Walk into any pub outside any English ground and ask the question “What did you think of Predrag Radosavljevic?” and the response you will no doubt get will be something like; “Who?”
Ask the same question about ‘Preki’ and you’re likely to be answered with the question; “Didn’t he play for Everton and ermm… Was it Pompey?”
Now ask the same question of our friends across ‘The Pond’, and you are likely to be bombarded with facts and figures about one of America’s greatest ‘Soccer’ players.
So why is it that Serbian born Preki didn’t become a household name in England?
Has our standard of football been that much better than our American counterparts in the past 15 years? Did Preki not fit the English style of play? Was it quite simply that he wasn’t good enough? Or, did we release a player just about to reach his peak a little too early? Let’s take a closer look at his career.
Home Town Boy
Preki turned pro at 20 but spent most of his first two years warming the bench of his hometown club Red Star Belgrade as they did battle for the league title with fierce rivals Partizan.
Although first team opportunities were limited his cultured left foot and tenacity to find space in tight situations was enough to convince ex-Arsenal defender Bob McNab to offer him a job in the American Major Indoor Soccer League
America – The First Time
Preki moved to the States and was an instant hit. For 7 years he took the MISL by storm, but when the league folded in 1992 he had to leave his impressive 332 goal tally and his 7 consecutive ‘all-star team’ nominations behind and start again. He accepted a trial with Howard Kendall’s Everton and when offered a contract decided to take his chances in the newly formed English Premier League.
Preki joined Everton during difficult times and in the two seasons he was at Goodison played for 3 different managers and often found that his type of play wasn’t always appreciated or required. His indoor style meant he was accustomed to knocking the ball around and keeping it on the floor rather than playing the long ball that the Toffees deployed at the time. From the outside it appeared that the MISL goal machine couldn’t adapt to either the outdoor game or English football in general and in his 2 seasons at Goodison he managed just 4 goals.
In July 1994 Preki dropped down a league and signed for Jim Smith’s Pompey in what some believed was a move to try and get his goal scoring ways back to what they were in the States. Unfortunately, no sooner had he signed than he had broken his arm in freak pre-season training accident, which ruled him out until the September. Preki never re-discovered his ‘stateside’ scoring prowess for Pompey but that didn’t stop him becoming a firm favourite with the Fratton Faithful. His crowd pleasing ball skills and telepathic ability to swap flanks with Paul Hall made him a really exciting player to watch and nobody, other than him, ever quite knew what he was going to do next.
Although he only managed 5 goals and 40 games for Pompey those that saw him play with remember the frequency of which he fizzed a ball just wide or ‘rattled one’ against the crossbar or a post.
For most, Preki’s finest moments were his scintillating display which helped a poor, desperately in need of points, Pompey destroy Barnsley 3-0 between Christmas and New Year followed five days later by a inspired performance and what must have been the ‘goal of the season’ as he cut in from the right and from the edge of the penalty area left the keeper helpless, to send promotion hopefuls Bolton crashing out of the FA Cup.
Whether it was the ‘official’ story of his American wife having to return home for work reasons or the ‘unofficial’ story of his work permit being cancelled or even word of a new outdoor league being established that led to Preki being abruptly ‘released on a free’ in the summer of 1995 we will never know, but his departure at the end of the season was certainly Pompey’s loss and to make things worse America was about to be taken by storm for a second time.
America – Again!
Upon his return to the States Preki signed for the San Jose Grizzles until he contracted to the Kansas City Wizards for the inaugural season of the MLS in 1996
In two spells for the Wizards, covering nine of the ten seasons before his retirement, Preki became one of the most prolific attacking players in MLS history and remains to this day the only player to have won the MLS’ MVP and Scoring Champion Awards twice.
Having gained U.S. citizenship Preki also represented the U.S. 28 times including 2 appearances at the 1998 FIFA World Cup (one against his native Yugoslavia), but it was his long-range left-footed strike against Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup that provided the Americans’ with their only ever victory over Brazil that he’ll probably be best remembered for on the international stage.
At 42, he retired following the 2005 season, but not before he went out in style – scoring a goal in the last minute of his final game. At the end of the season he was elected into the MLS All-Time Best XI – Something special even by American ‘Soccer’ standards.
In the 3 years since his retirement Preki has turned his hand to coaching and although still considered a novice by some, was awarded the MLS Coach of the Year in his first full season at Chivas after leading them to the best league finish in the club’s history.
So there you have it, the career of one of the most celebrated players in MLS history. It still baffles me why Preki never really cracked it in England; maybe he didn’t give himself long enough, maybe the English game really is that much harder. Whatever the reason I would still group Preki together with the likes of Prosinecki, D’Alessandro and Merson as being one of the most naturally gifted players to have graced the Fratton Park turf in the past 15 years.
And finally…a footnote
As an interesting addition to this article there is some credit in the belief that Preki is in part responsible for where Pompey are today.
The story goes that Pompey Director David Deacon (son of the former owner John) first met Mandaric when he came to Fratton to watch his fellow countryman play. Apparently Milan was on the look out for an English club to own and expressed an interest in buying Pompey. At the time Deacon did not believe the moment was right and dissuaded him but over the next five years used Preki as a go-between to retain links with Milan and gradually nurtured the relationship.
When the club went into administration Deacon apparently contacted Preki and told him to inform Milan about the situation, and advise him that it now could be the time to buy. The rest, as they say is history. With Milan came Redknapp and Storrie, and with them the Premiership and the FA Cup. Who knows what else is achievable?
All made possible by a Director who kept a contact close and a little Serb with a cultured left foot.
Nice one Preki… We thank you.
Written by Chix.
The views within this article are the views of the individual who wrote and submitted this piece, sometimes solely theirs. They are not necessarily shared by the Vital Pompey Site Journalists.
For all the previous ‘He Played For Them Too You Know!‘ articles click here