By Les Crang
Vladimir Petrovic. Arsenal’s first big name foreign player.
What a short career he had with us in 1983. Twenty appearances and three goals. Sounds like a pretty poor career in many ways, but in 1983 Petrovic was one thing that many Arsenal fans had been missing: a marquee signing (it has been known to happen occasionally at Arsenal), an exotic player, and a player to outshine the dross (Petrovic played alongside such luminaries as Lee Chapman and was even captained at Arsenal by Peter Nicholas in one match).
As Jon Spurling put it more succinctly: "Don’t ask me to be objective about Vladimir Petrovic. His eventual influence on Arsenal was minimal in the grand scheme of things - but what memories, however brief."
In the pantheon of Arsenal mavericks in the modern era I’d put him next to Reyes. Frustrating, but both players were a delight to watch on song and also both left before their time.
Rumours of Terry Neill finally spending money on a foreigner had surfaced prior to the 1982 World Cup. The Times reported on August 7, 1982 that: "Footballer Vladimir Petrovic, the captain of Red Star Belgrade, cannot join Arsenal because of Yugoslav football federation regulations which stipulate that no players can leave to play abroad before the calendar year in which they become 28. Petrovic is 28 next year. His appeal has, surprisingly, been refused."
But what was Vladimir Petrovic like as a player? Who was he there to replace? And why the failure?
Petrovic was a 28-year-old Yugoslavian international midfielder. He had played for Red Star Belgrade, winning five championships and six FA Cups in Yugoslavia. He also played 34 times for the Yugoslavian international team.
A playmaker but right-sided, who was seen as a replacement for Liam Brady. He was 5 feet 9 and weighed 10 stone. Unlike Liam Brady, one can see two problems already. Liam Brady, wasn’t called ‘Chippy’ for his technique but for his love of chips, which gave him his ‘rounded physique’. Having that extra weight also meant Brady would, to use the English euphemism, ‘put his foot in’. Two things poor Petrovic wasn’t made for.
To underline the point, whereas Brady was called 'Chippy', the Serbian nickname for Petrovic is ‘Pigeon’. An English game in the 1980s which consisted of hatchet men like Norman Whiteside and Graham Souness, would enjoy kicking lumps out of this diminutive character.
Neill had been after a foreign player for many years. In his biography 'Revelations of a Football Manager', Neill discusses how he wanted to sign Cruyff at Tottenham. Also, while at Arsenal he’d tried (and failed) to sign Maradona, Jesper Olsen and a young Ruud Gullit.
This was a period when foreign players were influencing and entering the game (for example the two Argentinians at the ‘other north London club’, Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijsen at Ipswich and that permed delight of the 1980s, Craig Johnston at Liverpool). The colour and skill that foreign players brought could also add something to the gate receipts. Something Arsenal certainly needed during the 1980s with attendances often averaging just 18,000.
Neill, in his book, discussed the transfer of Petrovic at some length, saying after 1982 they’d hope to sign him. He’d seen Petrovic play in a friendly for Red Star while managing Tottenham and in a European game in 1981 that Arsenal lost.
Neill wrote that, after the dismal World Cup, the Yugoslavs had refused Petrovic the opportunity to move to the west despite joining the team during its pre-season tour: "The news about Petrovic adversely affected morale of the whole [pre-season tour] part in Rotterdam. Vladimir had quickly made himself popular with the other players and they wanted to play alongside him… Vladimir returned to Red Star, a sad and disillusioned young man."
Petrovic said of the problems in joining in the summer of 1982 that:
"I’d been training with the Arsenal players that summer  anyway, but to all intents purposes the deal was dead. I returned to Red Star with a heavy heart. Then, just as the winter took hold, Red Star said, “You can go to Arsenal”. I was thrilled but in hindsight it was a bit rushed."
When Petrovic did finally join Arsenal it was a loan deal until the end of the season for £40,000 with an option to buy in the summer. Vladimir made his debut on the New Year's Day 1983, in a 2-1 win. Spurling wrote of it: "His debut performance against Swansea was a sublime body swerve to set up Woodcock and made even [Alan] Sunderland applaud."
Even in the first minute of playing though, Vladimir later said he felt he might not last, even with the fans shouting ‘Vladi, Vladi’. He said of his debut: "Not a minute had gone before one of their big defenders went right through my ankle. My English wasn’t very good at all back then but I think he said ‘Welcome to England’."
His next game though came against the champions elect Liverpool (that long ago?). Playing at Anfield, Petrovic was silenced by the dubious skills of Sammy Lee and Graham Souness. Arsenal lost 3-1 and The Times politely described his display as ‘tidy but quiet’. Terry Neill and Don Howe saw something else:
"On my way back I started to have doubts about his ability to play 50 or 60 matches a season in a hurly-burly of the English league season."
Petrovic's next match was at Highbury against Stoke City. A game remembered for a cracking free kick from the new signing. The Times described his performance like this:
"Not a minute had gone before one of their big defenders went right through my ankle. My English wasn’t very good at all back then but I think he said ‘Welcome to England’"
"Petrovic, Yugoslavia’s captain during the World Cup, is filling a gap that Terry Neill admits has existed for several years on the right of Arsenal’s creative department. His ideas are already beginning to appear as prominently as Rix’s on the left. On Saturday at Highbury, Petrovic provided Rix with the chance to give Arsenal an early lead over Stoke City. He scored the second himself from a free-kick, and his cross confused Stoke’s defence and allowed Hollins to add the third from the penalty spot. Petrovic is clearly no longer a stranger."
Spurling described it thus: "Vladi's sizzling free-kick against Stoke in a 3-0 win was a throwback to the era of Charlie George in terms of wild celebrations and the adoration of him that the goal provoked."
In a season in which Petrovic would play in two cup semi-finals, he was also welcomed to some of the dross that Arsenal could often play. In the first leg of the Milk Cup semi-final at Highbury against United, Arsenal lost 4-2. That was bad enough but the Gunners were 4-0 down with 80 minutes on the clock. Meanwhile, the original Van Persie, Frank Stapleton, was flicking his fingers at the home supporters after scoring for the Mancs. Arsenal were so woeful that even Peter Nicholas scored.
After losing the second leg at Old Trafford 2-1, Arsenal had two weeks off before their next match - an FA Cup quarter-final against Aston Villa at Highbury with Vladi on fire. Spurling wrote: "His finest hour in an Arsenal shirt arrived in the 1983 quarter-final with Aston Villa. Petrovic ran the show. Then came the Vladi moment, the only concrete evidence he ever played for Arsenal - a sublime one-two with Peter Nicholas put him through with only Nigel Spink to beat. He drew back his right foot and the ball slammed against the post before skidding into the net.
But how do you cap a performance like that? Well, Vladi didn’t. A season with two semi-finals ended with nothing except mid-table mediocrity. Vladi played up to the end of the season. In the West Ham game, Arsenal ran out 3-1 winners, with Petrovic heavily involved. Spurling noted:
"Vladi’s joyful face, running towards 41,000 fans on that sunny Highbury day with arms aloft is one of the 80s' best images – up there with Mickey T’s gymnastics at Anfield in 1989."
His final appearance ended in a 2-1 defeat to Villa and then the news broke that Petrovic would be leaving for Belgian side Antwerp.
So why the adoration of Petrovic and his ultimate failure?
The adoration was easy to see. Petrovic had touch and vision. Stewart Robson said of him: "I would argue that he was probably the most talented player I’ve ever played alongside. He was often outmuscled but I think he’d have flourished in today’s climate."
"I had fantastic letters when I left - ones that made me cry, you know. One said ‘maybe one day we’ll watch an Arsenal team where skilful players flourish, and where we accept that we can learn from foreign players"
Petrovic said his reason for failing at Arsenal was, "I don’t chase back, I create. English football too quick, there is no time to think. When I think, I get kicked."
For me, the main reason for Petrovic's ‘failure’ was that he wasn't Liam Brady. The shadow he left could never be forgotten. Nick Hornby wrote of his departure in Fever Pitch: "After Brady had gone Arsenal tried out a string of midfielders, some of them were competent, some not, all of them doomed by the fact they weren’t the person they were trying to replace.
My view of Petrovic was that he was a man before his time. He was not about size and hard tackles. His diminutive figure, his fear of tackling or tracking back were exactly what we didn’t have. Petrovic was a breath of fresh air.
Being ‘a luxury player’, as the xenophobic press called the foreign players with skill, he never stood a chance. He was also at the disadvantage of being Liam Brady’s replacement. Once Brady left, all midfielders were derided. Losing Brady, in my opinion, was bigger than losing Viera, Henry, Cesc or Pires. The only player that comes near him in terms of greatness and impact (for me) is Dennis Bergkamp.
Petrovic later said: "I had fantastic letters when I left - ones that made me cry, you know. One said ‘maybe one day we’ll watch an Arsenal team where skilful players flourish, and where we accept that we can learn from foreign players. Maybe one day Arsenal fans will enjoy watching a skilful team, rather than a bunch of runners and kickers."
That day did eventually come.
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