x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Craven Cottage provides a welcome home for Mladen Petric

The itinerant Croatian striker has happilyy settled into London life with former Hamburg manager Martin Jol, writes Ian Hawkey .

Mladen Petric scored twice and set up one in his debut for Fulham in the 5-0 rout of Norwich City.
Mladen Petric scored twice and set up one in his debut for Fulham in the 5-0 rout of Norwich City.

On the last weekend of the 2011/12 German season, 17 minutes from full time, the tears began to flow.

Mladen Petric had not marked his final home game for Hamburg with a 39th Bundesliga goal for his club, but he had battled his way through a nervous afternoon, kept up the pressure on the visitors from Mainz and been there for the relief-filled moment of avoiding relegation. He would leave a Hamburg that were still in the top flight of German football.

After the referee blew the final whistle on a 0-0 draw, the Croatian was back on the field with his young daughter. He wore a T-shirt that thanked the fans for their support over four largely happy years.

Petric's goals, scored at a rate of just under one every two appearance, had made him a popular footballer in Hamburg and, given that the team have begun this season again at the lower end of the table, there are still questions about why he was allowed to leave.

Those questions were being muttered again, sharply, when, at his new club, Fulham, the 31 year old made an emphatic first impression on the Premier League. His first game would be a 5-0 home win, against Norwich City, Petric's contribution two goals, one a spectacular free kick and an assist, the pass that invited another Fulham debutant Alexander Kacaniklic to get off the mark.

Petric joined Fulham on a free transfer, Hamburg having been reluctant to extend his deal there, keener to promote younger footballers. Petric spoke of his disappointment at departing, but knew there would be a lively market for him elsewhere.

Basel, who reached the knockout stage of the last Champions League, were enthusiastic about recruiting him and the chance to go to Switzerland had considerable appeal. Petric had spent most of his youth and early career there.

In that he is a child of his time. He was born in Bosnia, to Croat parents, but they left the Balkans as the region began to move towards civil strife, emigrating, like many, to Switzerland to build new lives.

By the time Petric was entering his teens his talent as a footballer was being encouraged by his parents and noted by the Swiss Football Association. He was even capped at youth level by his adopted country.

He still felt Croatian, and, having watched aged 15 the nascent Croatia national team, led by his idol Davor Suker, perform at Euro 96 and then finish third at the 1998 World Cup, he was happy to accept a call-up to their Under 21s and he became a full international at 20.

His club career took a step up at Grasshopper, in Zurich, playing just off the forward line, admired for his technique. He joined Basel in 2004, an unexpected move given that he had set fire to a Basel scarf during celebrations of Grasshopper's Swiss title 12 months earlier. Basel supporters forgave once he began scoring goals, many of them spectacular and from distance, in their jersey.

He would be the Swiss league's leading scorer in the 2006/07 season. He also holds the distinction of having saved a penalty for Basel in a Uefa Cup tie. He had to put on the goalkeeper's jersey after Basel, who had already used three substitutes, lost their keeper to a red card against French club Nancy.

His versatility as an attacking footballer was already being commended by that stage. When Borussia Dortmund brought him into the Bundesliga, they saw him as an offensive midfielder, able to operate from wide positions or as a No 10. They soon appreciated his uses at the front of the attack, though.

"He's not always the most natural finisher but he knows where the goal is," Slaven Bilic, the former Croatia national coach, once said.

One night at Wembley Stadium, appearing as a substitute for Bilic's Croatia, he certainly had that knack. Petric became an important name in English football culture in late 2007 as the scorer of the goal that knocked England out of contention for Euro 2008, a long-range winner in a 3-2 qualifying victory for his country.

He described that as his proudest moment as a footballer. But with the national team he has often known frustration, omitted from the squads that went to two World Cups - 2002 and 2006 - and from the parties named for two European championship finals, 2004 and 2012. He felt angry with Bilic for not taking him to Ukraine and Poland.

He has a better relationship with Martin Jol, who coached him at Hamburg for a period and persuaded him to join Fulham.

"The manager knows what he is getting with me," Petric told the Hamburger Abendblatt, "and I think I should fit in well with the system he wants to play at Fulham. There's a lot of quality when you look around their squad."

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