the former in the 1990 World Cup and for the latter at Euro ’96. He was then a part of the Croatia squad that finished third at France ’98, scoring twice in the third-place play-off.
Despite his complete lack of fitness, he even travelled to Japan and South Korea for the 2002 tournament, such was his influence within the national set-up. So, we have a European Cup winner, four major international tournaments and stints at the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabeu under his belt; then, ludicrously, Robert Prosinečki signed a 1-year deal at Fratton Park.
Don’t get me wrong, the rest of that largely forgettable 2001/02 Portsmouth squad were bang average to be generous, a statement backed up by a largely uninspiring 17th placed finish with just two victories post-January. Nigel Quashie and Shaun Derry couldn’t believe their luck to have Prosinečki lining up next to them in midfield, even if it did mean doing all of his running. A very young and somehow ganglier Peter Crouch netted an impressive 18 goals in 37 games before Aston Villa came a-calling with £5million, many coming from the wands connected to the end of Prosinečki’s legs. A back 5 consisting of a much-maligned Carl Tiler, a name that still garners unimpressed looks in PO4, and the ancient Dave Beasant suddenly had a get-out-of-jail-free-card for their numerous ricks; just give it to Robbo and he will do something unfathomable. Through all the mediocrity, a jogging Croat who didn’t track back or head a ball all season gave the Fratton End a taste of things to come. He was the precursor to Paul Merson, Lassana Diarra and Niko Krancjar who would all grace the Fratton park turf in the subsequent years.
Things started so well too. Barring an opening home game loss to recently relegated Bradford City, an occasion certainly overshadowed by the untimely and tragic death of Pompey stopper Aaron Flahavan, they won five of their opening eight games, losing only to the Bantams. Prosinečki was influential. He was toying with defenders at every opportunity, dragback after dragback after dragback until they eventually fell over. Lee Bradbury, the aforementioned Crouch and Scottish livewire Mark Burchill were making the most of the genius available to them, and Prosinečki was weighing in with goals himself, scoring decisively sublime efforts in victories against Crystal Palace and Stockport County.
A virtuoso performance away at Barnsley on a Friday night led to Rix substituting Prosinečki with five minutes left just so both sets of supporters could show their appreciation for how he had orchestrated the excellent 4-1 Portsmouth victory. Prosinečki was livid, but it finally put to rest that age-old question of whether he could cut it at Oakwell on a chilly Yorkshire evening (a problem no doubt vexing the MSN and BBC as we speak). However, in true pre-Premier League era Portsmouth style, the wheels came off the wagon in spectacular fashion. Rix lost the dressing room and from December onwards they won only four more games in all competitions that season. That is less than one win a month, from a Championship side with Robert Prosinečki pulling the strings. Unforgivable, and incredibly frustrating for a player who could easily have just picked up his pay packet and not cared. Prosinečki did care and looked visibly angered at how the other 21 players on the pitch weren’t even in the same stratosphere as him.
Prosinečki’s south coast sojourn is probably best represented by just a week in February. This microcosm took the shape of a 4-4 draw at home to Barnsley and a 4-3 defeat away at Sheffield United. Excitement for the neutrals you might think, but not for Prosinečki. On the first Saturday, Prosinečki scored the most dazzling hat-trick capped by one of his trademark postage stamp free-kicks to put his side 4-2 ahead with just six minutes left. He had the 12,756 attendance inside Fratton Park eating out of the palm of his hand and standing in awe of the brilliance they were being treated to. Yet, a Linvoy Primus red-card for a reported head-butt (I know, right!) and some feckless defending turned an inspired victory into a 4-4 draw. The Fratton Faithful weren’t even mad, just sad for Prosinečki and his slumped shoulders. He literally couldn’t do any more. A week later, things continued to get on Prosinečki’s nerves. A goal and two assists had helped Pompey to draw level at 3-3 at Bramall Lane. That was until Portsmouth obviously conceded a 95th minute sickener that angered Shaun Derry to the extent he was sent off for essentially committing GBH in a tackle in the remaining five seconds of the match. Prosinečki had scored the last of his nine Portsmouth goals, and who could blame him. He was an oasis of calm and quality, while all those around him looked like clowns running across a minefield.
These days, Prosinečki oversees an ever-improving Azerbaijan national side. The Land of Fire, presumably helpful to light those Marlboro’s, recently notched up a decent 1-0 win over Norway and even scored against Germany in their last fixture. As you can imagine, the football Prosinečki is implementing is of an aesthetically pleasing kind. Most pleasingly for all Portsmouth supporters, however, is that he looks back on his time on the south coast with affection and regularly texts local journalists that he has been keeping an eye on the scores in League 2. It is fair to say he started something special in the PO4 post code that was continued by a certain H. Redknapp and led to silverware and seven near-glorious years in the top flight. Now pushing for promotion from League 2 at the fourth time of asking and with serious interest in a takeover from former Disney CEO and genuine billionaire Michael Eisner, Portsmouth supporters might be forgiven for eyeing up which former Barca and Real starlet could spark the next footballing revolution.