Mirocevic: England taught me how to drink and play

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The Independent Football

On Tuesday, Ante Mirocevic will visit Wembley for the third time. If it hadn't been for Michael Robinson, it would be the fourth.

Mirocevic was the captain of Yugoslavia's Olympic team when he became the first player from a Montenegrin club to move to the west, joining Jack Charlton's Sheffield Wednesday from FK Buducnost for a club-record £250,000 in 1980. Some players struggle to cope when they move to a new country. Mirocevic's problem, he admits, is that he never wanted to go home to Podgorica. "When I start to talk about England," he said, "I can't stop. My friends are always telling me to shut up."

South Yorkshire in the early 1980s rarely gets a good press, but Mirocevic makes it sound like paradise. "I loved the pubs," he said. "Lager and lime with a whisky chaser. I'd drink 10, 20 a night and then we'd train the next day. That's what England taught me, how to drink and play.

"But once I lit up a cigarette at Hillsborough and Jack knocked it from my hand. You could drink what you wanted but you couldn't smoke."

For his first month in England, Mirocevic lived at Charlton's house. "He was a bit eccentric. Football wasn't No 1 for him. He loved fishing and shooting and he could have been world champion at dominoes. His house was like some kind of castle. It had a snooker table and there were fishing rods everywhere. We'd go fishing in a lake near Barnsley.

"He took me to Preston once where his brother was manager. We went to the main stand and there at the entrance were Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles, who was very short with big glasses but a great player, very powerful. And Jack said, 'You'll know Nobby, of course, but this is my brother Bobby'.

His greatest regret is that he didn't take up the footballer's favourite pastime of golf. "Andy McCulloch kept asking me but I never had time."

When he had spare time, Mirocevic drove to London to see the sights and visit the theatre, and after an early away game at Chelsea, he toured Wembley. "They reported it on the radio here," he said. "A Yugoslav at Wembley." That was the first visit. The second came in 1982 when he won Wednesday's draw for FA Cup final tickets and saw Tottenham draw 1-1 with QPR. The third nearly came a year later.

For all his fondness for England, Mirocevic never wholly adapted to the style or pace of the game. "It was a standard game of long ball, 4-4-2, but Jack wanted to get some more technique in the side and that's what I was for," he said. "So we had a mix of an English style and something different. Everybody played with a high offside line so it was a very compact game with no time on the ball."

His finest moment came at Highbury in the 1983 FA Cup semi-final when he reacted to a loose ball in the Brighton box and cancelled out Jimmy Case's thunderous opener. "The atmosphere was incredible," he said. "The only thing that comes close is when Buducnost beat Maribor in the promotion play-off. Robinson, though, nicked a late winner and it was Brighton who reached the final."

Twenty-seven years on, he is heading to Wembley again as part of Montenegro's youth set-up. He is excited, not just by the prospect of lager and lime, but by Montenegro's chances. "This is incredible for all of us," he said. "We thought it might take years for our first victory even as an independent nation, but already we are winning games. When Zlatko Kranjcar arrived, he made the players believe they have quality. They are playing for results. Probably the football is not enjoyable, but we'll enjoy winning." For a country that has produced many talented attacking midfielders, that is a major change.

Friday's victory over Switzerland was their third 1-0 win in a row, rooted on the excellent centre-back pairing of Marko Basa and Miodrag Dzudovic, goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic and the forward play of Mirko Vucinic, who was head and shoulders above anybody else even before celebrating his goal by taking his shorts off and pulling them over his head.

"Do I believe we can win on Tuesday?" Mirocevic asked. "I can barely believe we're playing at Wembley."