Mike Pejić The original Serb Soccer Star

 

Today the Premiership is littered with Serbian football talent, as are the top leagues across Europe. The modern Serb invasion started much earlier than you might think, way back in the 60s and 70s, when a breed of footballers like Steve Ogrizović, Milija Aleksić and John Lukić graced the British game. Interestingly, they were actually all born in the UK but paved the way for the Nemanja Vidić’s and Bane Ivanovićs of today. Most prominent of that generation was a man whose hard tackling and energetic tenacity made him a top flight full back for Stoke City, Everton and Aston Villa. He was a League Cup Winner and was called up for his England full international debut by the world cup winner Sir Alf Ramsey. He is Mike Pejić.

Today Mike is an experienced and respected youth team coach and part of Roy Keane’s management team at Ipswich Town. At the Ipswich training ground I sit across a table from a fit 60 year old man whose face bears the lines of a lifetime in football and which lights up with passion when asked about has favourite subject.

Britić: You are almost certainly the only Serb ever to play full international football for England. We all have stories about how we, our parents or grandparents came to these shores, what’s yours?

“My father Milovan is from a small farming community, Vrgudinac, in southern Serbia. He left during WWII and came here via Italy. After a spell in Cambridgeshire he moved to Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire to work as a miner.

“He met and married my mother Doreen (a local girl) and I was born in the small village of Chesterton, just north of Stoke-on-Trent in 1950. They had my brother Mel nine years later.”

Britić: Growing up were you aware of your Serbian heritage?

“Not really until I was in my teens, but my father is very patriotic and I always remember the Christmas celebrations and going down to Worcester every year for big get-togethers. King Petar was there and there would be folk dancing, singing and national costumes. We would have parties at home with my father’s friends, so I picked up some of the language. My father still sees some of his old friends.”

Britić: When did you first think that you might have a future in football?

“I got into my school team a year before my time and became captain. Then I played for the district team. That was all I really wanted to do - my school work was not too clever.

“In my last year at school, aged 14, my dad took me down to the Stoke City ground and asked if I could train with them. The first team trainer was also training the amateurs at night and he said I could join in. They were 19 and 20 years old and I did some track work with them and then played a game under the back of the stands on the concrete. The trainer said to my dad that I could keep coming to the sessions. When I left school at 15, I thought I was going to be taken on as an apprentice … but they didn’t sign me.”

“I still carried on doing the training and at the end of the season the amateurs played a trial game with about seventy players. After the game they told me they would like to sign me on as an apprentice. By the end of my apprenticeship year I started to get into the B team.”

Britić: At that time were you established as a left back?

“No I was a winger. I was a wide player and played on both sides of the pitch. I played a youth cup game against West Bromwich Albion. Hughie Reed was a first team player for WBA and I played him out of the game, and after that game Stoke signed me pro.”

Britić: So 1967 aged 17 you were a professional footballer and still not playing in your best position?

“Yes, during the next season I made my debut in the reserves. In a practice match they tried me at left back. We drew 0-0 and again I did OK. Soon I became established in the reserves.”

Britić: How did you break into the first team and manage to dislodge Alex Elder the experienced Irish international?

“During the 1968-69 season, one day after a short morning training session, the manager told me to go home and get my things and travel with the first team party to London for an evening game against West Ham. I rushed home and made it to the railway station just in time. We arrived at the Russell Hotel, had a nap and then after a pre-match talk went off to the stadium. One hour before kick-off the manager says to me… “You’re playing tonight, Alex is injured.”

Britić: So just four years after your father first took you to the Stoke City ground you were about to make your first team debut, in top flight football against a West Ham side that had Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst and Harry Redknapp?

“Yes, they were World Cup winners and they were knocking teams for four or five in those days, and I was 19 and playing in a changed position.

“After my debut I knew I had two good players ahead of me for that position but I kept telling myself that I was better than them. I kept working and soon became a regular.”

Britić: You played for Stoke City during the most successful period in their history including a League Cup final victory in 1972 over Chelsea at Wembley. What do you recall from that time?

“We played loads of games that season plus an FA Cup run but all the way through that competition we never felt anxious or thought we were ever going to get beat. Even when we got Chelsea in the final we knew we were going to win. I remember when the final whistle went there was a strange feeling of no real celebration, I couldn’t take it in and I asked a team mate what we do now.”

Britić: Your career reached a pinnacle in 1974 when Sir Alf Ramsey picked you for your England debut in a friendly away against Portugal.

“I had been a regular in the U23 England side for a few years where I had dislodged Frank Lampard (senior) from the left back position. They were also managed by Sir Alf Ramsey and I picked up eight caps. The senior England team had just failed to quality for the World Cup and Alf wanted to bring in seven or eight strong U23 players. I made my debut in a 0-0 draw, it felt comfortable at that level. After that game Alf picked his squad for the next seven matches and I was the only left back so my England future looked good. I was shocked to hear when I came home one day after training that Sir Alf had been sacked.”

“Joe Mercer was the caretaker manager and picked me for the next three games but during his team talks kept applauding Liverpool. One morning after I had had a decent game against Scotland but had scored an own goal he said to me on the bus that he was going to call the Liverpool left back, Alec Lindsay into the squad. I think that Emlyn Hughes (another Liverpool player) had influenced Joe Mercer. For the next game against Argentina at Wembley I did not even get onto the sub’s bench. There seemed to me no reason for Mercer to drop me.”

“I was so deflated that I didn’t want to travel with the England squad on the Eastern European tour which included a match against Yugoslavia in Belgrade. My dad said I had to go, adding, “Our family out there are looking forward to coming to see you.”

Britić: Did Joe Mercer let you play for the game against Yugoslavia?

“No. Again I didn’t even get on the sub’s bench. The team stayed at the Hotel Yugoslavia in Belgrade and I was expecting my family to come to see me from Niška Banja. When they arrived I was shocked to find that they had brought with them a whole roasted lamb wrapped in silver foil. We smuggled it into my hotel room and I asked my room mate to leave so that the family and I could have a bit of a party and finish off the lamb.”

Britić: How did you face the apparent end of your England career?

“I felt that I needed to go to a bigger club in order to resurrect my England career as the big club boys were getting picked. When I returned to Stoke I was offered a good deal so decided to stay there after all. I bought a farm which helped me cope with the disappointment but the injustice of it deflated me for a couple of years or so.”

Britić: You moved from Stoke to Everton in 1976 and played for them for three seasons during which Everton enjoyed a good level of success.

“The season I left Stoke had finished fifth but had just missed out on a place in the UEFA Cup due to a court ruling. Unfortunately one of the stands in the Stadium needed to be rebuilt so they had to begin selling players to pay for the rebuilding of the stand.”

Britić: In 1976 you moved to Stoke, then in 1979 Ron Saunders took to Aston Villa. After playing just ten games your career was prematurely ended by injury aged 29. You had played in the top flight of football for nearly 11 years…..

“The injury which ended my career was undiagnosed at the time and came as a cruel blow. I had expected to go on to 35 as I had always been fit and injury free. Some years later after a charity game I aggravated the old injury and a specialist was able to diagnose that it had been a double hernia. That sort of injury nowadays is operated on by keyhole surgery and the players are back in training in three months. I felt sick that I had lost a third of my career for nothing.”

Britić: Since finishing your playing career you held several management posts in the UK and in Malaysia but have in the last 10 years or so created a niche for yourself as a youth team coach for the FA, Plymouth Argyle and currently at Ipswich Town.

“I have worked with Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon, Stewart Downing and Wayne Rooney to name a few. I have always loved coaching youngsters and perhaps putting into the game at this level what I never had when I was starting out playing at schoolboy level.”

Britić: How often do you visit Serbia?

“I first went to Serbia in 1964 when my father packed us all into our sky blue Vauxhall Cresta and we spent three days driving across Europe. We spent a month there and at the time we were one of the first families that we knew to go back to Serbia. I thoroughly enjoyed the holiday and meeting all my family and seeing how they lived. I have been back several times since.”

Mike pulls out a bag stuffed with old family photographs and starts laying them out for me starting with the 1964 holiday snaps. The interview becomes an informal chat as he describes who was who in the photos. All the snaps of Mike as a toddler show him kicking a ball so I ask about playing against George Best and Bobby Charlton and he responds with concise technical appraisals. He throws in Pele and a game against Santos in 1969. He says he was supposed to mark a player called Edu who was dubbed “the new Pele”. Mike pauses and I fill in by asking if Mike had “sorted him out”. A broad grin and a quiet “yes” are the emphatic response. We both laugh and for the first time I sense that this understated man was deeply proud of his career.

I remember watching England play Scotland on television when I was 11 and seeing that somebody called Pejić was playing for England. I recall wondering if he could be a Serb like me because our names sounded similar. Today, 36 years later, I met that Serb and for a couple of hours in Ipswich felt like that eleven year old football fan again.

By Aleks Simić