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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 14 December, 2018

'I learned English in school but it wasn't really the same English in Derry': from Belgrade to the Brandywell

Alex Krstic on conquering the Derry accent, the club’s mid-80s revolution and being a local sex symbol.

SWAPPING BELGRADE FOR the Bogside? Well, not quite. Alex Krstic was plying his trade for French side US Orleans when he finally gave in to a relentless Belgian football agent and signed for Derry City.

It was 1986 and the Yugoslavian striker walked into a club that was revitalised and hungry to make up for lost time.

For over a decade, football in the city had been pushed to the side. Violence and political tension led to the Brandywell being designated as a no-go area. The club, then playing in the Irish League, were caught in the middle of circumstance and forced to play home matches in Coleraine. Support dwindled. It was unsustainable. And Derry City withdrew from competing, dropping to junior football instead.

But in 1984, there was a seismic push for the club to become a member of the League of Ireland and they made their debut as a First Division side the following year with Jimbo Crossan in charge and the likes of former Manchester City attacker Dennis Tueart up front.

When Noel King arrived as player-coach, there followed a sprinkling of international flavour with South African Owen Da Gama, Brazilian Nelson Da Silva and Jose Mukendi from Zaire all joining.

Krstic was also added to the ranks, though the timing of the move was a little odd.

“It was strange,” he admits.

“My wife was pregnant and I had a few opportunities to stay in France. I was thinking there wasn’t much point in going to Ireland but I met this agent and they showed me some videos and said Derry were interested. I said, ‘Well, I’m getting married, my first child is being born…’ But I still went and signed for them.

I remember it all so clearly. I arrived in Belfast and they brought me to the Everglades, where I met Alan Harrison – who had also just signed. They had arranged for me to live in a house on the other side of the border but I needed to wait for about two or three weeks for the place to be ready. I was supposed to stay in the hotel for a little while but people were so crazy in the town and I asked the club if myself and Alan could move into a flat because fans kept on approaching us in the hotel. But straight away it just felt different.”

Krstic was immediately affected by the intensity of the local support. He’d only just joined and hadn’t even played for the team yet but it mattered little. He was one of them now.

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“Afterwards I played for other clubs and there were many fans too but in Derry it wasn’t embarrassing,” he says.

It was never too much. People were well educated. They were just nice. Never did I feel, ‘Oh, fuck’ and dread it. They were never over the top. The whole town was just absolutely crazy about soccer. The people were the total opposite of the weather. In France, it was hot and sunny. In Derry, it was raining and grey. But the people were so warm and friendly. I felt comfortable straightaway. They were really, really nice.”

When Krstic did finally get on the pitch, it pushed his profile to a stratospheric level. He struck 18 goals in 17 appearances in the 1986/87 campaign as Derry were crowned First Division champions.

Throughout the season, as the team gelled and results were good, he and his team-mates found themselves immersed in an inexplicable feel-good bubble. There was a party atmosphere in Derry. The community lost themselves in the haze of something that they’d missed so much. They were giddy with excitement and drunk on possibilities.

Krstic, like many of the team, was a celebrity, sex symbol and demigod all rolled into one. There’s a famous story about the time he went into his local cafe and one female member of staff reacted to his arrival in a pretty unique way.

“There was a girl behind the counter and she just looked up, saw it was me and then fainted,” he says, struggling to get the words out between hearty laughs.

“It was something so different. Sometimes you’d head into the shop to buy something and you’d go to pay and you’d be turned away. They’d tell you to just score a goal instead. It was really amazing and I’d never seen it before or since. It was just a crazy atmosphere. The entire city was living for the club. Sometimes we’d have five or six thousand travelling to away games and there was never any problem. It was just a big festival.”

It was reborn. A few people had been working so hard for Derry to come back. They had a good season the previous year and the fans were just delighted to see football in the city again. It was the perfect time to write a new page in the history of the club. We were so proud to play for Derry and we weren’t scared of anybody. Jim McLaughlin and Noel King made a good team and brought in new players. They came from all over the world but they were all good lads. If you don’t have a good atmosphere in the team, you can’t get good results – no matter what the quality is like. So the whole notion of the club coming back…everyone was conscious of that.”

Krstic was aware of the delicate political situation in Derry prior to his arrival but he’s quick to point out that despite the tension, he never experienced anything untoward during his time in the city.

“The Troubles was still a thing,” he says.

“People were telling me about it and the political situation. I had an idea because I always was interested in geopolitics but I certainly didn’t give my opinion on it. I was a guest in Derry. As a guest you have to say, ‘Thank you’ and not interfere. I was a sportsman and just came to play football. But I knew the situation. And it could be a little tight sometimes. Like, when I went home after training, I had to pass the checkpoint. But everyone in the city was great. They ensured that I felt good.”

After a month of being on his own, his wife and baby daughter Alexandra joined him. Krstic feels the birth of his first child was a huge reason why his form was so good on the pitch. There was a greater responsibility on his shoulders and, as a result, a focus on delivering. Also, owing to the reception from the fans, he had a huge desire to repay their kindness.

“My daughter was born and, suddenly, you’re passing from being a young man to a guy who has to feed his family,” he says.

“So I felt big pressure when Alexandra arrived. I really wanted to do well. It was an extra motivation. And I wasn’t in my country – I was somewhere else. And people were so nice to me in Derry so you wanted to give something back to them. You wanted to make them happy. And so many people were involved in football in Derry so you were motivated for every single game. When you have such a good story, there’s always many, many people involved. It’s the fans, Noel King, Jim McLaughlin, the boys I played with.”

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Throughout our conversation, Krstic talks about two things quite frequently: the Derry City supporters and the quality of the team he was a part of. There was a mix of personalities and backgrounds and languages but it all came together pretty seamlessly. And he’s keen to praise the strength of the dressing room.

“I don’t think we ever had a problem in the team,” he says.

“The first season was different because it was something brand new. We had to do well. And we were very much a team. The spirit was something special. In training, sometimes you got a little tetchy. But nothing a beer afterwards couldn’t fix. We were all good players. Kevin Mahon was a gem. Paul Carlisle, Pascal Vaudequin, Paul Doolin, John Cunningham, Liam Coyle, Felix Healy. Everybody who came, settled straightaway in the group. Players with good mentality and good character. You don’t have to like everybody but at that period, we were all friends.”

Derry City Headshots Felix Healy Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Phil Carrick Source: Phil Carrick/INPHO

I do remember I had a fight with Ray McGuinness at training one time. We were very good friends but he tackled me hard so I punched him and he punched me but he was supposed to come to my house the next day with his wife for dinner. And he still came. And that was part of it. Every training session was serious and sometimes there was tension. But you’d head for a beer afterwards and that was it.”

It’s like mayonnaise. Sometimes it doesn’t take and it’s like water. But sometimes it’s soft, smooth and tasty.”

Krstic transitioned so well that even the local accent didn’t baffle him too much, though it took him a while to properly get used to it.

“The accent is something special,” he says with a snigger.

“I learned English in school but it wasn’t really the same English. Some expressions always stick with you. ‘Alright, mucker? Alright.’ I just found it nice. It was interesting and, in fact, when I talk to some people now they say I’m speaking with an Irish accent sometimes.”

At the end of the campaign, Krstic headed for the Bundesliga and joined Second Division Saarbrucken. But he returned in 1989 as Derry basked in the glory of a domestic treble and looked forward to European football.

It was a slightly different squad under Jim McLaughlin, with the likes of Paul Doolin, Noel Larkin, Kevin Brady and Mick Neville all signing from Shamrock Rovers. Krstic acknowledges that things had changed in his absence but that a solid team chemistry remained.

Liam Coyle Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Many new players had arrived,” he says.

“But they were good men too and we had a good team. It was a little different but I enjoyed it.”

Krstic wasn’t as explosive with his goalscoring in his second spell but that had a lot to do with Liam Coyle and Jonathan Speak battling for game-time too.

Not that he holds a grudge. Krstic veers off-topic for a moment to give a glowing assessment of the mercurial Coyle, who he brought to see a specialist in France in an effort to help him with persistent knee problems.

“He was young but he was talented,” he says.

“If he didn’t have the problems with his knee, he’d have made a very, very good career. He was an intelligent footballer. But it’s not important what you achieve, really. It’s important that you finish your career with the feeling that you’ve done the absolute maximum and take pleasure in what you’ve accomplished. And Liam is so revered. He’s left something so special in the history of Derry City.”

For Derry’s famous European Cup tie with Benfica, Krstic got the nod for both legs but missed a penalty in the Stadium of Light as Derry suffered a heavy defeat.

At the end of the campaign, he headed to France and later finished his career in Portugal before becoming a well-known football agent representing clients like El Hadji Diouf and Stephane Dalmat. He currently splits his time between Serbia and France but Derry is forever at the forefront of his mind.

“I went to France, Germany, Portugal and it was fantastic but Derry was something special,” he says.

I had never seen people so friendly and nice. I’m 56 now so I don’t have reason to bullshit but I fell in love with Ireland. There was something special there. I still have very good friends there and I became a natural ambassador. I love these people. Everywhere I went people were so nice. I never had a problem anywhere. And it wasn’t because I was a footballer because sometimes people didn’t even know. I went back to Derry last October and people were still recognising me after 30 years. I wouldn’t even recognise myself, to be honest. I was very proud because that doesn’t just mean I played well for the club but that I behaved properly and people remember me as a man.”

“I was touched that they still remembered and still think of me after that amount of time. When I speak to people in Belgrade or France, I always tell them to go to Ireland. There was a TV commercial at one stage – ‘The first time you go for Ireland, the second time you go for Irish people’ or something like that. I just always thought it was perfect. It was the exact truth.”

There’s one moment that he’s particularly fond of.

“We were playing a cup game down in Cork,” he says.

“The season before Derry had been beaten and there was a lot of tension around the fixture. Richie Kelly from Radio Foyle came to my home a few days beforehand for an interview. And he was asking about my thoughts on the game and I don’t know why but I said to him, ‘Listen Richie, I know I’m going to score three goals. So, unless we concede four I don’t see how we’re going to lose’. And my wife was sitting next me with the baby and she went crazy at me. ‘Did you hear what you just said?’ She was so angry. But I scored three goals and we won the game. I was so worried beforehand – ‘Fuck, maybe I should’ve kept my mouth shut’. But, it turned out to be one of my favourite memories.”

Krstic only spent two seasons playing League of Ireland football but he remains a cult hero. He’s a figure from a different era but also so specific to Derry’s reemergence from the shadows. When local supporters wanted and needed something to get behind, Krstic and his team-mates stepped up and provided for the community. It went beyond football and it was lightning in a bottle. A chemistry experiment that worked to perfection and probably impossible to try and replicate.

“The foreign players brought something different,” he says.

“But we kept the same spirit. And that was important for the fans too. It’s one thing when you have locals loving the city and the club and the country but when you have foreigners doing the exact same, it’s something completely different. I feel that I’m like an Irish ambassador. I was back in Belgrade recently and I met two Irish guys on motorbikes. I couldn’t pass them without asking if they needed anything and I left my phone number with them. Because people were so nice to me in Ireland you feel like you have to give something back. I was so happy there and it was such a big part of my life.

We had fantastic fans, fans that loved football and who were behind us all the time. They were happy once we gave everything.”

Krstic wants to add one more thing before we finish up. He wants to say something about the players he lined up alongside.

“We had good men,” he says.

“Not just good footballers.”

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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