5 Minutes with...
It was an absolute pleasure to speak to Nikica this week, as we discussed his career, that remarkable run of one-touch goals, playing in China and much more.
'His second touch was his celebration...'
It has been an impressive week for Everton Football Club, our transfer business has caught the eye of the footballing world, with the capture of global superstar James Rodriguez being showcased upon skyscrapers in Colombia, as well as billboards in Times Square New York and Miami Beach; excitement levels are at an all-time high.
It’s all a far cry from the night my latest interviewee was announced to the Goodison Park faithful, on transfer deadline day in January 2012. Nikica Jelavic arrived from Rangers with an impressive goal record during his time at Ibrox, 36 goals in 56 appearances in all competitions, he was introduced to the fans at half time during the 1-0 win over Manchester City. Before his introduction at half time, the first half of the game itself had been a rather lacklustre affair, with the highlight of the action arguably being the moment when a protester ran on to the pitch and bizarrely handcuffed himself to the Park End goalpost!
Thankfully, Jelavic hit the ground running and his arrival sparked an upturn in performances on the pitch from the Blues, as he notched an impressive 9 goals in 11 starts; showcasing an astonishing coolness inside the box with his deadly one-touch finishes, he was an instant hero.
Nikica Jelavic is a player I have wanted to interview since I started my website back in March.
As a fan, I had never seen such a natural goalscorer in an Everton shirt before; when that confidence was flowing, it seemed as though everything he touched turned to gold. Confidence though, as we know, is absolutely everything in football, and although his time at Goodison Park ultimately went downhill – those remarkable goals serve up great personal memories for me and he was a player I had always wished well.
I had been surprised to see that Jelavic was still playing in China, almost 5 years after his initial move out there, now playing for his second Chinese club – Guizhou Hengfeng, in the second tier. I knew it would be difficult to make contact with him being out in China; the obvious language barrier was not the only issue I had to contend with, general internet access in China is a nightmare in itself, especially when it comes to social media. Many sites are completely banned over there, and clubs seem to have numerous different social accounts, presumably as they get closed down so often. So it was with great delight that I read Nikica had called time on his days in China, and returned home to Croatia, where he has just signed a short term deal with the much more accessible NK Lokomotiva Zagreb.
I wondered, was it always the plan to end his career back in Croatia?
“To be honest, no not really, not until very recently when I spoke to the boss at Lokomotiva and he asked me ‘would you like to come back home and help with the younger players?’ and I thought ‘why not?’ It is great for me, it was never actually the plan but I’m 35 now, so I think I can really help this club, especially with the younger players coming through, I hope that all of my experience can help to develop their skills.
It’s actually nice to be back with a better standard of team again, you know China is very different, it is good football but obviously not the same quality as it is in Europe. So I just wanted to actually enjoy playing some good quality football once again.”
I was fascinated by his time in China, not just about the football side of things, but also the lifestyle. I asked Nikica how he found the whole experience, and was he glad he made that bold step?
“I am glad that I went there to be honest yeah, I stayed almost four and a half years over there in China and I have good memories but it was difficult; it is a completely different lifestyle, mentality, food everything. It was not easy, but after four and a half years there I now have a lot of friends over there now and it was definitely a good experience, I definitely do not regret going there. I have almost 5 years of stories and memories from our life out in China, experiencing that different culture and lifestyle.”
Jelavic’s career started in Croatia at Hajduk Split, followed by moves to Belgium and Austria, then taken him almost the length and breadth of the UK, with stints at Glasgow Rangers, Everton, Hull City and West Ham Utd, those two moves in China and now back to Croatia. I asked him what his highlight has been?
“The highlight is always playing for my national team, especially playing at the World Cup. My best Football though was definitely during my time at Everton in the Premier League, and also Glasgow Rangers. I have such good memories of my time in England, my family loved the lifestyle in England so much they are already thinking to move back to live in England. It was such an amazing experience for me to be a part of such big clubs, especially in the Premier League.”
Our conversation naturally drifts towards the unbelievable start he made to his Everton career and the confidence he had at that time…
“Back then I was literally flying with confidence, I was younger and I was really feeling good. Also playing with very good teammates as well, when everything comes together like that you feel good. In that period almost every shot I made was a goal, it gives you such a special confidence you know, it was a really nice period in my career.”
We then talked about individual goals, most of which he put away with complete ease, as he so often did at that time. It was that one-touch finish that had become synonymous with his game, ice cool composure and complete confidence. It was so often said that his second touch was his celebration.
I asked was the one-touch finishing something that he worked on, or just pure confidence?
“To be honest, I never actually paid any attention to this; I just wanted to always get myself in the best position to take that touch, I was a box striker so I was always confident that I only needed one touch, if I take more than one touch then you give defenders that chance to put you under pressure, so I was always just trying to find the best position to take that touch, stay focussed and score. When you have confidence as a striker you can do that all day long, but without confidence this then becomes difficult. Everybody would always say I was like a ‘one touch killer’ but I was just trying to do the simple thing and do it right.”
Nikica laughed as we spoke about his last minute winner against Tottenham, I reminded him of how Goodison went wild and he celebrated by running into the crowd and stealing some guys hat straight off his head!
“Hahaha! Yes I remember that, that was just pure emotion in that moment, I was so happy!”
Jelavic doesn’t have any social media presence, he tells me he is ‘old school’ when it comes to these things, he was therefore unaware of the video of his last minute goal against Manchester City at Goodison Park. The video went on to be a bit of a Twitter sensation. If you are reading this the chances are you will be aware of it, but for those who are not - it was filmed by somebody in the crowd, as Jelavic takes the ball towards the edge of the box, he twists and turns and it seems to take forever before he can get the ball out of his feet, the gentleman videoing shouts “JUST F*****G HIT IT!!”
… and right on cue, he does! It hits the net and Goodison Park goes wild!
“Hahaha! But this is normal in football you know, every fan has something to shout, especially when they are frustrated. I remember that period I was not playing well at all, so I think I was probably frustrating the fans a lot during that period to be honest, but I think that is what it made it so nice for me to see the fans reaction after that goal. The reaction of the fans is always important, whether you are playing good or bad but I have to say thinking back even when I was playing bad the fans were still behind me and always kind to me which I was really grateful for. It was a really good period for me those 2 years with Everton.”
Those wild celebrations were a culmination of joy and relief, from both the fans and Jelavic himself, after a difficult time where his trademark killer instinct had eluded him and unlike the beginning of his time on Merseyside, everything seemed to be going wrong. Despite his goal drought, he had remained a popular figure amongst Evertonians, who so longed for him to recover that spark.
As we spoke further about his struggles at Everton, I mention a conversation I had with David Weir recently, a man who like Jelavic had played for Everton and Rangers. Weir told me how the pressure that comes with playing for clubs with such ardent supporters as Everton and Rangers can be really tough to handle if you are not a strong character. Jelavic agrees…
“Definitely, both teams are so big, Rangers are wanting to win titles every single year, Everton are such a big club too, although far from the title but it should always be, for example – top 8, every year, so there is always big pressure from the fans. Even at my first club in Croatia Hadjuk Split, there was big pressure from the fans there too, but pressure is good and it made me stronger for the future, it pushes you forward and everybody can see if you have the character to deal with it or not, I like that kind of pressure.”
Speaking of pressure, we briefly talk about that FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, against Liverpool. A trademark Jelavic goal got Everton off to a flyer, before a disastrous defensive mistake allowed Liverpool to equalise, before the almost inevitable customary late Liverpool winner. The frustration and regret is so clear in Nikica’s voice…
“Oh I regret that defeat a lot, honestly believe me, we were so close! We were playing so well, 1-0 ahead and everything was going great and then one bad mistake cost us that equaliser, and then obviously Andy Carroll scored late on, that was such a painful defeat, I really believed we could have gone all the way.”
David Moyes once described Jelavic as his ‘Silent Assassin’ and remarked how he had been inspirational during his time at Everton. So with Jelavic then struggling for confidence and form at the time of Moyes departure, how difficult was it to see him leave and be replaced by Roberto Martinez? Did it spell the end for his time at the club?
“Definitely, David Moyes invested in me and he was one of my favourite coaches along with Walter Smith at Rangers, it was difficult for me once he left. Roberto Martinez came in and obviously had some different ideas, like every new coach which is normal, then Romelu Lukaku came in and he was absolutely on fire, he was flying; so after a short period with Roberto Martinez he didn’t see me in his plans and I didn’t see myself staying with him. I simply wasn’t playing, it’s hard but as a professional you have to move on, so I made the move to Hull City.
David Moyes and Roberto Martinez were both completely different styles and completely different managers. With Moyes he was deciding everything at the club, he was a real strong character and like a father figure to all of the players. When Roberto came in he completely changed everything, he wanted a new style – Spanish style passing, lots of moving, but for me it was not Everton you know, so much passing. For me Everton is all about fighting, always give your best fight - fight for everything, for every single ball. I cannot say I didn’t like Roberto’s style but I just didn’t see myself playing in a team with that kind of style.
Obviously, I didn’t play much under Roberto but like I say this is normal in Football, every manager wants his own players and has different ideas and styles, which is fine, we had no problems – we didn’t argue or fight, nothing like that. Roberto is a really good coach, but like I say just a totally different style than what I was used to.”
As we wrap up our chat, I was interested to hear his plans for when he finally hangs up his boots?
“I’m not sure what I will do exactly, but I will start with a coaching course and then we will see, I don’t know if I will become a coach full time or maybe become an agent or even a sporting director. I’m not too sure exactly which direction I will go, for now I am just focussed on doing my best for my new team and take some time to decide, but I will definitely stay in football one way or another. I want to give something back to Football because Football gave me everything, you know…”