The summer of 1995 saw the completion of a major rebuilding job undertaken by Brian Little. Having acquired an ageing squad from predecessor Ron Atkinson, Little would begin to shape his squad whilst in the midst of a relegation fight. The likes of Earl Barrett, Ray Houghton and Shaun Teale were moved on. The exodus continued with the departure of popular strike duo Dalian Atkinson and Dean Saunders.
Younger talents such as Alan Wright and Tommy Johnson had already begun to freshen things up but the summer saw three final, and important, acquisitions: Gareth Southgate, Mark Draper, and a prolific striker who would hopefully be the missing piece of the jigsaw – the iconic Savo Milošević.
Milošević arrived for a then record breaking £3.5 million transfer fee from Partizan Belgrade. In a largely internet free era, it was up to ‘The Birmingham Mail’ to fill in the blanks on this mysterious striker. Portrayed as a bandana-wearing marksman, Birmingham soon became awash with pieces of polyester with the club badge adorned upon them. The fashion trend disappeared as quickly as it had come. After one brief sighting of the accessory, it transpired that Milošević didn’t actually wear a bandana when he played, or at any other time, after all.
It was rumoured that Little had only seen videos of his new signing and he hadn’t actually been scouted live. Yet a record of sixty-five goals in ninety-eight appearances was enough to convince all concerned that they had uncovered a real gem.
It is easy to remember Milošević as a bigger success than he actually was, although he is certainly a cult icon for the Villa faithful. Huge expectations were placed on his shoulders immediately and it is fair to say he could frustrate and excite in equal measure.
Milošević arrived as a twenty-one year old who spoke no English whatsoever. His homeland was still embroiled in a long lasting war. These were factors that were, in hindsight, not really taken into consideration when lambasting Milošević’s performances. The media quickly festooned the somewhat unfair ‘Savo Missalotevic’ moniker upon him. He was tarnished from that point onwards.
I do also feel that the club officials didn’t protect him or help him as much as they probably could have done. Back in an era where the foreign influx of players was only just really beginning to explode, I can’t help but feel that today, with the care that top players now get, Savo might have flourished and delivered on a more regular basis.
Despite a slow start, Milošević still grabbed seven goals by the turn of 1996. The problem was that he was an extremely streaky player and his goals would come in batches. Five of those seven goals came in two games against Coventry City, two at the old Highfield Road, and a superb hat-trick in front of the Holte End during December 1995.
At his best, Milošević was an absolute delight to watch. For a big man, his dribbling skills were exceptional. He would regularly embark on mazy, meandering runs across the pitch. In stark contrast to Eric Cantona’s puffed out chest and upright demeanour, Milošević often cut a hunched figure as if his confidence and talent were not befitting of an upright posture. He was not blessed with pace and his languid style of play was reminiscent of Dimitar Berbatov, as he also possessed great control of the ball.
Milošević’s moment of glory would come on March 24th 1996 at Wembley Stadium. The League Cup final against Leeds United saw the Villans in rampant mood. For Milošević in particular, it was an afternoon of redemption. Having endured a barren spell in front of goal since January, the big man had rediscovered a bit of form with a couple of goals in the league in the run up to the final. Yet, the ‘Missalotevic’ tag followed him everywhere by this point. Milošević would earn himself the ultimate reprieve in the twenty-first minute of the game. Picking the ball up midway through the Leeds half, Milošević advanced deeper. With no inkling of what would come next, his trusty left foot unleashed a pin-point twenty-five yard effort into John Lukic’s top corner. The Villa end erupted and there was a real sense of happiness that Savo Milošević had shown, on this of all stages, exactly what he was capable of.
Unfortunately, this would be as good as it would get for the Serbian during his stay at Villa Park. The 1996-97 season would again see barren spells punctuated by streaky patches of goal-scoring glory.
By the 1997-98 season, the love affair had really began to turn sour and it reached its absolute nadir in January 1998 at Ewood Park during a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Blackburn Rovers. The jeering of the still young Serb finally took its toll and Milošević aggressively spat in the direction of the travelling Villa support. There would be no coming back from such a gesture and he was promptly placed on the transfer list.
Due to that incident and his now perceived behavioural problems, Atletico Madrid would pull out of a move for Milošević. Keen to offload the striker, Aston Villa would only recoup the £3.5 million originally spent in selling him to Real Zaragoza.
Milošević found form for the Aragonese with thirty-eight league goals in seventy two-matches. This attracted the attention of Parma, at the time one of Italy’s, and Europe’s, top sides. Milošević’s stock was now at an all time high. Just a couple of years after leaving Villa, he commanded a whopping transfer fee in the region of £20 million. That is still a large fee even today. This occurred back in 2000.
Parma’s star-studded side at that point made game time difficult to come by for Milošević. After just thirty-one games and nine goals, he was loaned back to Zaragoza. This represented an unsettled period for the Serbian and further loan spells with Espanyol and Celta Vigo would follow. Despite this, Milošević would still maintain a respectable scoring ratio, averaging better than one in three.
The striker’s time in Spain ended with a three year spell at Osasuna. Again, his form was characterised by long barren runs and patches of goal-scoring form. A final hurrah in Russia with Rubin Kazan saw the club win its first ever title with Milošević scoring the decisive goal to clinch the championship.
Despite leaving Villa in such acrimonious circumstances, Milošević is still largely fondly remembered by the Villa faithful. His profligacy in front of goal coupled with his bitter departure sees him fall a long way short of being classed as a legend.
There was undoubted talent in Milošević and there is a great video compilation on YouTube of all Savo’s Villa goals, which is well worth a watch to give yourself a reminder of some of the great goals that he did notch for us. None were more glorious than that goal against Leeds United at Wembley, however, and that will live long in the memory and has clearly afforded him some credit over the years, despite the low points. Because of this, he has firmly cemented his place as a cult icon at the very least.