Aleksandar Mitrovic is firing Fulham towards promotion after falling out of favour at Newcastle. He tells Sky Sports about his outstanding form, what he has learnt from his “silly mistakes”, and how countryman Slavisa Jokanovic is helping him channel his aggression…
“So many things were going through my head,” Aleksandar Mitrovic tells Sky Sports. The Serb is casting his mind back to the drama of transfer deadline day, when a proposed loan move to his former club Anderlecht collapsed at the 11th hour, threatening to leave him in non-playing limbo at Newcastle in a World Cup year.
Mitrovic recalls the “stress” of flying back from Belgium with his future unresolved and the “pressure” of the clock ticking towards the deadline, but on a sunny afternoon in south-west London three months later, he is thankful. If things had worked out as intended, he would never have sent the opportunistic message to Slavisa Jokanovic which led him to Fulham.
“It was worth the stress,” he says with a smile. “One hundred per cent.”
All the stress has melted away now. The tattooed 23-year-old has a reputation as a hot-head but in a small stand overlooking one of the training pitches at Fulham’s Motspur Park training ground, where he has just collected the Sky Bet Championship Player of the Month award, he seems totally at ease. Mitrovic could not get a game at Newcastle, but he has scored nine goals in his first 11 starts for Fulham.
His latest, a clinical first-time finish which secured a late 1-0 win at Sheffield Wednesday at the weekend, put Fulham within touching distance of the automatic promotion places. On Tuesday night, they jumped above Cardiff with another victory over Reading. Fulham are on an extraordinary 20-game unbeaten run. The Premier League is within reach.
Aleksandar Mitrovic was Sky Bet Championship Player of the Month for March
Fulham vs Brentford
April 14, 2018, 5:15pm
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“I hope I will continue like this and the team will continue with this form,” says Mitrovic. “We only have a few games left but they are all finals. We need that mentality to continue like this and try to put the pressure on Cardiff. We have some tough games but they do too so it’s going to be interesting.”
Mitrovic, a £13m signing from Anderlecht in 2015, had not started a league game in nine months at Newcastle. He insists his relationship with Rafael Benitez remains cordial, but the emphasis on tactics and defence did not suit him. At free-wheeling Fulham, who have scored more goals than any other Championship side since the turn of the year, he feels far more comfortable.
“I really enjoy the way the team plays and the players that they have,” he says. “It’s a good style and a good team for me. I think it’s a good team for any striker. I thought I could enjoy this style and I’m really happy to be on the pitch and scoring goals to try to do the best that I can to help the team achieve what we want from this season.”
Does he have any regrets about Newcastle? “I would never say I regret that I was there, but I have regret because I didn’t play as much as I could and maybe I should have scored more goals. There are a lot of things I wanted to do there that I didn’t do, so of course I have regret, but I still enjoyed my time there and I’m still a Newcastle player so we will see what happens.”
At the moment, though, his focus is Fulham. Mitrovic has relished the service provided by new team-mates Stefan Johansen, Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon – “I think he is a player who is going to play for a top, top club,” he says of the latter – but the most important influence is undoubtedly Jokanovic, who he has known since his days at boyhood club Partizan Belgrade.
“He was a big player in Serbia and now he’s one of the best managers Serbia have,” says Mitrovic. “He looks tough but he’s a real gentleman and a really nice guy. I spoke to him a few times and in the end we ended up together so I’m really happy. I’m really enjoying working with him and playing under him. He didn’t give up on me and neither did Fulham.”
It comes down to “faith, trust and game-time”, according to Mitrovic. “That’s important if you are a striker. I could tell that he felt confidence in me. If you really feel trust from the manager, it’s much easier to play. That’s what I feel now. I know that he believes in me and I know what he wants from me. My job is to do that and do it well. I hope I will continue like this.”
Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Fulham and Reading
Mitrovic has given Fulham the attacking focal point they previously lacked and already scored more times than any of the club’s other strikers have managed all season, but he is just as popular among fans for his full-blooded style as his goals. Since his debut, there have been three bookings, a bicep-flexing celebration against Sheffield United and more fouls than any other Fulham player.
Crucially, however, his aggression has not yet spilled over. Mitrovic is an explosive, instinctive striker whose short fuse and maverick character have already landed him five career red cards at the age of just 23 – including two in one season at Newcastle – but so far at Fulham he has largely succeeded in keeping his temper in check.
So how has Jokanovic helped?
Mitrovic smiles and makes a calming motion with his hands. “He tells me: ‘Use your head and stay calm’,” he says. “He tells me to stay focused and not spend energy on some things that are not important.”
Rather than removing the natural aggression that makes him such a handful for opposition defenders, however, it is simply a case of curbing it. “I am very competitive and I want to win every game,” he says. “That’s my way. That’s how I have played all my life. It’s how I see football and that’s it. I’m a winner and I will try to do everything to win the game.
“I made some silly mistakes but I have tried to learn from my mistakes. It’s not always possible to channel the anger in the right way but I try to stay focused on the team and to do my job. That is to stay on the pitch and to score goals, to assist, to create space. I need my passion but I have to control it. I try to use it on the goal and on the team.”
Mitrovic’s fine form has prompted links with Premier League sides West Ham and Everton, but he has not ruled out staying at Fulham, nor is he certain of leaving Newcastle permanently.
“I am 100 per cent focused on Fulham and the upcoming games,” he says. “I hope we get promoted, then I will have the World Cup, then I will need to rest a little bit, then we will see what happens. But I am 100 per cent with my head here. I want to give back to Fulham because they gave me the chance to come here, play games and be part of this beautiful club. I will do everything I can to help the team get promoted.”
All the stress, pressure and uncertainty of deadline day is still fresh in the memory, but it would be foolish to bet against him now.
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