There aren’t many bandanas around Birmingham these days but in the summer of 1995 they were all the rage. Aston Villa, their supporters dizzied by the rollercoaster journey already shaping their existence in the new Premier League, had broken their transfer record to bring in one of their most exotic, most mysterious signings yet.
Manager Brian Little, himself a genuine legend at Villa Park thanks to his majestic abilities on the ball and his vital goals throughout the 1970s, had not spent £3.5m lightly. His new Yugoslavian striker was 21-year-old Savo Milosevic, fresh from two domestic titles in his previous two seasons with Partizan Belgrade, the club where he graduated from the youth ranks to become a professional in 1992.
During those two seasons Milosevic scored at a rate that would have made most young strikers’ eyes water, and he joined the Premier League with the expectations of Villa’s supporters on his shoulders. ‘pon his head, a bandana, a symbol rapidly embraced by club shop customers eager to adorn their bonces with a deftly folded and tied square of baby blue polyster, complete with Villa crests.
It was clear right from the off that Milosevic was different. Joining a new-look Villa outfit along with Mark Draper and Gareth Southgate, the young goal-getter was easily the most glamourous of the new faces, helped in no small part by the presence of Vesna Bovan, the girlfriend he met in a club a year before he joined Villa and now his wife of over 18 years.
Circumstances were difficult and the couple never seemed to settle in England. War at home was likely a permanent distraction, and Milosevic looks back upon the food, climate and the English “mentality” without much fondness. Nevertheless, while he was at least good enough to divide opinion, he fell a long way short of admittedly lofty expectations.
There were matches during Milosevic’s mid-90s spell at Villa Park in which he looked a player capable of achieving the 25-goal target he mentioned when he first spoke to journalist Neil Moxley, who received a flea in the ear from Little shortly afterwards for putting pressure on the new signing.
Whether Moxley or Milosevic did the egging on in that particular show of braggadocio, it might as well have been concrete in his boots. His first goal for Villa seemed an age in the making, arriving with delicious impending irony at Blackburn Rovers and met with an ecstatic outburst that might have signalled the landing of an icon.
Milosevic at his best was languid and ambling but fantastic to watch, blessed with qualities that would arguably be better suited to today’s tactics. His skill was as undeniable as his runs across the pitch with the ball were puzzling and pointless, but he did come to demonstrate a knack for a goal in spite of being slapped with the cruelest of tabloid nicknames. Much to the enjoyment of Villa supporters he was a player for whom one goal tended to lead to another, including but my no means limited to a hat-trick against Coventry City just before his first Christmas in England.
For younger fans, unburdened by the memories or demands created by Ron Saunders’ team of the early 1980s, Milosevic was exciting. He scored in twos and threes, dribbled aimlessly between opponents who couldn’t get the ball off him, and, most importantly, looked to be living every single second he was on the field with an intensity few could have expected from an inexperienced foreign signing.
When he was at his best Milosevic’s many flaws didn’t matter, and he hit his highest point in England at the best possible venue. Villa met Leeds United in the final of the 1996 Coca-Cola Cup and Milosevic paved the way to their second League Cup triumph in three years with a left-footed screamer into John Lukic’s top corner, a goal that Villa’s amassed support at Wembley celebrated with enthusiasm reserved for the crowning moments of cult heroes.
Despite the good moments it was no surprise when The Observer’s David Hills harshly named him alongside the likes of Ali Dia, Marco Boogers and Brian Pinas as one of the ten worst foreign Premier League signings to date. Too often profligate in front of goal, Milosevic didn’t score nearly enough for Little’s team and his time at the club was a profound disappointment for the more demanding punters on the Holte End.
By the winter of 1997 the tumultuous but fruitless love affair between club and player was thundering to its unsatisfactory conclusion. The pressure was on and the results were so poor that Little was sacked in February 1998 with Villa in 15th place, a position remarkably transformed into a UEFA Cup spot by a resurgence under Little’s replacement, John Gregory. Little’s lowest point as Villa manager was a visit to Blackburn in January, a 5-0 defeat that saw Milosevic’s Villa tale come full circle.
The young Serbian cracked under the jeers of Villa’s travelling support, spitting aggressively in their direction and finding himself in the middle of a storm and on the transfer list as a result. A reported move to Atletico Madrid was also taken off the table because of his behaviour, which sadly became the lasting memory of his time in England for many neutral supporters.
David Wangerin wrote in 1998, shortly after Milosevic’s Villa nadir at Ewood Park, that the Serb had the odds stacked against him. Much was made of Villa’s Balkan union, Milosevic and the brilliant Australian goalkeeper Mark Bosnich, whose parents were Croatian, a reminder of just how difficult the youthful Milosevic’s situation was. For all the poor form and errors of his own making, a more enlightened club in a more modern time might have handled him differently and been able to better protect him from the limelight.
Milosevic was sold to Real Zaragoza and pieced his career back together with aplomb, reminding Villa supporters that he hadn’t been much more than a boy when he moved to Birmingham and that the potential he displayed at Villa Park was indeed going to come to something. Parma later signed him for a colossal tranfer fee in 2000, during the summer in which he won the Golden Boot at the European Championships, and later loaned him back to Spain three times before selling him to Osasuna.
He saw out his playing days at Rubin Kazan, where he won the Russian Premier League, and during his time with Osasuna he became an international centurion when Serbia & Montenegro were thrashed by Argentina at the World Cup in 2006, the game that made Lionel Messi Argentina’s youngest ever player at a World Cup finals.
Villa supporters were left wondering what might have been. Milosevic continues to divide opinion and with each passing year the truth of his time at Villa disappears further into the annuls of history. Some forget how good he was, others how young, others how far from home. Whatever the real heart of the problem, there was never any danger of him being forgotten.
By Chris Nee
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona