Olyroo toughened in fires of club v country battle

Olyroo Steven Ugarkovic has survived a torrid club versus country tug-of-war to emerge even more committed to the green and gold.

The defensive midfielder is back in the fold at Croatian outfit NK Osijek after a loan deal at HNK Gorica ended disappointingly.

Ugarkovic’s troubles began when he returned from Olyroos duty at the AFC U-22 Championships in Chinese Taipei last year.

The 20-year-old, who was a regular member of the starting 11 prior to the qualifiers started to see much less game time.

And with promotion-chasing Gorica unable to meet stadium licence regulations to play in the PRVA HNL the former second division high-flyers began sliding down the ladder.

“Before the Olyroos camp I played all three games for Gorica leading up to the AFC tournament,” Ugarkovic said.

“(But) when I went away with the team, it looked like the club wasn’t happy with my decision to leave.

“Then when I came back a political side of the club took over. There was a decision that they didn’t want to go up to the first division and things went downhill from there.

“The coach admitted to me on the last day that he was unfair towards me but it wasn’t his intention. That’s the way football is sometimes.”

Ugarkovic who played in all three Olympic qualifiers didn’t let his club experience dampen his enthusiasm for playing in the green and gold. 

The Sydney-born starlet is keen to be on the plane to Rio next year, with the Aussies needing to navigate one more qualifying tournament.

“To go to Qatar and play at the 2016 AFC U23 Asian Cup in January would be a great experience and a step forward in my career,” the former Sydney United junior said.

“For now my aim is to stay fit and healthy and just train and play as best as I can. So, if a call up comes, I am ready to go again so we can qualify for Brazil.

“Playing in the AFC Under-22 championships in Chinese Taipei was a great experience – getting the opportunity to play at the qualifiers with a great team and coaching staff.

“The results speak for themselves as a team we performed great, scoring a lot of great team goals, and only conceding one goal, which was a little disappointing after playing so well for three games.

“It was a great team performance. Personally I thought I played well but there is always room for improvement.”

Olyroos coach Aurelio Vidmar said he was pleased by the results but more impressed with the way the players bought into the national team blueprint laid down by Socceroos Coach Ange Postecoglou.

Ugarkovic agreed that the style of play was a positive for both himself and the team.

“The system is different to what I am used to here at my club, but being my second camp it was easier to adapt to what the coaches were asking from us as a team,” he said.

“The best part of the system would have to be that we tried to play football in every situation we could, which was great because as a footballer it’s much easier to play when you have the ball. 

“The main feedback by the coach Aurelio Vidmar was just to concentrate on the little things to help my game move forward.  Also a big thing he focused on was game time.”

Osijek coach Drazen Besek is a big fan of Ugarkovic’s versatility – he can play right back and across the midfield – and recently told Glas Slavonije he intends to utilise the youth international more next season.

So, after spending a good portion of last season in Croatia’s second division with HNK Gorica, Ugarkovic is hoping to start the next campaign in the Croatian topflight.

“For now I am looking to have a strong season here in Osijek,” he said.

“The door is always open to an A-League deal but I always must look at all my options. 

“My goal for this year is to play every week and help the club move forward. And with this being my last year of my contract, hopefully I can make a move to a bigger club in Europe.”

Con Stamocostas is an Australian football writer. Click here to see more of his work and check out the latest episode of his A-League Snobcast with co-host Rob Toddler.