The following is an exclusive, edited, extract from the book ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ which has just been published in paperback and on Kindle for the first time ever.
This extract looks at the case of Bojan Djordjic, the Swedish/Serbian winger who was tipped for big things and had the talent for the big stage. So where did it all go wrong?
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Now, the extract :
United’s eyes became aware of Djordjic in an under-16 tournament in Slovakia. “We played against England and I’ve always said that you have to be good in the right games. You can be good all season but when the scouts come you’re rubbish and don’t get a contract. I think I got caught on the right game,” says Bojan. “I was invited to go to United at the end of 1998 for a week’s trial, with Kennedy Bakircioglü (who would go on to play for Ajax in a long top-level career) who plays for Hammarby in Stockholm. I remember Dave Williams and Neil Bailey telling me they wanted me to stay. I did really well. I’d had a few trials at different clubs around Europe, United were almost like my last stop on the European tour. I was so tired, I just wanted to go home. People probably think ‘How is that the case,’ but when you’ve been away from your family for so long and you have people promising things that don’t happen, you get to the place that you wanted to be first of all, and you’re so tired. When I first got there I was like, ‘What is this?’ it seemed not real. Maybe it’s because I was so out of it, but I trained like I’d been there for years.
“A few days later we had a trial game. I played with the likes of Danny Webber and Jimmy Davis. I was in midfield. I did really well and was offered a contract on my seventeenth birthday but was loaned back to my old club to see the 1998/99 season out. Sadly that meant I never got to travel to Barcelona when the entire club was there. I look at the pictures and do wish I was there but to be honest it was just one of those things.”
Djordjic made an impression throughout the club. Aged just 17, he wasn’t included in the Youth Cup, instead making more of an appearance for the reserves, and did so well in his first season that he was awarded the Jimmy Murphy Young Player Of The Year for the 1999/2000 season. “After I’d settled, I was able to really show my talent,” says Bojan. “But I have to be honest and say I wasn’t training great or properly, I wasn’t really pushing to improve myself. I’d still do things right, hit a cross or make the right pass, but there were things I just wouldn’t do. I was young and injury free, carefree, and believed in my own ability, I didn’t think that I would need to go to the gym or do things like that. Of course, you learn from your next steps, but I would only do things if I really had to. Still, I was doing well. I was called into the reserve team really early on and I was playing so well. This was a team that had plenty of first team players in it, and players that would go on to play for the first team, so I was really happy with how things were going.”
Though natural progression dictates that the next step after the reserves is getting into the first team, Bojan feels that was too simplistic a statement for that time. “Believe me, that first team was packed with world class players,” he says. “When you’re a young kid from Sweden trying to break into a team with Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Giggs in it, you know how difficult it is.” Nonetheless, he’d done remarkably well to get to the point that his performance was being recognised with such an accolade, though he very nearly never got the trophy. “When they told me I honestly thought it was a joke,” he says. “I had a flight to go back home and it was when we were playing Tottenham in the last home game of the season. There wasn’t another flight back home for two or three days and I was so homesick at that time, I’d had a great season and wanted to celebrate with my family. Then I got a phone call saying, ‘Listen Bo, you have to be there, you have to be in the tunnel at half time’. My first reaction was ‘Oh, what the fuck have I done now?’ because the gaffer had a few words with me in the recent weeks about my behaviour in training. I thought I was going to get a telling off so I’d better be there. When I arrived at Old Trafford, I was told to put my suit on and someone said I was going to get a trophy. I said ‘It’s not just for me is it?’ and then I was told what the award was and sent out to collect it. I strolled out in front of fifty thousand people standing up and applauding me. That was one of the proudest moments in my entire life even if I didn’t really acknowledge it at the time.
“Looking back, it’s something that I’m so proud of doing, something that I achieved that is now a part of history. People might wonder who I was but for me, it meant a lot. Manchester United is perhaps the greatest club ever and the team at that time was maybe the best it ever had. Maybe in the history of football only the Barcelona team from 2009 to 2012 can compare, so to have my name so close to it is something that I am really proud of achieving. Even Juan Sebastian Veron had to sit on the bench when he came so it tells you something about the quality of that team. What chance did I have with one of the best midfielders of all time sitting on the bench.”
Veron would arrive in the summer of 2001, by which time Bojan’s major chance to break through had seemingly been and gone. His strong year of 2000 continued into the pre-season of 2000/01 when he was included in the squad for the first pre-season friendly, at York City. Bojan Djordjic coming on for Ryan Giggs was probably something that should have been said a lot more over the next few years, though Bojan feels he equipped himself well in that friendly at Bootham Crescent. “I came on for about half an hour and felt like I did really well,” he says. “Yes, they were only a lower league team, but I did okay and I was obviously hoping with the way I’d progressed that I’d be seeing more of the first team.”
In that pre-season, the usual back up to Giggs, Jesper Blomqvist, suffered a knee injury that meant he would never play for the club again, strengthening the belief that Djordjic would begin to get opportunities. “I just waited for the chance. I trained hard and worked hard, I kept trying to show what I could do, but as a young player, the frustration grows. I was thinking that maybe I should train a little harder. But then you have a lot of time to yourself, and you go through all the names that are in the squad, should I just be happy to train with them? Playing at Gigg Lane for the reserves with good players at the age of 18 or 19 is still a good achievement but I was above that level already. It was an honour at the beginning but I was ready for the next step … no disrespect to the reserves, I don’t know how best to explain it but I’d almost run through what I was going to do in the game beforehand and was able to do it.”
Djordjic’s frustration could be understood. He wasn’t selected for either of the League Cup ties at Watford or Sunderland with the likes of Luke Chadwick, Jonathan Greening and Quinton Fortune being selected in front of him. To further add to his woes, the 2000/01 season was the first in the ultimately unsuccessful expanded Champions League, where teams had to qualify through two group stages before reaching the knock out rounds. It meant more games, and more “dead rubber” matches where the manager could afford to rotate. Still, Djordjic wasn’t selected.
Even when United secured the league title with five games left to play, it wasn’t until the Celtic legend Tom Boyd’s testimonial game in Glasgow after the penultimate game of the season that the Swedish forward would be back in the first team squad. There was a sense of irony about the fact that United were heavily rotating their squad in the league games yet took a full strength team for the game at Celtic Park and in front of 57,000 fans Djordjic had his most memorable moment in a United shirt. “I was happy to be selected for the game and I was warming up through the second half thinking ‘Gaffer come on, just put me on!’” says Bojan. “I wanted to play more than half an hour, the atmosphere was brilliant, then the gaffer told me to come on and I began to realise how big it was. All that noise and the opportunity to play with Scholesy and Sheringham, I was thinking ‘Oh my God’ but when I was on the pitch I just settled down and did my thing.”
His thing, it turned out, would be a pretty remarkable, exquisite effort to seal the result in United’s favour. “I came on for Giggsy and in the last couple of minutes I scored that chip to make it 2-0, and I think that opened everybody’s eyes to what I was really capable of,” he says. “Everyone just started talking about me all of a sudden, this teenager from Sweden who scored a wonder goal. It’s like I say, if that was to happen in this day, with all the attention, it would have been ten times bigger.”
It’s one thing having confidence in yourself but demonstrating the ability in such an environment is a pretty big leap. “I’ve always liked pressure, the best games I’ve played in recent years are derbies or decisive games,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to really show I can play. That was what it was like against Celtic. The keeper had come so far out and I thought the only thing I could do was chip him. I remember Butty and Silvestre coming up to congratulate me but I was like, let me go man, I want to celebrate.”
Such a finish was almost becoming Bojan’s trademark in training. “I never had the hardest shot but I was very good at lifting the ball like that, it was my thing. It came unplanned but I just did it more often than not,” he says.
There was no way that Ferguson could leave Djordjic out for the final game of the campaign. “We went down to London and when we got there he told me I was going to make my debut. I remember I couldn’t sleep in the hotel that night. I couldn’t believe it, I knew he was a man who kept his word,” he says. “It didn’t matter to me if it would be ten seconds or thirty seconds or thirty minutes, or that it was the last game of the season, I was going to pull on that shirt and give everything.”
United had lost their two games going into the last league game at Spurs, and after going behind yet again, Ferguson brought Bojan on for Denis Irwin with around quarter of an hour left. “To come on for another legend, Mr Steady Eddie, someone who had made over five hundred appearances for United, was a huge honour for me,” says Djordjic. “Just being on the bus, talking to the other guys, and being accepted. There were so many world class players there and I really felt like I belonged. That’s why when I speak about United today, I do it with so much passion, because I felt like I belonged there and understood what was required. It always amuses me to hear people have a go at me, they’ll say, ‘What do you know about United’, this will come from someone that was never at the club for a day in their lives, but at least for a while the Gaffer saw something in me and I was accepted for that. I can say that I went back to Sweden that summer very happy and excited.”
Bojan would get his second, and final, appearance for United in an infamous League Cup game at Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium which became more remembered for the fact that Paul Scholes refused to play in it rather than the pretty embarrassing 4-0 defeat. There were mitigating circumstances for the loss, however as only the day before, United had played at Anfield and so were really in no position to field their strongest side even if they had wanted to. Djordjic was named in the starting eleven and felt he did okay. “I hit the post and the bar and I thought I’d played well,” he says. “It was mostly the reserve side against a stronger Arsenal team, we might have lost by a lot but I thought we did quite well, creating a lot of chances and missing them. The Gaffer used to say to us that it didn’t matter if we lost by a lot as long as we could feel that we had done something to say we had made an impact on the game. If we at least tried to create something instead of taking the handbrake off and feeling sorry about ourselves, then it was something to take away and build on. The result was embarrassing because we were representing the club even though fans understood. I’m not going to lie, I benefitted from the crazy scheduling because otherwise I might not have played and afterwards Sheffield Wednesday said they wanted to take me for a month on loan.”
Even if Bojan’s future does include a move back to Red Star Belgrade, or anywhere else, it appears unlikely that he will fulfil that incredible potential he once exuded. “I scratch my head sometimes and maybe wonder what happened, but that was me, I liked to express myself and my feelings, I like to say when something’s wrong. Sometimes it’s better not to say anything in football, but that’s just not me,” he says. “I know people will have their opinion, and it’s not like there are a huge amount of people who can stand up and say they saw me play at my best, especially for United. I know people say that he talks about being at United but didn’t make it, but you cannot be at a club like that for the length of time I was there and not have the ability. The lowest level I played was the Second Division in Belgium for Antwerp, and when you look at the career of an average professional, that’s not bad. You can’t be at a club like Rangers or Red Star if you do not have a certain talent, but my problem was that I was in too many different environments and people would then ask questions or just assume that there was a problem. But when you get that negative reception from an early age, it’s hard to shake it off. I’ve been a television pundit in Sweden since the 2002 World Cup, so being that outspoken forms a certain opinion of me.”
At the age of 32, (editor note – at the time of writing in 2013!) though he may not quite achieve what he could and maybe should have, Bojan wants to enjoy the rest of his playing days and have a positive influence on the next generation. “I just want to play football and enjoy the game, and also try and help the kids coming through to help them on the right track,” he says. “I’d like to finish my playing career on a really good note, I feel mature and able to express myself in a way that I can play well and also influence others in a better way. Maybe when I was twenty two, I didn’t have the same head on in the future. I’d like to be a role model so that people can learn from my mistakes. People don’t have to be blessed with the best ability but as long as they’ve got the right attitude they can go a long way. I hope I could become a good coach because I’ve experienced highs and lows. I know I will always be reminded of my time at United, that I could’ve done better. I get people telling me on Twitter all the time that I was the one who should have played more, and asking me what happened.”
The other question Bojan is asked about is so frequent that he even referenced it in his “about” section on the social network – “Championship Manager Legend!” – due to his profile on the popular computer simulation game. “Everyone always says that to me. I think they thought I was made up,” he laughs. “I played that game myself and I was unbelievable. Without being big headed, I think their researchers got their work spot on, because I really did have the talent. Obviously you do get some negative comments about it, I only put the remark on my account because I thought it was funny, there’s no point really listening to the negative opinions though is there?”
The negativity that has clouded some of his career does not make Bojan reflect in a melancholy way. “I’ve had great times, happy times,” he says. “I played for United, the biggest club, and I also won trophies with clubs that I grew up supporting. I cannot put that into words, if you are part of your own team and help them win a trophy, it means more than anything. It brings the ultimate satisfaction to win something if you’re a player and a fan.”