In this week’s edition of ‘Cult Heroes’, Conor Heffernan looks back at the career of former Aston Villa man Savo Milošević.
Savo Milošević, the man from Bijeljina. Bosnian born, but a Serbian legend. Born in 1973, Savo made his name in the early 90s when playing for FK Partizan where he scored an astonishing 65 goals in 98 appearances. His brilliance was soon noted by Clubs in England.
One club secured his signature. One club beat off the interest from others. One club was about to experience first hand the brilliance and bizarreness of Savo Milošević. That club was Aston Villa, the year was 1995 and the man was about to become a cult hero for the claret and blue.
Walking down the streets of Birmingham these days you’ll notice there’s not a bandanna to be seen. This wasn’t always the case. In 1995, Aston Villa fans were donning the headpiece in homage to the club’s new record signing, a striker with an eye for goal and a big reputation.
The man was Savo Milošević. He came to Birmingham aged 21, with a big reputation having won two domestic titles in two years with FK Partizan. Villa’s Manager Brian Little had shelled out a cool £3.5 million to bring Savo to England. Expectations were high. Why wouldn’t they be? Savo had scored 65 goals in 98 appearances at Partizan when he was in his early twenties. In his first interview for the club Savo said he wanted to achieve 25 goals a season for Villa. Big talk.
Coupled with this, Savo had an instant celebrity appeal. He donned a bandanna and exuded coolness. Villa’s club shop soon became bombarded with requests for Villa bandannas. Fans wanted to be like Savo. He joined a Villa revolution that saw the club also sign Mark Draper and Gareth Southgate. These players would prove vital for Villa’s health but there was just something different about Savo. He was well…glamorous.
Unfortunately things didn’t start well for Savo. It took what seemed an age for our man from Bosnia to score for Villa. The British tabloids, not known for their kind nature, were already beginning to nickname him ‘Miss-a-lot-ević’ due to his inability to find the net. Pressure mounted on Savo.
When his first goal did come the striker exploded with ecstasy. His first goal for Villa against Blackburn Rovers saw Savo sprint almost 70 yards down the touchline to celebrate with Villa’s fans. Would his goalscoring drought be over? This was on the minds of every Villa supporter. The answer was sadly no. Savo’s career at Villa was marked by long goal droughts, interspersed with moments of brilliance. In his own way Savo became a Cult Hero.
There were times during Milosevic’s Villa career that he looked capable of achieving the 25-goal target he mentioned when he first joined the club, but such times were all too infrequent for fans. Many of the complaints about Savo resembled those against Berbatov when he was at United.
Savo was seen as brilliant, but a player who didn’t try. He was seen as blessed with ability but with no effort. His skill was remarkable to say the least but coupled with dazzling tricks was an inability to make intelligent runs, to demonstrate a flare for tactics or to score with regularity. Once a goal went in though, watch out. Savo was one of those players whom one goal tended to lead to another. This includes a hat-trick against Coventry City by the way.
Despite all his perceived flaws, some fans truly loved Milošević. Compared to the Ron Saunders’ team of the early 1980s, a team not exactly known for its flare, Milošević was a breath of fresh air. He scored in twos and threes, dribbled about opponents seemingly for the fun of it and at times displayed a passion for the game few people thought capable.
At his best, he was a genius who lived for a big stage. When Villa met Leeds United in the final of the 1996 Coca-Cola Cup Milosevic shone like the star many believed him to be, pounding a left-footed screamer into John Lukic’s top corner in the final. Villa went on to win the Cup and the goal was celebrated with enthusiasm reserved for the crowning moments of cult heroes.
For every high in his career at Villa there was a low. Frequently missing the target led the newspapers in England to continually criticize Savo. A few years ago, David Hills from The Observer, ranked Savo alongside the likes of Ali Dia, Marco Boogers and Brian Pinas as one of the ten worst foreign Premier League players of all time.
It was a harsh critique but one many Villa fans agreed with. Savo was divisive to say the least. Too often Villa fans would see Milošević fluff a chance. He came in with a big price tag and the demanding punters in the Holte End at Villa were not impressed. Simply put, Milošević didn’t score enough.
By 1997 Savo’s time with Villa was coming to an end. Villa were languishing in 15th place in the Premiership and results were so poor that by February 1998 Brian Little, himself a Villa legend, was sacked. The breaking point for Savo came in a 5-0 defeat against Blackburn Rovers. Having seen their beloved club lose yet again, Villa fans were livid.
They decided to take their ire out on Milošević, still a young man who despite what people may have thought, was trying his best for the club. The Bosnian born Serbian snapped. Why should he take such abuse? Milošević spat in the direction of the crowd. The fans initially stunned soon emitted a wave of abuse unlike anything heard by Savo before. Milošević was soon on the transfer list and soon on his way out of Villa. It was a sad ending to a spell that had so much potential.
Shortly after Milošević left Villa park, David Wangerin wrote that the Serb had the odds stacked against him. Expectations had been high, perhaps too high. Milošević was dealing with his own personal problems at the time. His homeland, the Balkans, were experiencing a bloody civil war at this time. Milošević like thousands of others were concerned about their family members stuck in the middle of a war zone. Milošević needed to be protected by his club, not castigated.
Eventually Milošević was moved on to Real Zaragoza were he began to resurrect his career. Perhaps with a point to prove to his detractors, Milošević became a goalscoring revelation in Spain. By 2000 his reputation had been restored when Parma signed him for a colossal transfer fee.
That summer also saw him win the Golden Boot at the European Championships. He went on to play over 100 times for Serbia and did indeed fulfil his early promise. Sadly for fans of Villa, it just didn’t happen when he was in England. Milošević’s time in England showed flashes of brilliance but too often his inability to score left fans baffled.
Milošević is in many ways the one that got away for Villa fans. Many fans wonder what if things had been different? What if Savo had been nurtured? Would he have flourished? Other fans think what if we had spent our money on someone else? Such is the divisive nature of Savo Milošević. Long gone at Villa but never forgotten, Savo is worthy of this week’s Cult Hero moniker.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.