Image: Con Deves
For a while it seemed as if Velibor Mitrovic’s career would never really take off. A prodigious teenager who enjoyed a stint with the illustrious Partizan Youth Academy, the attacking midfielder’s career in Australia had yet to reach the heights many predicted of him in his formative years.
Now 25, he enters the so-called prime of any footballer’s career and looks to have finally established himself as a key player in Victoria’s top flight.
Four goals in City’s opening five league games has him sitting alongside Alex Caniglia and Davey van’t Schip as the top of the NPL goalscoring charts and on the cusp of reaching half a century of league goals in Kingston colours.
While his opening strike in Monday’s thrilling 3-2 victory over Hume City was his first from open play, no one can claim to deny his importance and influence in the dressing room, with Mitrovic also adding a classy assist to his name to set up Damian Iaconis later in the half.
In a twist of fate, the playmaker saved his performance of the campaign against the team of his former manager Dean Hennessey who handed the then 17-year-old his senior debut with the Bentleigh Greens in 2009 before later coaching him at Southern Stars.
Fast forward to present day and Mitrovic is flying high with the 2016 NPL2 Champions who sit third on the league standings after five games and are yet to be defeated, their latter two fixtures seeing the youthful outfit claim all three points against more illustrious and experienced opponents with their influential trequartista at the heart of both victories.
“This is the perfect start to the season, not just for me but also the team. Everyone has worked really hard since pre-season began and that has shown in the first five games where we have done well as a team,” he noted.
“Although we need to do a bit more work defensively, as in this league you get punished for the mistakes you make and you saw that tonight with the two goals Hume scored, but we came back again and it is a great start for the team,” Mitrovic added.
Having helped Bentleigh earn promotion to the top flight, the talented youngster found his first-team opportunities restricted the following year under new coach Goran Lozanovski and promptly joined former junior club Springvale mid-way through the year.
Mitrovic once more earned promotion to the top flight with the White Eagles but elected to re-join Hennessey, who was then at the helm of ambitious State League One club Southern Stars.
He featured 19 times for the Dingley-based outfit, scoring twice, however after losing his starting place in the second half of the campaign decided not to remain at the club for their top-tier venture, instead electing to sign for State League Two outfit Kingston.
While Welsh-born Hennessey was determined to keep the attacking midfielder for the 2012 campaign, a desire for regular first-team opportunities led Mitrovic to The Grange Reserve.
Determined to now prove his worth in the state’s premier football competition, he also expressed his gratitude to his former mentor, whom he exchanged pleasantries with on Monday evening.
“I’ve always wanted to play in the top flight against the best players and show that I can play there as well. I have gotten there and am now determined to show my best,” he said.
“I’ve always had good memories of Deano as he was the first coach who gave me the opportunity to play senior football and I took that opportunity and was always thankful for what he did for me. I knew it was always going to be tough tonight as he is a very good coach but we had a good run against them.”
A noteworthy 17 goals in 24 league games for Kingston saw Mitrovic lead his team’s promotion push, with the midfielder proving to be the match-winner on a handful of occasions as his goals catapulted City into the top flight for the first time in a decade.
However, the momentous game which took Tolios’ outfit up proved to be one to forget for Mitrovic, who saw his season end in the worst possible fashion when a seemingly innocuous incident in the first half resulted in a horrific facial injury which saw the 2010 Hellenic Cup winner spend the next few days in hospital.
The injury was similar to the one suffered by former Essendon captain James Hird in 2002 with several broken bones in the face leaving the technically gifted #10 a notable absentee from Kingston’s promotion celebrations.
“It was very disappointing as you play the whole season and then it comes down to the last game and obviously you want that reward in the end to celebrate with the lads. Unfortunately that didn’t happen with me but that’s football and you move on and focus on achieving bigger and better things next year.”
After three successful seasons at Clayton South, Mitrovic enjoyed a season-long European odyssey before returning to Melbourne and featuring for State League One side Langwarrin under Gus Macleod, having missed the NPL transfer deadline.
Spending his 2015-16 pre-season with South Melbourne, Mitrovic was offered a contract with the league heavyweights after some impressive friendly performances but once more knocked back the offer to play in the NPL.
“The main motivator behind that decision was the fact that I was coming back from injury and just wanted to play and get my game back up. There was no better way to do than at Kingston where I’m now entering my fifth season here, so in the end it was a good decision on my half which has shown.”
That injury was an unfortunate bout of osteitis pubis, which restricted his European adventure after a solitary season in the Bosnian top flight, where he featured for Mladost Velika Obarska.
The Balkan league was once described by Real Madrid superstar Luka Modric as the competition which matured and strengthened him the most, with its physical and uncompromising nature testing many throughout the years.
“Bosnia was an eye-opening experience,” Mitrovic said. “It is a lot different to what it is here and football is played differently there. It is very physical over there as it is here, and I myself am more of a technical player. Although I saw myself playing there it was a very different league compared to here, but once you’re in that environment you get used to it and overall it was a good experience.”
After the completion of a relatively successful season, Mitrovic’s performances caught the eye of Slovakian top-flight outfit Spartak Trnava, although his injury prevented him putting pen to paper and continuing his stint on the continent.
“There were a few reasons I didn’t join Spartak, the main one being my injury at the time and I couldn’t see myself getting any treatment there. I was stuck in a difficult situation as I had to come back and do the treatment here and the opportunity was lost after I had done that, so there was not much I could do.”
While still harbouring ambitions to play professionally either in Europe or at home, Mitrovic’s immediate focus is on ensuring Kingston’s impressive start to the campaign isn’t short-lived. Having finally arrived at this level, he is determined to keep pushing on and improving as his stocks begin to rise once more.
Mitrovic has been a lynchpin at the heart of City’s exciting and exuberant performances so far this term and will look to continue that when the season resumes following this week’s FFA Cup action.