My Perfect 10: Robert Prosinecki
The new issue of FourFourTwo is a 'Playmakers Special'. Pompey fan Steve Morgan continues our week of blogs playing homage to the game's great creative geniuses with a look back on the season the Croatian magician wowed Fratton Park...
Like many football chairmen Milan Mandaric never shirked a bold proclamation during his Portsmouth tenure. But when he described the latest arrival through the ever-revolving Fratton Park doors as a Ã¢ÂÂgift to the fansÃ¢ÂÂ, he was bang on the money.
That arrival, in August 2001, was Robert Prosinecki, once of Barcelona and Real Madrid: a man who, for one glorious season, illuminated south coast football life, his 30 league cameos putting smiles on the faces of the glum and offering hope to empty hearts.
True, in an era typified by plodding Pompey foot soldiers, anyone who could spell Ã¢ÂÂculturedÃ¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂ never mind play like it Ã¢ÂÂ tended to stand out like a sore thumb, but thatÃ¢ÂÂs not to discredit his genius. A Champions League winner with Red Star Belgrade in 1991, midfield kingpin of CroatiaÃ¢ÂÂs third-place finish in the 1998 World Cup, Prosi (not the most flattering nickname, admittedly Ã¢ÂÂ hence Ã¢ÂÂTCOÃ¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂ The Chosen One) was by now 32 and not exactly satisfying any dictionary definition of svelte.
But while chain-smoking might have made his lung-capacity temporary, his class was still clearly permanent.
We saw it first on Bank Holiday Monday against Grimsby. With the arrogance and disdain of a nobleman unable to believe heÃ¢ÂÂs landed among serfs, Prosinecki left the Mariners on the rocks.
He had a hand in all the goals in a 4-2 win Ã¢ÂÂ fizzing the ball to all corners of the park, apparently at will. Similar show-stopping performances followed over the next couple of games Ã¢ÂÂ a breathtaking 25-yard free-kick dipper the pick of the BluesÃ¢ÂÂ four-goal bunch in another Bob-inspired Fratton masterclass against Crystal Palace.
'Prosi' was always delighted to play alongside Nigel Quashie...
It couldnÃ¢ÂÂt last, of course. Once ProsineckiÃ¢ÂÂs prosaic surroundings sank in, the pitches growing heavier on those stocky legs Ã¢ÂÂ the five-star showings became as fitful as his devotion to any defensive responsibilities.
His most-glorious game Ã¢ÂÂ a sublime hat-trick against Barnsley in February Ã¢ÂÂ was the perfect microcosm of his whole whale-in-a-pond situation. Having put Pompey 3-2 ahead, a slaloming run taking out three defenders before a superb finish, his outrageous curling free-kick seemed to have the points in the bag at 4-2. Wrong, Pompey somehow conceded twice in the final six minutes, with the equaliser coming in stoppage-time.
Fratton mythology has it that an unshowered Prosinecki left the ground immediately, jostling through the disgruntled home fans, muttering Ã¢ÂÂa hat-trick wastedÃ¢ÂÂ. It was hard not to sympathise. He managed just one more goal, the following week at Sheffield United, before the campaign ended.
Pompey finishing in a then customary 17th spot that, but for him, could well have been lower. A young, beanpole of a striker called Peter Crouch, in his breakthrough season, ended with 18 goals from 37 league games Ã¢ÂÂ a huge percentage of them laid on for him on a plate by ProsineckiÃ¢ÂÂs wand of a right foot.
The following season, miraculously, given eight bottom-six finishes during the previous decade Ã¢ÂÂ ProsineckiÃ¢ÂÂs season then, was one of a relative vintage Ã¢ÂÂ Pompey were promoted to the top flight as champions. Paul Merson played the playmakerÃ¢ÂÂs role that campaign, but even the Merse at his fabulous best, couldnÃ¢ÂÂt quite take the breath away like Ã¢ÂÂTCOÃ¢ÂÂ.
Close on a decade later, as the Blues slink back into the pack, currently occupying the ChampionshipÃ¢ÂÂs basement spot, we still recall ProsineckiÃ¢ÂÂs brilliance with smiles and dazed shakes of the head. Fittingly, for one who so loved a ciggie, heÃ¢ÂÂd provided us all with some unforgettable puffs of magic.
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The 'Playmakers Special' issue of FourFourTwo is in stories throughout September 2010.