Slaven Bilic last encountered him in the canteen at Everton's training ground when he gave a 14-year-old Wayne Rooney one of his first-team jerseys as a souvenir. Yesterday, on the brink of his biggest match yet as manager of Croatia, the former West Ham and Everton defender considered the form of England's 20-year-old striker and admitted that Rooney was in a kind of "crisis".
It would have been hard to miss the Croatia manager over the last months. That solid, if unremarkable, central defender who played in the Premiership from 1996 to 2000, has been outspoken, to say the least, on English football. The England team at the World Cup finals were, he said, "boring", and he only watched them because of his young son's interest. Yesterday Bilic was no more guarded, but a bit more respectful.
On Rooney, Steve McClaren, the prospect of England playing in a 3-5-2 formation and racism in Croatian football he was insightful before he first paid tribute to the country he played in for four years. "I loved everything: the weather; the cities; even the television commercials," he said. "Speaking with Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard [former West Ham team-mates] recently has brought back so many memories, but this is about three points. Although I will be feeling emotional."
Even in an era of young former internationals like Marco van Basten and the former Germany coach Jürgen Klinsmann taking charge of their countries despite their inexperience in management, Bilic is something of an exception. At 38, he still has a pierced ear and his tattoos are not the legacy of youthful indiscretion - he is still in a rock band. And on his staff are some of the old favourites from the great 1998 Croatia team, including the now portly Robert Prosinecki, who smokes more cigarettes than a harassed rock band roadie.
Bilic was holding court yesterday at the Terme Catez resort in Brezice which, over the border in Slovenia, is the kind of place that England's players would not let their chauffeurs stay in, let alone consider a night there themselves. Bilic has taken his squad there to eliminate the temptation for them to have a night out in Zagreb as they prepare for a game that the football federation, the HNS, considers the biggest on Croatian soil since independence in 1990.
On Rooney, Bilic was even-handed: "He is in a crisis because he is not scoring goals consistently. His anger is his asset but he needs to direct it positively. It is not easy to be Rooney at the moment with all the attention he gets - when he is at his best he is almost unstoppable. It has been suggested over here we should do something to Rooney to make him lose his head but we are not a dirty team.
"You might say that Rooney is playing below par, but we shouldn't forget that prior to the World Cup he suffered a serious injury and played when he was not ready. If you look at his career he is either injured lately or banned by the FA - as soon as he gets into the swing of things he has to stop playing again."
Croatia will play in their favoured 4-4-2 system tonight, although there is an injury doubt over the Milan right-back Dario Simic. The Kovac brothers are crucial elements to the team with the younger Robert, now at Juventus, at centre-back while Niko plays as a defensive midfielder alongside Luka Modric. It was Robert whom Rooney left trailing when he scored two goals in the 4-2 victory at Euro 2004.
"I have to say that at Euro 2004 he was a young player I didn't know much about and he surprised us," Robert Kovac said. "He gave us a terrible time that day. All I can say is that I know him much better now and I am up for the challenge."
Bilic was more complimentary about England under McClaren - "it is noticeable that the play of the England side has accelerated since the World Cup" - but on the issue of a change in the system he was unequivocal. "I know Steve McClaren personally and as a coach and he likes to experiment - but let's not kid ourselves, this isn't a club competition," he said. "You don't have enough time to practise or experiment when you are getting ready for a national team fixture. But he uses new ideas and this is a positive thing. Having said that, I can't see him leaving Rooney on the bench."
Croatia's racist fans remain an awkward subject for the HNS officials who even took issue yesterday with the coverage of English newspapers on the subject. However, while it is difficult to argue your fans do not have a problem when 150 of them form a human swastika on the terrace - as they did in Italy in August - Bilic said that it was not an easy phenomenon to eradicate.
" If Uefa are involved then it is a problem but you cannot judge a country by one or 100 of its people," he said. "How can you stop it? If there are 10 people who look perfectly normal and they start chanting - how can you stop it? Even those guys who do it are not racist. They don't know what they are doing. They are just trying to be rebellious."
The moment Bilic took carte Blanc to enter World Cup infamy
It was in the 1998 World Cup semi-final against France that Slaven Bilic committed the act that most shaped his poor reputation in Britain. As he and Laurent Blanc jostled at a free-kick, the France captain raised a hand into his face; Bilic collapsed and Blanc was sent off, missing the final through suspension.
"I loved [the Milan and Italy defender] 'Billy' Costacurta as a player, and I'll always remember in 1994 that he missed the Champions' League final and the World Cup final because of being booked in the semi," Bilic explained. "I'd got a daft yellow card against Romania so, I thought to myself before the game, 'Don't do anything stupid: if you commit a foul, then OK, but don't argue or anything like that. Don't do a Billy.'
"They had a free-kick, and I was marking Blanc. I really liked him as a player, and at Barcelona he'd played with [Robert] Prosinecki, who'd been my room-mate for five years. I had my hand across his chest, and with one hand he pushed my hand down, and with the other he went to my face. He didn't hit me like Mike Tyson, but he gave me a push. At that moment I was panicking, because in nine out of 10 situations like that the referee goes yellow, yellow to both players. And I heard Igor Stimac tell me to go down. So I thought, no final, no third-place whatever, so I went down. I didn't think, 'Is he going to miss the final?' I just wanted to protect myself.
"I didn't do anything wrong. He hit me, and the referee came and gave him a red. I swear if I could change that so he could play in the final, I would. But I was just acting to protect myself. A lot of French journalists went mad saying I dived - and the English were obsessed by diving because of what had happened with [David] Beckham being sent off for hardly touching [Diego] Simeone - but the bottom line is that he made a mistake. Nobody can say he didn't and that was a red card, but because it was the final, and because it was in France, blahblahblahblah it's a big story."
Bilic, it is worth remembering, is a qualified lawyer.
Jonathan WilsonReuse content