Image: Melbourne Knights
The arrival of former Croatian international Aljosa Asanovic to the Melbourne Knights managerial hot seat is a major statement of intent from a club determined to reclaim its place as one of Victorian football’s powerhouse forces.
The 51-year-old has 65 international caps to his name and was a star performer for the Croatian national team during their debut World Cup appearance in France 1998, where the newly independent nation finished third.
At club level, he is a legend of Dalmatian giant Hajduk Split, played in the French, Italian and Spanish top flight, and produced moments of spellbinding brilliance for Derby County during his 18-month stint in the Premier League in the mid-90s.
A player of exceptional technical quality, he spent a month in Australia in 2001 where he featured four times for Sydney United in the old national league.
A crucial component of Hajduk’s run to the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 1995, he has been coached by Rafael Benitez and Croatian football royalty in Josip Skoblar, Boro Primorac, Ciro Blazevic, Mirko Jozic and former teammate and good friend Slaven Bilic.
The former Panathinaikos midfielder spent six years assisting Bilic for the Croatian national team between 2006 and 2012, a stint which coincided with the Vatreni’s run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2008, and included a memorable 3-2 win over England at Wembley in qualifying which effectively ended Steve Maclaren’s tenure in charge of the Three Lions.
Following Euro 2012, he followed Bilic to Russia as assistant of Lokomotiv Moscow and briefly served as technical director of Slovak top tier side Dunajska Streda in 2015.
While Asanovic’s appointment at Somers Street Stadium is his first senior managerial role, there is no coach in the country right now who boasts the footballing pedigree of the Croat, who will be assisted by former teammate and ex-international Dean Racunica in the dugout.
Yet one must wonder if such an arrangement would have been possible had the Knights not beaten sister club Dandenong City and secured their top-flight status in a nervy play-off game at Lakeside Stadium last month, a result made possible by Kym Harris’s timely hat-trick.
2017 proved to be a torrid season for the 2014 Dockerty Cup winners, who had 12 months earlier returned to the national spotlight after reaching the FFA Cup Round of 16.
However an extensive player turnover, coaching instability and poor run of form saw the club formerly known as Croatia finish 12th, having collected 24 points from 26 league games.
Changes were needed to avoid a repeat in 2018 and a presidential change proved to be the catalyst for Asanovic’s arrival in Australia, news which has been music to the ears of Knights fans who have been waiting for some good news out of Somers Street.
It is hoped the appointment of such an esteemed Croatian football figure will see the club become the destination of choice for many, particularly those who have departed the Knights in recent years for the lure of ambitious and professional environments elsewhere.
Bentleigh Greens duo Stipo Andrijasevic and Nick Glavan are rumoured to be making a return to the club after injury-plagued campaigns at Kingston Heath, while a rise in matchday attendances, season memberships and sponsorship could follow too.
Nonetheless the Asanovic appointment signifies a return to the past for the Knights who recruited the likes of Stjepan Lamza, Joe Biskic and Zeljko Adzic as well as coaches Domagoj Kapetanovic and Mirko Bazic from their homelands – at a time when it occupied a more commanding position within Australian football.
While the vast changes of last two decades have pushed the club into a state of marginalisation, there is hope that yesterday’s news will commence a new era of prominence for one of Australian football’s most storied football institutes.
In conjunction with many of the infrastructural improvements to be implemented at North Sunshine, optimism has reignited that the Knights will move into the new year as a force under the tutelage of a football legend whose football education is second to none.