Blast from the Past no.12: Dejan Stefanovic
Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…
Portsmouth’s Great Escape from Premier League relegation in 2006 could be viewed as a somewhat tainted triumph in hindsight, given the club’s subsequent plummet down the divisions. More a delaying of disaster than a genuine escape from it.
But for those who lived it, and who went on to enjoy three more seasons of free-flowing Premier League football at Fratton Park – with an FA Cup triumph and a European adventure thrown in – it remains a treasured period in time. A dizzy seven-week spell of last-gasp victories, heroic defending and effervescent attacking in which Pompey were transformed from doomed men to heroes. And no one lived it more vividly than Dejan Stefanovic.
The centre-back was one of only two players, the other Richard Hughes, who played in both the opening and final games of that chaotic season, which was transformed when Harry Redknapp replaced Alain Perrin as manager and indulged in one of his most productive pieces of
wheeler dealing football managing.
But while Redknapp was credited with masterminding Pompey’s revival, it was Stefanovic who had triggered it. So outspoken was the club captain during the short, calamitous reign of Perrin that the Frenchman was forced out by what the newspapers of the time referred to as “player power”.
“I warned him many times, “If you don’t change you are in big trouble’,” Stefanovic later revealed of his dealings with Perrin, who dragged Pompey to the foot of the table before falling prey to a mutinous dressing room in which Stefanovic was an influential figure.
It demonstrated how far the elegant Serbian defender had come since his arrival in England more than a decade earlier. It was 1995 when Sheffield Wednesday manager David Pleat brought the promising 21-year-old to the Premiership, but the youngster seemed overawed by the experience.
“He initially looked like a fish out of water, but he grew as a player and a man quickly,” recalled one fan on the Owls Online forum.
Stefanovic slowly nailed down a regular spot in his second season at Hillsborough, but he was gone before being able to fully establish himself in the Premiership. He left the pitch in tears at the end of his final game for Wednesday, a 1-0 win against Charlton 1999, and soon found himself back in the Serbian league with his English dream seemingly shattered.
A move to Vitesse Arnhem revived Stefanovic’s career and his displays in the Dutch league caught the eye of Portsmouth, who brought him back to England for their return to the top flight after a 15-year absence. Instantly looking composed at the heart of Pompey’s defence, the 28-year-old’s second crack at the Premiership was far more successful than his first.
He formed an imposing centre-back pairing with Arjan De Zeeuw and also showed a talent at set pieces, memorably smashing home a free-kick against Birmingham in a win that moved Pompey towards safety in their first Premiership season. Stefanovic also endeared himself to the home crowd with an uncomplimentary "gesture” towards Southampton fans in a famous 4-1 win at Fratton Park that helped consign the Saints - managed at the time by Redknapp - to relegation in 2005.
Off the pitch, Portsmouth fans remember Stefanovic as a humble and approachable character, who was always the last to finish up signing autographs and could sometimes be found playing squash against local schoolchildren on his days off. “There was no ‘big time Charlie’ about Dejan,” remarked one fan on the Pompey Online website.
Still, supporters remain most indebted to Stefanovic for his role in ousting Perrin, who had alienated the squad with a gruelling training regime and a bewildering 3-3-3-1 formation.
“A brilliant player and even better, he helped to get rid of the waste of space manager Perrin,” said another Pompey fan of Stefanovic’s career.
“Dejan was classy in his first two years, promoted to captain in the third and then he helped get rid of the French loon and played a key role in our escape,” surmised a fellow supporter.
After an indifferent final season, where according to one fan “his heart was in the right place but sometimes his feet and head weren’t”, Stefanovic had spells at Fulham and Norwich, but he had left his heart on the south coast. The man from Serbia finished his career at non-league Havant and Waterloovile, 20 minutes down the road from Fratton Park. He still lives quietly in the area, waiting for Pompey to rise again while vigilantly guarding the city against Perrin’s return.
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