Bosnian footballers have been no strangers to European Football; Safet Sušić was one of the greatest players of his generation in the 80s, and since the nation’s independence, Elvir Bolić and Hasan Salihamidžić have both picked up Champions League medals with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively.
Their national team continues to grow, and under Sušić at the last World Cup, although largely ordinary, at least performed better than England, or indeed defending champions Spain. The showing of Muhamed Bešić at the tournament was good enough to see him join Edin Džeko and Asmir Begović in the English Premier League, but whilst the trio were still kids, dreaming of a life beyond the continent’s most war-affected country, one battling defender led the way as the nation’s pioneer in the world’s most popular football league.
Muhamed Konjić, to this day a cult-hero amongst supporters of Coventry City, made his Premiership debut in February 1999. A second-half substitute appearance at Tottenham was the first of sixteen league games ‘Big Mo’ played for the Sky Blues before their relegation from the top-flight two and a half years later. Not a superlative amount by any stretch, mostly it was injuries that hindered his chance to give more, but what is extraordinary is how he got there.
Five months before current Premier League star Bešić was even born, a promising Konjić was beginning to hold down a first-team place with his home town club Sloboda Tuzla. A modest outfit based in the east of what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, their crowing moment a 1977 UEFA Cup appearance that followed a third place finish in the formidable Yugoslav First League. Sloboda were still competing in that division in April 1992 as Mo was taking those first steps of a career that would lead to him becoming national captain, and more poignantly as the blasts of war were beginning to reverberate throughout the region. Tuzla were forced to withdraw from the league, and he, like most 21 year old men in the town, ended up being drafted into the Army.
From combative defender to quite literally defending in combat, Konjić was part of the ramshackle Bosnian Army tasked with upholding the country’s claim for independence in a bitter dispute for territory with both Serb and Croat forces. The break-up of Yugoslavia is still the most devastating series of conflicts to grip Europe since the Second World War, with horrendous consequences for humanity on all sides, there can be little disputing the fact that the Muslims of Bosnia suffered the most. By the time a peace agreement was finally signed in December 1995, an estimated 100,000 people had died.
A fledgling football career was understandably of little priority to Konjić at a time when his foremost concern was for the lives of himself and his family, and his stint in the army kept him from the game he loved for 8 months. He’d train when he could amongst the war-torn streets, often during artillery raids while others took shelter, crazy behaviour that paid off when he was offered a miraculous lifeline. NK Belišće, now a third tier Croatian team, but then playing in the newly formed Croatian top division, offered him and Sloboda teammate Samir Tabaković a trial.
Konjić wasn’t through the worst of it yet, however. On the drive to Belišće, long and treacherous because of the war, he was involved in a serious accident near the city of Rijeka. Anyone who is familiar with the region will realise just how long and treacherous that actually is; Belišće is in Eastern Croatia, due-north of Tuzla, and Rijeka is on the Adriatic coast in the country’s northwest. The severity of the fighting, coupled with roadblocks in Serb held Eastern Bosnia, made it impossible to take the conventional 120 mile drive across the border. The driver escorting the two players to their trial was nearly killed when he lost control of his Zastava 128 and crashed it into a ditch. Tabaković escaped relatively unscathed, but Konjić broke both his arms. Lacking the documentation to stay in a Croat hospital, and of course unwilling to return to the war, he had no choice but to continue to Belišće as planned.
A third of the way into 92/93 season, and a mere nine days after a car crash that could have easily taken his life, Big Mo made his NK Belišće debut. When supporters found out he had done so with two broken arms, crying in agony with every tackle he made, he became an instant fan favourite. He and Tabaković, who would later go on to play for FC Basel, signed permanent deals, paid for by the hard-up club with food parcels for the people of Tuzla.
Needless to say Muhamed Konjić had an abundance of commitment, and it was this quite literal never say die attitude, along with the humility he displayed to any supporter he met, that would endear him to the Coventry City fans years later. He spent three more seasons in Croatia for NK Zagreb, impressing enough to be offered the chance to play for the Croatian national team. He politely declined, dreaming of a day when the fighting would stop in Bosnia and he’d have a country of his own to represent.
That dream wasn’t far away; on 30th November 1995, as the Dayton Peace Agreement which brought about an end to the war was still being thrashed out, Bosnia & Herzegovina played Albania in Tirana. Sarajevo was still under siege, so able players were difficult to come by and they were even still looking for numbers on the morning of the game. More akin to a pub team and in the kits they’d purchased in Zagreb just before they travelled, the newborn nation of Bosnia & Herzegovina took to the field for an official international football match for the first time. They lost 2-0 but were far from over overawed by their far more experienced opposition, and Konjić was proud captain of the side. He would go on to lead them a further nineteen times, winning a total of 39 caps for The Dragons.
It was in fact while playing for his country against Croatia in 1996 that he first came to the attention of Gordon Strachan, Coventry boss at the time. Strachan was at the game watching another player, but was impressed with how well Konjić, by this point playing for FC Zurich in Switzerland, marked Alen Bokšić of Juventus. He enquired to his availability but was disappointed to discover that a transfer to AS Monaco had been arranged for the end of that season.
He stayed with Jean Tigana’s French champions for 18 months as an ever-present in the side, and in 1998 played in both legs of the team’s famous Champions League quarter final defeat of Manchester United alongside Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, though Strachan never forgot him.
The deal to finally bring him to the Premier League happened in January 1999 for a reported £2million. He went on to make 138 league appearances for the Sky Blues in five and a half seasons, and is still very highly regarded amongst supporters. His experiences during the war made him the player that he was, and he felt proud to represent the infant nation of Bosnia & Herzegovina wherever he went throughout Europe.
He finished his career with an injury-plagued spell at Derby County, but still had one final gift for the people of Britain’s most famous war-affected city. Fate saw to it that Coventry’s final game at their old Highfield Road stadium in 2005 would be against Big Mo’s Derby. An injured Konjić had one of the worst games of his career and conceded a penalty as Coventry ran out 6-2 winners, preserving their status in England’s second tier, and his status in football folklore.
By Tom Filer
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona