Alex Bowmer spoke to the on-loan hitman for Fulham’s official matchday programme before the game against Aston Villa on Saturday, where he discussed Serbian connections and his aims for success at the Cottage…
As the January transfer window meandered into deadline day, many Fulham fans will have been relatively pleased with the month’s business. Keeping hold of prize assets Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon was no mean feat, with the arrival of Matt Targett adding Premier League pedigree to the squad.
However, there was an Aleksandar Mitrovic-sized hole. Aboubakar Kamara and Rui Fonte had turned on the style in recent weeks, but reinforcements were always welcome.
The transfer was as remarkable as it was frantic, with the Club’s Twitter account hinting at the last-minute arrival with a tantalising teaser video following Cyrus Christie’s unveiling at Motspur Park.
After all the drama, the Serbian appears to have acclimatised to his new surroundings.
“I’ve settled in. The lads help me a lot,” Mitrovic told the official matchday programme. “I already know how they play, what they want and what my job is. Of course I need time to adapt, but it’s going well. Every game, every training session, I feel better.”
His first cameo appearance was certainly all-action, with a bullet header on his opening outing against Nottingham Forest cleared off the line by Joe Worrall.
Mitrovic’s first impressions of playing in front of the Craven Cottage faithful were positive.
“The stadium is really old and traditional, so it was a real pleasure to play there and the atmosphere was really nice,” he said. “The fans really accepted me well from the beginning.”
Fulham’s bid for the 23-year-old came at the eleventh hour, with a number of clubs on the continent set to secure his signature.
“On Tuesday night, we made a deal that in the morning, I should fly to Bordeaux,” explained Mitrovic. “After I made the deal with Bordeaux, I went for a sleep and then Anderlecht called my brother who is also my agent. I was thinking, because I’d already played for Anderlecht, I would adapt faster because I know people there. That’s why I changed my mind.”
Mitrovic flew to Belgium, but the Brussels outfit couldn’t stump up the cash required and late on Wednesday Fulham stepped up their interest, with Slavisa Jokanovic sending WhatsApp messages to the man he coveted so highly.
This eventually convinced Mitrovic to opt for a move to SW6 and it’s clear the young striker holds a great deal of admiration for Fulham’s Head Coach. Their association goes back to Partizan Belgrade, where Jokanovic won the double in both the seasons he was in charge.
“He did a lot of great things for Partizan as a player and a manager,” the Newcastle United loanee gushed. “He’s one of the best managers Serbia has. He represents our country in the best way, so I’m very proud. He’s a lovely guy and it’s a pleasure to work with him.”
However, the pair didn’t know each other well at this point. While Jokanovic was winning titles, Mitrovic was juggling his responsibilities as an academy player with his duties as a ball boy for Partizan.
“I had to stand behind the goal with the home support on the south side,” he continued. “I watched so many big teams and big players.”
After growing up during a period of great unrest in the Balkans, Mitrovic is mindful of the help his family provided in setting him on the path to becoming a professional footballer.
“It was hard for all my family,” he remarked seriously. “They gave me support and didn’t allow me to quit. They gave me that power you can only get from family. In the end, I made my dreams and they really helped me a lot with that.”
Mitrovic believes the difficult circumstances in the region forced people to develop grit, something he believes has stood him in good stead.
“It’s hard to break the Serbian guy, so I think I’m like that,” Mitrovic smiled. “I never give up.
“This is something you pick up in your childhood. It’s not always going to be nice and sometimes it’s going to be awful, but like Serbian people say, ‘After any war comes sun.’ That’s life.”
It’s perhaps little surprise that Mitrovic’s other sporting interests in his younger years revolved around physical combat and aggression. However, these took a back seat once the football started to take off.
“I played fighting sports a little – kickboxing, a little bit of karate – and that’s it. After that, it was football,” he insisted.
After spells in the first team at Partizan and Anderlecht, a move to England beckoned in the summer of 2015 and a chance to showcase those competitive instincts to a wider audience.
For many players, the Premier League is an extremely attractive proposition. It was no different for Mitrovic, who sought the advice of players from his homeland who had found success on these shores, namely Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Dusan Tadic. It is not a bad contacts list to have.
“They are big names in Serbian football and here in English football and they told me it’s the hardest league in the world, so I wanted to see what it was like,” Mitrovic said.
“I joined Newcastle because from a young age I supported them. I don’t why, but they had black and white colours, the same colours as Partizan Belgrade. I chose Newcastle and I didn’t make a mistake.”
The first season at St. James’ Park was certainly a baptism of fire. Despite posting a solid tally of nine goals in 34 league goals, the Magpies were relegated.
This meant Newcastle and Fulham collided in England’s second tier and Mitrovic was impressed by what he saw of the Whites.
“Last season, Fulham definitely played the most beautiful football in the Championship. They beat us at St. James’ Park 3-1. It could have been 7-1,” he admitted.
“They were unlucky in the Play-Offs, but I also followed the team this season. Fulham have some new players, but the manager and the staff and a lot of the players are the same.
“They played really offensive football, so that is the reason I chose Fulham.”
The other motive for moving south is to get regular playing time ahead of the World Cup in Russia this summer after falling down the pecking order under Rafael Benitez.
Going into their last qualifying match against Georgia, Serbia’s qualification hopes were hanging in the balance.
Despite leading their group, they’d suffered a 3-2 defeat to Austria a few days earlier and needed to win to ensure their place at the finals.
The enormity of the occasion wasn’t lost on Mitrovic and his compatriots.
“It was the hardest game I’ve played in my life,” he admitted. “Not physically, but mentally.
“You have players like [Branislav] Ivanovic, who has won everything in club football. I spoke to Matic as well. They say it was one of the hardest games they’ve ever played.
“When we played our first qualification game against Ireland, it was like 7,000, 8,000 people and in the last game it was almost 50,000, a full stadium, so it was a really nice feeling. It was a big thing for the players and the whole country because after eight years, Serbia will be in a big football competition.”
It took 74 minutes for the deadlock to be broken, with Mitrovic arrowing in a pinpoint cross for Aleksandar Prijovic to stab home from close range.
“Two or three times they kicked the ball from the goalline,” he recalled. “I get the ball on the side, I see Prijovic, I just put the ball in. I didn’t think too much and he finished it.
“It was an unbelievable feeling, some release. The stadium exploded. You cannot describe this with words.”
Having dropped down a rung on the English league ladder, Mitrovic will be looking to add further firepower to a team that has only been outscored by Wolverhampton Wanderers in the current campaign.
However, Saturday’s draw at Bolton reminded everyone that this league is no walk in the park and the Smederevo-born player believes that in some respects, the Championship is the more difficult division.
“In the Premier League, you have seven, eight top teams and seven or eight alright teams, but in the Championship, all the teams are of a similar level,” he said.
“There are so many games with a short time to recover. In the Premier League there are better teams with more quality, but you see Man City played Bristol City and Bristol was really tough.
“They beat Man United, so it’s not a big difference between these two leagues. For me, the Championship is a physically harder league. The Championship has so many running, fighting duels and it’s really tough football.”
While Mitrovic relishes the battle, the hot-headed streak that led to him receiving two red cards in his debut season at Newcastle appears to have been reined in.
Fulham fans will no doubt hope this improved disciplinary record continues. Mitrovic, meanwhile, recognises the crucial role the supporters can play as we enter the business end of the season.
“This is going to be a long 15 games and we need their help,” he said. “I hope they stay behind us and help us to get promoted.”
After donning black and white during a successful promotion charge last season, Mitrovic hopes lightning can strike twice in three months’ time.
When asked if the team can finish in the top two, his response was emphatic.
“Of course, why not? In the next two weeks, we have really tough games against direct opponents and the gap between us is seven points,” he stated.
“This is nothing. If we win most of the games, we have a big chance to get automatically promoted.”