Settlers who can bring relief

Ian Ridley believes Eastern promise may spice up the FA Cup third round
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WHEN the Tour de France reaches the Alpine stages, there is a saying trotted out by the old sages: "The real race starts here." So it is with English football when the New Year arrives. Manchester United having punctured Newcastle's tyres, the Premiership has moved up a gear. Then, next weekend, comes the third round of the FA Cup.

It is just such a scenario, with its prospect of Wembley, which appeals to many overseas players when they weigh up the attractions of England - apart from the sums of money now available, that is. It helped Tottenham attract Jurgen Klinsmann last season, for example. The irony of that is pointed out by the Derby County manager, Jim Smith. "We want them for their technique and composure," he says. "They seem to love the atmosphere and the up-and-at-'em approach."

Smith should know, havingshrewdly brought the 29-year-old Croatian sweeper Igor Stimac to the atmospheric cockpit of the Baseball Ground. It is a move that highlights the growing attraction, in terms of cost and ability, of players from the former Yugoslavia in this smaller, post-Bosman world, especially with work permits' becoming easier to secure.

Manchester City may soon start wearing the blue berets of the United Nations, so widely are they recruiting, but others are also finding that the cap fits. West Ham are about to pay pounds 1.3m for another Croatian international defender in Slaven Bilic, for example, and last week Darko Kovacevic and Dejan Stefanovic arrived at Sheffield Wednesday in the wake of their fellow Serbs, Savo Milosevic of Aston Villa and Sasa Curcic of Bolton Wanderers.

Stimac's inauspicious debut for Derby, although he scored a goal in the 5-1 defeat at Tranmere, was somewhat lost on 4 November amid the arrival on Teesside of Juninho. Since then, however, there is little doubt who has made the greater impact.

In winning eight and drawing the other of their nine matches since the Birkenhead battering, Derby have moved from 16th to top of the Endsleigh League's First Division. Next Sunday a wider television audience will see the Stimac-rollering effect when they entertain Leeds United in the Cup.

Smith first noted Stimac in a friendly international for Croatia 18 months ago. Then, as is the form in these matters, a video from an agent arrived early this season, with Hajduk Split ready to do business at pounds 1.5m. "Igor wanted to go to a Premiership club so we had to sell ourselves to him," Smith says. "Fortunately we made the right noises."

With Craig Short and Mark Pembridge joining a long list of high-cost, money-recouping departures before the start of the season, it was a sign to the fans, the manager adds, that Derby were not now merely a selling club after the failed excesses of the last few years

Smith was able to recruit wisely with his knowledge of the lower divisions, improved since leaving Portsmouth while he watched games in the course of his work with the League Managers' Association. "My batteries were also recharged by the break," he says. Darryl Powell came from his previous club and Robin van der Laan from Port Vale, while Dean Sturridge was promoted from the reserves and has scored 11 goals. Smith also went for a coach, Steve McLaren, rather than an assistant manager.

But it is Stimac who has been the added dimension and binding force. "It's not just his ability," Smith says. "It's his presence. He's very classy." That conflicts a little with the view in Croatia, however. World Soccer's correspondent there, noting his "Richard Gere looks" and his marriage to a former Miss Yugoslavia, described him as "an English-style defender who is particularly strong in the air."

That constitutes a big attraction for English clubs, the more so since Bosman and the swift lifting of the three-per-team restriction on overseas players: those who do not necessarily seem outstanding in their own country can be so here, where well-schooled talent has become scarcer and consequently more expensive.

"You don't have to pay them pounds 5,000 a week and more," says the Sheffield Wednesday manager David Pleat, who gave debuts on Boxing Day to Kovacevic and Stefanovic, both 21 and costing a combined pounds 4.5m from Red Star Belgrade. "You can keep it to between two and three thousand."

Pleat describes Kovacevic as "a tall striker, strong, good in the air, quick, clever and with a nice touch," and Stefanovic as "a composed left- sided defender with a touch of the Kevin Beattie about him - real presence and power". Thumbs up or down is about the limit as yet of Pleat's communications with them.

They are well-educated both in life and football, Pleat adds, which helped in his decision to buy. "Both stayed at school until they were 18 and were with Red Star from the age of 13, so you know you are going to get players with the professional work ethos about them. As a sort of Ajax of Yugoslavia, Red Star have always been great exporters of talent and their players all have good technique."

Indeed, Yugoslavs have always come to England, if not all with the same success as Raddy Antic, a gifted midfield player for Luton who sent Pleat on that jig of joy at Manchester City with a late relegation-averting goal and is now a manager of immense promise with Atletico Madrid. Or the cultured Swansea pair of Ante Rajkovic and Dzemal Hadziabdic; or Middlesbrough's fondly remembered Bosco Jankovic. There were, for example, such skilful but ineffective imports as Vladimir Petrovic at Arsenal and Nicky Jovanovic at Manchester United.

But it could be that we are witnessing the beginning of a trend. At one time it would have been difficult to obtain work permits for some non- European Union players, given the criterion that they have to have played in 75 per cent of their country's internationals in the previous two years.

Now, as happened in the Soviet Union, the break-up of Yugoslavia into separate nations means that more players are on the market, especially given the financial distress of many of their clubs in the wake of war and political change. Kovacevic and Stefanovic both played in the 4-1 wins by the former Republic of Yugoslavia - more accurately the republic of Serbs and Montenegrins - over El Salvador and Mexico last month.

The Professional Footballers' Association has, rightly enough, expressed its concern about English players being denied opportunities. And indeed fans may soon rebel at the number of what might be seen as potentially transient mercenaries wearing their club colours. While fees and salaries remain bloated in the domestic transfer market, however, the appeal will be obvious.

So, too, will be the appeal of their technique, at least until the English game rights the wrongs of the functional, physical late Eighties and early Nineties. Then, durable players from the Nordic countries seemed the most attractive; now the profile has changed with a growing desire - need even, given results in European club competition - for sophistication in the Premiership.

"You always knew when you went on a pre-season tour to Scandinavia that you were going to get a physical test," Pleat says. "Now players have to be more subtle, clever as well as physical. You can find plenty of physical players in this country but not enough of the other."

Stimac and Co may represent a short-term solution - Bolton's Curcic, notably, brings an exciting sleight-of-foot. Perhaps their presence, worrying to some, will also hasten long-term cures.