This interview first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Middlesbrough matchday programme.
"They don't know me now but I believe in myself"
Of Palace’s four January signings, Luka Milivojevic was definitely the one that got tongues wagging the most, in more ways than one. The Serbian may be an unknown quantity on these shores, but he’s hoping that playing his part in a successful relegation scrap could quickly change all that.
With household names such as Yohan Cabaye, Emmanuel Adebayor, Andros Townsend and Christian Benteke added to the ranks in recent years, Palace fans haven’t had to do much research into the club’s newest recruits as the Eagles target players with a proven Premier League pedigree, but Luka Milivojevic’s arrival got supporters scrambling for Google or YouTube once again.
What they would have discovered will only have impressed them. A title winner in each of the last three seasons, a regular for his country and plenty of Champions League experience can all be included on an impressive footballing CV.
It wasn’t just the Palace faithful though who had to do some delving, as national journalists and broadcasters attempted to perfect the pronunciation of his name. Whilst Milivojevic doesn’t quite roll off the tongue just yet, he is hoping that some wholehearted displays in midfield will help, whilst his relative obscurity allows him to quietly slip into his new surroundings.
“Maybe it’s better this way – when people know you, they expect too much!” he laughed when asked if it’ll help being an unknown quantity. “They don’t know me now but I believe in myself and this club, and if I didn’t do that then I wouldn’t agree to come here. I am sure that if we start to improve and I train with the team more I will show the fans that I am a player who wants to give everything I have. I like to play with passion and give 100% and I will try to show my quality, so hopefully the fans will be satisfied with me.”
Judging by the amount of interest in the 19-time capped Serbian international, his quality won’t be in question. The Eagles fought off competition from home and abroad to land their man from Olympiakos last month, and he is delighted that his ambition to play in the Premier League has come to fruition.
“I had a few offers from other teams but I didn’t want to move just to move, I wanted to wait for something I liked,” he explained. “If I could have chosen my situation my two wishes were England and Spain. A month ago I was close to finishing everything with Valencia, and six months before I had offers from Malaga and Espanyol. I had a big wish to move to Valencia because it’s a big club in a good league but they changed the coach and then nothing happened.
“In the summer I had something with Leicester, and after that I had contact with Hull City who have my ex-coach [from Olympiakos] Marco Silva who is one of the best that I have worked with and is a very good person, but in the end I decided to go for Crystal Palace. I did a little bit of research and I learnt about the team and the players; I’ve played against some of them for my national team, and so I decided to come here. I think we can stay in the league next season as we have quality and I’ll have a future here.”
His future may now firmly be in SE25 after he put pen to paper on a three-and-a-half year deal hours before the January transfer window slammed shut, but his past is an interesting tale that has seen him advance from the obscurity of the third tier of Serbian football to the media circus that is the Premier League, via two other countries, in a little under a decade.
It all began in his hometown of Kragujevac, situated virtually in Serbia’s bullseye position, during the 2007/08 campaign when, aged 16, he featured 17 times for Radnicki Kragujevac. Within months, he had been spotted and made the 90 minute, and two divisions, move north to perennial strugglers FK Rad of Belgrade.
Despite their modest stature, the team nicknamed the Builders were putting foundations in place to challenge the country’s established elite, and by the time Milivojevic had reached 20, he had helped Red clinch European football for only the second time in their history.
That caught the eye of the league’s top dogs, and instrumental in his cross-city move to Red Star Belgrade in December 2011 was the legendary Yugoslavia and Croatian international midfielder Robert Prosinecki. Having been a member of the club’s famed European Cup winning side of 1991 and representing both Real Madrid and Barcelona in his illustrious playing career, Prosinecki was the perfect man to help mould his youthful recruit into one of Serbia’s shining lights.
Looking back on his time in his homeland, Milivojevic reflected: “In the two years that I was there we had a coach who built a good team and we started to fight against the top six teams, and in the end we finished fourth in the table and reached the qualifying round of the Europa League. That season changed my career as after that I moved to Red Star which is the biggest club in Serbia.
“I was very happy to work with Prosinecki because I respect him a lot, and he is a great person. I enjoyed my year-and-a-half at Red Star and we won one cup, and when I joined in the January we were second in the league nine points behind Partizan but we only lost one game in the second half and won the cup so it was a very good experience.”
By the summer of 2013 Milivojevic was a regular for his country and looking to further his career, so opted to try his hand with Belgian giants Anderlecht. It would be an ill-fated move, as he explains: “The first six months were very good for me, but then we went to Abu Dhabi for training. I had a bad discussion with the coach and after that I was never in the squad for the next six months. He told me some things that weren’t true such as my training wasn’t good, but I survived that situation. I can say that that part of my career was the worst, but during it I learned the most.”
Looking to escape to pastures new despite tasting success in the form of a league and cup double, an opportunity arose for a move to Greece with Olympiakos and thankfully for Milivojevic, it turned out perfectly. He became of the key men in a team that completed a double-double of successive league and cup triumphs during his two whole seasons, with a third championship all but secured before his switch to Palace with Olympiakos 13 points clear of their nearest Superleague rivals.
However their fans’ premature celebrations have been dampened over the past month with Hull poaching Marco Silva to be their manager, and their star midfielder tempted to south London with a sack-full of silverware, mounds of memories and a heavy heart.
“I spent two-and-a-half amazing years there,” he said about his time in Greece. “We won two titles, and were close to a third before I moved to Palace. I played for two years in the Champions League where we were very good; in both years we got nine points in the group stages but didn’t qualify which was incredible.
“My favourite moment of my career was the first season I played in the Champions League with Olympiakos. I had already done it with Anderlecht but it was amazing. We played against the best teams in Europe at that time as Juventus got to the final that year and Atletico Madrid had the year before, and we beat them both at home.
“I really enjoyed every moment there, as a football player and also in my private life with my family, but when Palace sent their offer Olympiakos were satisfied, and so was I as it was a good challenge for me in the best league in the world.”
Now that his whirlwind tour of European football has led him to the Premier League, he is hoping that he can help keep himself and Palace there. Despite Sam Allardyce pinning his hopes on Milivojevic filling the boots of another previously-unknown midfielder in south London called Mile, the Jedinak doppelganger had been enjoying the goalscoring form of his life back in Greece and hopes he can help out at both ends of the field. If he pulls that off, then it could well be that he follows in the footsteps of compatriot Sasa Curcic and quickly become a cult hero at Selhurst Park.
“This season I’ve scored six goals; two from the head, two from shooting from distance and two from free-kicks,” Milivojevic revealed. “I play in defensive midfield but in Greece for most of the game we attacked in the final third so I was closer to shoot from distance. Normally I am not the guy who scores but I will try to help the team from free-kicks or corners.
“I’m really proud to be another Serbian to play for the club because Curcic did well for Crystal Palace and at that time it wasn’t easy for him to come to England and play, but he was a great player. A lot of Serbians have done well in the Premier League like Vidic, Ivanovic, Matic, Kolorov and Tadic, and I will try to be another who will bring some quality into the league.”
Should he do that, then everyone will soon know exactly who Luka Milivojevic is.