The Premiership Interview: Pride and passion of the man who wants to be English
Dejan Stefanovic was born in Belgrade, has 19 Serbian caps and still speaks his (perfect) English with an accent. But in two years' time he hopes to have a British passport. Portsmouth's captain talks to Jason Burt about nationality, Pompey's transformation and what Alain Perrin could learn from Harry Redknapp
Saturday 09 September 2006
Two meetings held with Portsmouth managers last season spring to Dejan Stefanovic's mind. The first was with Alain Perrin; the second with the Frenchman's successor, Harry Redknapp. In both meetings Stefanovic was asked to voice his opinion. In both he spoke with undoubted, unswerving honesty.
"I've nothing against Perrin," Stefanovic recalled this week of the ill-fated former Marseilles coach, "but there were things that he did which, for English players, were difficult to accept. I said to him, we were speaking one to one, 'If you don't change you are in big trouble here in England'. And he said to me, 'No, no, no. I know. I want my ideas. I can bring lots of foreign players to this football club.'
"I said, 'I'm just warning you, because I've played in the Premiership for seven years and I'm saying to you, as your captain, you have to change or you will have big problems.' Three or four weeks later he was gone."
There is a shrug. It was November last year. Portsmouth were struggling dismally. Their top-flight decline appeared terminal. Stefanovic believes that, had Perrin stayed, it would have been fatal. "Simple as that," he adds. "I'm not saying he's a bad manager. He has his qualities, but those qualities didn't work in England. And he didn't want to listen to anyone."
Redknapp did. The return of Harry, just before Christmas, spread a smile across Stefanovic's face. He is an unashamed fan - both of the man and the manager. When Redknapp made his amazing decision to return to Fratton Park, along the M27 from Southampton of course, it was to Stefanovic, the trusted, elegant defender he brought to the South Coast from Dutch football four seasons ago, that he turned. Redknapp needed an instant appraisal of what he had inherited. And he knew who to get it from.
"He asked my advice," Stefanovic recalls. "Because he didn't know a lot of the players here. Only a few had been here with him - me, Linvoy [Primus], Gary O'Neil, Matthew Taylor and Richard Hughes. The other 15 were Alain Perrin's players. I talked to him [Redknapp] and said straight away that he had to bring in players in January [the transfer window]. I said, 'You need to bring in quality. Seven or eight players or it's trouble'. With all respect to those we had here at the time, I was being honest. We did not have a good enough squad to stay in the Premiership."
In some ways it is strange to hear the Serb, who speaks perfect English but with a clearly discernible accent, extol the virtues of British football management. But then Stefanovic had fallen in love with the country when he first arrived a decade ago. Then, aged just 21, he had joined Sheffield Wednesday - a Premiership club at that time - from Red Star Belgrade.
He and his Serbian wife, Maria, are devoted Anglophiles. They spend days off travelling, sightseeing, visiting the West Country, the north of England, immersing themselves in the culture of where they live. "I want to know this country," he says. Their eight-year-old daughter was born in Yorkshire. Stefanovic refers to her as "an English girl" and she has an English name, Jenny.
When his playing days are eventually over, in probably about four years' time, Stefanovic, who signed a two-year extension, until 2008, at Portsmouth in June, plans to stay here. He even intends to change nationality. "In two years' time I'm going to apply for a British passport," he says proudly. "I can do that. And then I will throw my Serbian one away."
Even when he left Sheffield, in 1999, to play for the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem, Stefanovic kept a home here, his wife remained a frequent visitor, and the desire was always there to come back eventually. When Redknapp called, he jumped at the chance.
"I don't feel Serbian at all," he admits. "I'm totally different. You know what? I came here at a good time, 10 years ago. I didn't speak English so I wanted to learn. I had a teacher come to my house all the time. I picked up, very quickly, along with my wife, all the good things that people like in England. The mentality and so on. Everything here is done. I like the rules, the behaviour. I like the way of life - which is not always the case for foreigners who come here. Some don't like the weather and so on."
Given the upheavals in the former Yugoslavia, Stefanovic's attitude is understandable. He was born in the town of Nis, not far from Belgrade, before moving to the capital to play for the Red Star youth teams at the age of 12. Eventually he graduated to the first team and captained his country's Under-21s before winning 19 senior caps. But two years ago he retired from international football, although he reveals there were efforts made at the end of last season to persuade him to feature for Serbia & Montenegro during the summer's World Cup. Even Portsmouth's former owner and chairman, Milan Mandaric, himself a Serb, got involved. "He tried to push me to play but I said, 'I've given my word', and that's it," Stefanovic says of his friend's efforts.
"The situation over there is very difficult," he carefully adds. "They are always changing something. Like now. [Montenegro has since split from Serbia]. There is often trouble and I don't want to play under those conditions. It's better for my wife and daughter also. Two years ago I said to Harry, 'From now on I'm going to focus on this club and that's it'. Maybe it's better for the club to have as many international players as possible, but I remember that I went with the international team and we played against Wales and Italy and had two tough games. I got back on a Friday and on Saturday we played against Arsenal and I'm asked to chase Thierry Henry."
At the start of last season Stefanovic felt that he was doing even more chasing than usual. He recalls the opening game, at home to Tottenham Hotspur, as an illustration of how things went wrong under Perrin. "We had two sessions a day, very hard sessions, on the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," he says. "I said to him, 'This is unbelievable, we've got a very hard game coming up'. I said it in front of everyone. That was difficult for Perrin, but I did it for the good of the club. I warned him at the beginning. Many times."
It was similar under the Croat Velimir Zajec, who endured a dismal time as Portsmouth's director of football and was, temporarily, in charge of the first team before Perrin. "European coaches, especially eastern European coaches, they have totally different ideas about England and English players," Stefanovic says. "They want to bring in their ways." He feels able to speak so candidly because, he declares, he's not saying anything he hasn't said to the faces of the people he's talking about. It should also not be forgotten that he is the only Portsmouth player to have started the first game of the season for the past three years. His value is undoubted.
So what is so good about Redknapp? "He's a special person," Stefanovic replies. "He's also the right man for this club. Players like him, even if they are not playing. When you ask him for something he's always going to say 'yes'. But he always expects you to give the best to him and because of that players have respect. With him the players settle down quickly. When we go out in the morning for training there is laughter, there is a different atmosphere. It's never tense. We joke with him as a friend. He's a good manager tactically. And he always wants to attack. He wants to win every game, simple as that. It does not matter if you are playing Wigan Athletic [today's opponents], Manchester United or Chelsea. He always says the same thing. He always says, 'OK, we're going to win'. Very positive."
Redknapp took a positive approach to the Portsmouth squad. He wheeled and he dealed last January, he parted with £12m and brought in players such as Pedro Mendes, Sean Davis, Dean Kiely and the mercurial, on-loan Andres D'Alessandro - and reshaped his squad. Perrin's players, from the South Americans Dario Silva and John Viafara to the assortment of motley recruits such as Collins Mbesuma, Grégory Vignal and Azar Karades, were shunted out.
"He came at the right time," Stefanovic says of Redknapp. "Just before Christmas and in that time he signed players in the window. As always he did excellently in his transfers. In the beginning, in January, February, those players needed games to settle down. We knew we didn't play well, but after that they reached their form."
There were two clear turning points. The first was obvious - the exhilarating 2-1 victory over Manchester City last March, through two goals by the inspirational Mendes - the second in the 90th minute - which allowed belief to course through the club. Portsmouth lost only one of their next nine games.
The second was also crucial. Stefanovic was injured. An ankle problem, a spur, would only clear up with an operation. That meant he would be out for three or four months. But that, given Portsmouth's predicament, was unthinkable. His season would have been over. "But I was back in six weeks," Stefanovic says. "I just pushed myself. Harry asked me when I was going to be ready and I said, 'As soon as I can run'." It hurt, but then relegation would have hurt an awful lot more.
"You know," says Stefanovic. "I always had belief. Everyone said we were a poor side, but I remember Harry after that match against Manchester City and he said little. He just said, 'Stay positive, stay focused, move on to the next game.' Maybe we needed luck, maybe we needed other teams to feel the pressure but we, also, kept winning."
It was an astonishing turnaround. Another late winning goal, through a penalty by Matthew Taylor and Sunderland were beaten. It meant Portsmouth went into their away meeting with Wigan knowing that a victory would save them. At half-time they were losing. Again Stefanovic made his voice heard. "I just said, 'Guys, if you want to stay up you cannot play like this'," he recalls. "We were rubbish. Simple as that. But this was the most important game of the season for us. We win, we stay up." Deliriously, they did. "Big celebrations," says Stefanovic. "Unbelievable achievement. Nobody had done what we did. But it was also a great relief. A big release. A great feeling. I knew that if we stayed up things would change dramatically."
He managed to enjoy his summer holidays. He knew Redknapp would bring in even more players - but he did not worry. "It was a relief," Stefanovic maintains. "Because I'm a professional and I always try to give my best I know that competition is good. It makes you train harder, play better - I like it. Sometimes if you know you are going to play all the time, even if you play badly, it's difficult. But I'm confident. I've played 100 games for this club and I like to keep going.
"I'm not someone who likes to change club every season. I like to settle down. I've told Harry I want to stay as long as he wants me. I've had opportunities to go but I've always said 'no'. I will keep that promise. You know why? It's because I care so much about this club. I've got responsibility for it."
Redknapp signed 10 new players this summer and Portsmouth - with seven points, seven goals and three clean sheets from three matches leaving them in second place - are off to a flyer. "We have more stability since Harry came back," says Stefanovic, "and I always know he will bring good players. He's always done that. Because of him good players will come."
The money, the promises made by the new owner Alexandre Gaydamak must also be a factor? "Maybe," says Stefanovic. "But maybe more because of Harry. Simple as that. If there is another manager, a foreign guy, he's never going to bring Sol Campbell, David James, Glen Johnson and Andy Cole. That's for sure."
The new arrivals have also not just raised the standard but reduced the burden on Stefanovic. He spent much of last season fronting up reporters and cameras as much as he did strikers. His was, often, the only senior voice to be heard and, although he says "I like the responsibility, even when it is bad", it's a relief not to be so alone.
Now it's different. "Last season, all season and especially for the first six months," Stefanovic says, "I had to take the responsibility. I stood in front of the reporters and had to answer difficult questions. It was no problem. But now we have more experience and good characters and they, too, can say something. The more players you have like that, the better. We can all help each other. It is enjoyable. It will be a good season."
Consider yourself at home: The foreign footballers who came, saw and were conquered
* JAN MOLBY (Denmark) Only 21 when he arrived from Ajax in 1984 to play for Liverpool, he quickly grew to sound more Scouse than many locals. A spell in jail for drinking and driving did not deter him from settling in the United Kingdom; nor have mixed management fortunes at Kidderminster Harriers and Swansea City.
* DENNIS BERGKAMP (Netherlands) Maybe the non-flying Dutchman is scared to leave the country, maybe he likes the garden centres, but whatever the reason he and his family have stayed in the Home Counties since his retirement last May, even taking a box at the new Emirates Stadium to watch his old Arsenal team-mates.
* GIANLUCA VIALLI (Italy) Vialli has become so at home in English football that he took his coaching course with the Football Association and has co-authored a book favourably comparing the state and nature of the game on these shores with that in Italy. He works for Italian television but lives in London with his English partner.
* SERGEI BALTACHA (Ukraine) Much has changed since Baltacha left the Soviet Union for Ipswich in 1989, but rather than return to now independent Ukraine he has settled in Perthshire, Scotland. His son, Sergei Jnr, played for St Mirren and Millwall while his daughter, Elena, has been Britain's No1 women's tennis player.
* ALEC EISENTRAGER (Germany) Like the better-known Bert Trautmann, who kept goal for Manchester City, Eisentrager first came to England as a prisoner of war, in his case in 1944 at the age of 17. He played for Bristol City between 1949 and 1958, scoring 57 goals in 246 games. Now 79, he still lives in the West Country.
* DENIS FOREMAN (South Africa) Foreman arrived along with dozens of other South Africans in 1952, after a three-week boat trip. He spent the majority of his career at Brighton in the 1950s, playing 200 games. A knee injury ended his career but he retained an interest in sport, coaching cricket and football. He still lives in Brighton.
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