Petric: Fulham’s unglamorous, yet effective signing
Mladen Petric was lucky. Fulham’s new signing is the second son in his family and if he had been the first he almost certainly wouldn’t have become a footballer. It’s said that at an early age his elder brother Josip looked the better player, but his father distrusted sport as a profession and insisted on him gaining an education. Josip went on to work as a mechanic with his father in the Audi factory in Neuenhof, the Swiss town where Mladen grew up.
Petric was born in Dubrave, Bosnia, on 1 January 1981 – meaning, as he has always been quick to point out, that he shares a birthday with Davor Suker, whose status as Croatia’s greatest striker remains beyond dispute – and emigrated to Switzerland when he was two. The Fulham forward even represented his adopted home at Under-16 level, but insists he has always felt a Croat.
Yet despite making his international debut in South Korea in November 2001, he must have had his doubts about the wisdom of his choice. Petric missed out on the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and had won just seven caps when he was recalled by Slaven Bilic, as the new Croatia coach shifted away from the very static 3-4-1-2 formation employed by previous manager Zlatko Kranjcar to a more fluid system.
Petric was the ideal forward for that. “He’s strong in the air and he has a great feeling for the game,” Bilic said. “He’s patient, strong on the ball and a very modern player. He’s not a classic finisher, but he knows how to score and that’s what’s important.”
He could hold the ball up and win headers but he was also comfortable drifting back into midfield and out to the flanks – as you’d expect from a player who began his career as a midfielder. At Basel, in fact, for whom he played 72 matches between 2004 and 2007, the media and fans called him ‘Supertechniker’ (super technician).
That is perhaps best seen in his long-range shooting. England felt the full force of that in the infamous 3-2 defeat to Croatia at Wembley that cost them their place at Euro 2008 – it was Petric’s 25-yard shot that gave Croatia the lead again after England had come from two down to draw level. Fulham have also felt the full force of his left foot: he scored a superb free-kick for Hamburg at Craven Cottage in the Europa League semi-final in 2010.
Petric, who has signed for Fulham after four years with the German club, is presumably seen as a replacement for Pavel Pogrebnyak – who was Bobby Zamora’s replacement – in a deal that makes perfect sense. Pogrebnyak had a fine start to his loan spell at Craven Cottage last season and ended up with eight goals in 12 games but, although he does occasionally have purple patches, he has never been a consistent player.
At his best, Pogrebnyak can look unstoppable, a powerful presence who can hold the ball up and strike it as well as anybody. The problem is that on other days he bumbles about as though he’s never seen a football before, as capable of missing from six yards as he was unstoppable from 20 a week earlier. Petric is more mobile, offers a similar level of aerial ability and is a far better technician.
At 31 he’s not going to help bring down the average age of the squad, a stated goal of the club, but as a free transfer the Fulham boss, Martin Jol, who coached him at Hamburg, evidently decided he was too much of a bargain to pass up. He’s not going to be prolific and age may restrict how many games he can play, but Petric is versatile and should still be able to start 20 or so games a season. He may not be a glamorous signing, but he ought to be an effective one.
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