A decade has passed since Milan Jovanovic proudly stepped on to the turf at Anfield for his unveiling. Holding up a Liverpool scarf, he was joined for the official photocall by fellow summer signings Joe Cole and Danny Wilson, alongside new manager Roy Hodgson.
The Serbian attacker had arrived on a free transfer from Standard Liege. He had a spring in his step after becoming a national hero a month earlier when he scored the winner against Germany in the World Cup in South Africa.
Jovanovic told the assembled media in July 2010 that he had joined “one of the biggest clubs in the world” and set his sights on winning silverware. However, the dream move he talked about soon turned into a nightmare.
Liverpool were in a state of upheaval — both on and off the field. Hodgson dragged them down even further before Kenny Dalglish was tasked with reviving their fortunes. Jovanovic couldn’t help stop the rot and he barely featured in the resurgence.
After just one season and 18 appearances, he returned to play in Belgium without a Premier League goal to his name. He won back-to-back titles with Anderlecht before retiring at the age of 32 in 2013. He has kept a low profile since.
“I’m glad that someone from Liverpool remembered me and wanted to speak,” he tells The Athletic from his holiday home in the stunning surroundings of the Tara mountain in western Serbia. “I’m aware that my career there was modest but I’m proud that I played for such a big club and every single minute I spent in that jersey I gave my best.
“Ten years! I feel a little sad that the time has gone so fast. It feels like one single moment. Ten years since the World Cup and signing for Liverpool — two of the most important things I did in my career. Honestly, playing for Liverpool was my biggest achievement. I’m just sorry that I stayed for such a short period and that I didn’t leave a bigger mark there.
“I want to say thank you to the fans who were always very supportive and I want to send my regards to Liverpool, the great city and the great people. I want to congratulate the people in the club for the big success they have enjoyed this season. I really hope they can keep it up because I’m still a fan.”
The image of Jovanovic alongside Cole, Wilson and Hodgson is often used to underline just how far Liverpool had fallen. It was the summer when a debt-ridden club in crisis following the departure of Rafael Benitez also signed Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky.
Jovanovic joins Wilson, Hodgson and Cole in a photo that would become of symbol of the manager’s ill-fated reign (Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Jovanovic was written off as a flop who was simply out of his depth at Anfield. But this was a man who had been crowned footballer of the year in Belgium and had turned down Real Madrid the year before Liverpool came calling.
With a civil war raging in the boardroom and star players desperately trying to secure moves elsewhere, it was hardly the perfect environment to flourish for someone adjusting to a new country and a new language.
Jovanovic doesn’t look for excuses but, over 70 minutes, he’s engaging company as he reflects on his time at Anfield, the turmoil behind the scenes and life since hanging up his boots.
The first issue facing him at Liverpool was that the manager who signed him had already left by the time he arrived. It was February 2010 when he met with Benitez and agreed a three-year deal starting that summer. With money tight, he had been recommended to Benitez by Liverpool’s chief scout Eduardo Macia.
There was also interest from AC Milan, Juventus and Valencia as he entered the final months of his contract with Standard Liege but Jovanovic’s mind was made up.
“Many big clubs followed me that year but I made a decision after speaking to Rafa on a visit to Melwood,” he says. “Rafa said that he had serious plans for me and that he wanted me to play on the left side. It wasn’t really a hard choice when such a big club and such a great coach wanted me. If Rafa had stayed as the coach, I do think my adaptation period would have been shorter and all would have been easier for me.”
Born in the Serbian town of Bajina Basta, Jovanovic started his career at Vojvodina in the city of Novi Sad. He then had spells with Shakhtar Donetsk and Lokomotiv Moscow before moving to Standard Liege in 2006. Throughout four seasons, he scored an impressive tally of 69 goals in 153 appearances and established himself as a firm fans’ favourite. He won two league titles and two Belgian Super Cups.
Jovanovic could have joined Real Madrid in 2009 but decided to stay put. “Yeah, it’s true,” he says. “Predrag Mijatovic was sporting director of Real. We spoke but I didn’t like the length of the contract. It was too short and that was the decisive factor. I wanted a longer contract to have peace and security. I never regret that decision.”
He top-scored for Serbia in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and then famously slammed home the only goal in the group stage game against Germany in Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Jovanovic’s jubilant celebration saw him vault over the advertising hoardings and end up in the moat surrounding the pitch.
“After that World Cup I went to Liverpool full of confidence,” he says. “I was sure that my career would keep going up after that. How could I forget that celebration! But I can’t get all the credit because we wouldn’t have got that victory without Vladimir Stojkovic’s penalty save and (winger) Milos Krasic playing probably the best match of his career.
“We should have gone through to the knockout stages. We had so many chances against Australia (Serbia were beaten 2-1). We were better than them in all aspects but luck was missing. Some will say it was destiny, some that it was god’s will, cosmic balance or whatever, but some things have to align for that to happen.
“In that team we also had Nemanja Vidic, Branislav Ivanovic, Aleksandar Kolarov, Neven Subotic and many other great players. In the best years, we deserved more. A lot of credit has to go to Radomir Antic as he made us a real team. All of us respected and appreciated him so much.
“He made logical, fair, honest decisions. He gave everyone equal importance. He is the personification of everything we made in the national team. But I’ve got to say, it’s kind of disappointing that the win against Germany is still our biggest win 10 years later. That says a lot about our generation.”
Jovanovic, who was 29 by the time he joined Liverpool, started for his new club on the opening weekend of the Premier League season against Arsenal at Anfield. He played on the left of a frontline that also included Dirk Kuyt and David Ngog.
(Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Cole was sent off for a lunge on Laurent Koscielny but Ngog fired Hodgson’s 10 men in front. They were seconds away from a morale-boosting victory when Pepe Reina spilt the ball into his own net late on.
“That game is one of my happiest memories at Liverpool,” Jovanovic said. “I was out there starting alongside Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt. Fernando Torres came off the bench.
“I remember that it was the only game I played with Javier Mascherano. He left for Barcelona soon after. I was so proud of myself after that game. I had big personal expectations and thought that games like that would become routine for me.”
Instead, as performances and results nosedived, his opportunities dried up. There were angry protests from supporters against owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett with patience for Hodgson in short supply.
When Jovanovic finally got off the mark in a League Cup tie against Northampton Town at Anfield in late September, his contribution was forgotten amid the furious backlash which followed Liverpool’s humiliating exit at the hands of the League Two side.
Another home defeat to Blackpool in the Premier League left them in the bottom three with just six points out of a possible 21. Hodgson was openly talking about the prospect of a relegation battle.
“In England, I learned about the relationship between the crowd and fair play, and loyalty to clubs, especially towards Liverpool,” Jovanovic says. “Of course there would be boos at times but Anfield was always full. They always showed their love towards the club.
“I can’t say anything bad against Hodgson. He treated me well from the start, always correctly, and behaved like a gentleman. He wasn’t the biggest obstacle of my career because some blame has to be on me.
“In England, it’s a very specific league. Some players much better than me had a tough time adapting and needed more time. I just needed more time. But I didn’t have any extra credit and in those situations, you need a lot of things to go your way for the puzzle to be perfect. I played some very good games. I still have the English media reports in my house in Novi Sad. It wasn’t just me, others thought I played well.”
Away from the pitch, there was little sense of spirit or camaraderie in Hodgson’s squad.
“No, we didn’t hang out or spend time together after training and matches,” Jovanovic says. “There weren’t any organised lunches, drinks or something like that. I wasn’t that close with the others.
“My communication with all of them before and during training or when we were travelling to away matches was good, but I didn’t feel anything special. There wasn’t any warmth between us. I lived in a peaceful part of Liverpool, surrounded by parks with my family. I spent my spare time at home.”
Did all the unrest and problems off the field with the owners contribute to bad results on it?
“It was a period of big transition,” he says. “But I’m not sure that it influenced the games. For a club as big as Liverpool it’s unimaginable that players feel issues like that. For the results, the blame is always on the players and the staff.
“But when things like that happen, then the people who end up paying for it are mostly the new players. My impression is that Liverpool at that time needed to play more offensively. We also needed a bit of luck at times.
“I remember the match against Everton at Goodison Park when we lost. Hodgson was sad when he came in the dressing room after but he told us that he knew that we had given our best and that football wasn’t fair towards us that day.”
That Merseyside derby was Liverpool’s first game under the ownership of Fenway Sports Group (then known as New England Sports Ventures). Sitting in the Goodison directors’ box, the eyes of John W Henry and Tom Werner were opened to the size of the task they had taken on following the completion of their £300 million takeover.
A wretched 2-0 defeat left Liverpool only off the bottom of the table on goal difference. Hodgson limped on before he was finally sacked early in the new year.
A cloud was lifted by the appointment of Dalglish. Jovanovic, who had scored his second goal for the club in a Europa League draw with Steaua Bucharest, hoped for a fresh start under the legendary Scot.
He was picked to start Dalglish’s first league game back in charge away to Blackpool but struggled and Liverpool were beaten 2-1. He was immediately cast aside — making just one substitute outing against Wigan Athletic during the rest of the season.
“Kenny is a club legend and he has that status with fans and players. I was honoured to meet him and work with him,” he says. “He gave me a chance immediately and if we had won that game, things might have been different. Kenny may have kept the same team. Those are the moments that can make a difference. Coaches form opinions and get their own impressions about what happened and it can affect a player.
“By then, the media were asking questions about whether I should leave the club and that put huge pressure on me. It felt like an unbelievable thing would need to happen for things to turn around.
“A player can’t just forget to play football like that. I played against that same Everton team when I was with Standard and we knocked them out of Europe. We were better than them.
“I played really well for the national team and showed my qualities. I didn’t forget how to play, it’s just that the circumstances were different at Liverpool. But I’ll always say that part of the responsibility for that is on me.”
With Dalglish lifting Liverpool to a sixth-placed finish and being rewarded with the job on longer-term basis, Jovanovic remained out of favour and decided to move on. He hasn’t been back to Merseyside in the nine years since he packed his bags and headed to the airport.
“After that second part of the season, I had to find a rational solution to extend my career,” he says. “If I had been 25, I would definitely have stayed and fought for my place in Liverpool, like I did always in my life and I believe I would have had success. But I was 30 and needed to play.
“Newcastle called me and I could have stayed in the Premier League but I turned them down. With all due respect towards them, if I couldn’t find my spot and leave a trace in Liverpool, I didn’t want to go one step down in England.
“I wanted to sign for a club that had winning ambitions and played in the Champions League. The Belgian league is not as strong as the Premier League, but Anderlecht is a big club too. They are called Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht. They have incredible organisation and the social status of the players who play for them is extraordinary.”
His admirers included a scriptwriter for Australian TV soap Neighbours. In an episode in late 2011, fictional character Andrew Robinson referred to Jovanovic as “one of the greatest soccer players in the world”.
“No, I didn’t hear about that. I don’t know that show,” he says with a mix of surprise and delight. “But I do know that back in 2010, I was picked by the media in an ideal team based on qualification games for the World Cup. I’m very proud of that. I don’t know exactly what parameters they used but it means a lot to me that I was chosen.”
Jovanovic certainly finished his career on a high with successive title triumphs in Belgium. He scored 24 goals in 90 games as Anderlecht won successive championships. At the age of 32, he decided to walk away from football.
“I had an option in my contract that if we won the title my contract would get extended for one more season but I decided not to use it,” he says. “I was the league MVP. I scored eight goals, that might sound modest, but I also had 14 assists in the league. They were all from open play, not set-pieces. Those numbers surprised everyone, even my closest family members.
“Before my generation, Standard had been waiting 25 years for the title and they haven’t won it since we won two in a row. Anderlecht have also been struggling. I’m not trying to imply it’s because of me, one player can never do anything alone, but I was part of a great generation at both clubs.”
He could have enjoyed a swansong in his homeland or a lucrative move to the Far East. Why did he retire relatively young? “Red Star and Partizan both wanted me in Belgrade. Radomir Antic called me to come with him to China and I had some calls from Bundesliga clubs,” he reveals. “Should I have played more? Yes, definitely. I should have played for three or four more years. I felt perfect physically. I feel great even now and I am a similar weight to when I retired seven years ago.
“Maybe I made a hasty call but the truth is I made it more because of psychological exhaustion. I had taken a lot of different paths in my career. I’d had eight surgeries.
“Your brain notices all those stresses and everything that happens to you and in the end, your brain just gives you the bill and says that it might be better to go on with life without one thing that is so important. So, I just said that’s enough.”
In the seven years since he stopped playing, Jovanovic has enjoyed the quiet life. Moving into coaching or management never appealed to him. Occasionally he works as a pundit on Serbian TV, as he did for Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League final triumph over Tottenham.
“When the team is winning, the credit goes to the players. When the team is losing, it’s the fault of the coach,” he says. “You have to take care of many different players, their characters, their private lives, it’s very hard. I don’t have that ambition. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it. I tried working as a scout but that part of football isn’t very clean with all the money involved in football.
“The beautiful thing is to watch those 22 players on the grass. All the other things that surround it are things that I, as an athlete, don’t like. I still miss playing, it’s my love. I still play with my boys and five-a-side with my friends. Sometimes Milos Krasic plays with us too. It’s even harder to play as you never stop running with five-a-side.”
Jovanovic with his three sons
Jovanovic lives in the Serbian city of Novi Sad with wife Natasa and their three sons Lazar, 13, Dusan, 12, and Milos, eight. They have moved south for the summer to their second home on the Tara mountain in the tranquil surroundings of the Tara National Park.
All three boys are in the academy at Vojvodina, the club where their father started his career. They wear the Liverpool shirts he bought them with pride and are dreaming of following in his footsteps.
“Here on Tara, we have a field with artificial grass and the conditions are awesome for them to train during the holidays with the air so clean,” he says. “Even if they don’t become professional players, the biggest benefit for us as parents is that we raised them in the sporting spirit to shape their character and to live a healthy life.
“They’re very talented and ambitious with great potential. They have good coaches and I’m giving them some advice. I told them that their motivation should be that one day they could play for one of their favourite clubs.
“My older two boys went to kindergarten in Liverpool and have some good memories from there, they remember it. Lazar loves Mo Salah and Dusan likes Gini Wijnaldum, he plays in midfield like him. My youngest, Milos, prefers Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar.”
The Jovanovics sit down together to watch Jürgen Klopp’s side in action. His sons are in awe of the fact their dad played in front of the Kop. The contrast between the club he joined in July 2010 and the club crowned Premier League champions 10 years on could hardly be greater.
“Football is a religion for the people in Liverpool and after waiting 30 years for the title I am so happy for them. They showed such loyalty and patience,” he says. “Liverpool are the biggest club in England and they have lots of fans here in Serbia. In my house, we are fans of Liverpool and we cheer for Anderlecht and Standard too.
“For me, last year Mo Salah was the best player and this year it’s been Sadio Mane. Klopp did some incredible things. First of all, he is a great man. If you want players to respect you, you have to make fair decisions and that’s what Jürgen has been doing. He’s charismatic, not a classic German who is always frowning, but he brought German discipline.
“If people from the club could send me the new, original Nike jerseys, I will let them know the kids’ sizes and I’ll pay for them of course. That would mean a lot to them. My boys are watching the games all the time and understand a lot about football. We talk about the game on the same level.
“In life, as in sport, you need some things to align and a bit of luck. Maybe their success can be compensation for all that I went through. But more than anything I want them to be happy and healthy.”
From the Atheltic