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17.03.2016, 15:06
Lion tamer
«Go back »Print Version


BLOG: In his piece on St. Patrick's Day our Irish ehfTV commentator reveals how he discovered a distant Balkan member of the O' Brannagain tribe right before the upcoming Match of the Week in Zagreb.
 

Lion tamer

Once upon a time, many years ago, 28th of November 2011, to be exact, a young Irish man walked into Arena Zagreb and was hailed by a certain Ante Antic, mogul, maestro and general all round good guy at Zagreb.

I remember his first words to me as if they were uttered yesterday:

“But you’re Irish, what do you know about handball?”

He probably wasn’t wrong, but it was an inauspicious start and end to my relationship with Zagreb. After the game, which they won, Ante drilled me on the rules of cricket (as if an Irishman would know), then we discussed handball and he never invited me to dinner. I haven’t returned since.

We joke about it now and I count Ante as a great raconteur, a great dinner companion and we laugh about the first time we met, but I have always batted away his requests that I return to Zagreb.

That is all about to change and I am really looking forward to going back. The team that was once at the forefront of European handball is experiencing a revival at present.

The club with more name changes than a con-man selling beach front property in Miami, is once again being touted among the top teams in Europe.

It has been a long, long road. Ignominious failure, lack of budget and dwindling crowds had appeared to signal the death-knell of a once great team.

Now there is a confidence, a renaissance of sorts being led by a Montenegrin man-mountain. The arena is filling up again, the crowds are expectant and the team, always a Croatian creation is inspiring the hordes of handball lovers.

Like him or loathe him, Veselin Vujovic is doing something that has evaded the long list of coaches that have inhabited the throne room of Zagreb. It is the curse of any great club that you are judged on past glories, but the “game of thrones” surrounding Zagreb was becoming farcical.

I’ve always had a fascination with the man. I chose the number 9 to wear on my jersey for club and country because of a photo I once saw of VV in the perfect shooting pose.

The man is impressive. Even in advancing years he holds an aura about him, a power that emanates from every pore in his body. Still athletic and strong, he appears, to the outside eye, to rule with the rod.

Young players need that discipline, it could be argued. If you peruse the team sheet from my first sojourn in Zagreb, the names read like a who’s who of top class talent.

Balic, Kopljar, Strlek, Sego et al are long a distant memory. Not so now, youth is the key and the new names keep coming. In fact if you show any talent at all at this “nursery” club, you are instantly spirited away across the border to a “big budget” club.

And yet there are times when you get the feeling that his coaching which is the equivalent of “A Song of Fire and Ice” is doing more damage than good.

The fire of course is the passion he instils, which goes a long way to make them competitive, the ice is the stare he gives when a player steps outside the “plan” and makes a mistake.

The problem with this process in my eyes is that young players must be allowed make mistakes, because only then will we see the genius, the talent emerge.

They hold the dubious honour of being the only team to lose to Besiktas this season, but if we look at the “almost” comeback against PSG, I saw a team that was afraid to go for it in the final few minutes, a team that feared to step outside the bounds of the coaching plan.

Their defence is borderline at times. It is a cross between MMA (mixed martial arts) and rugby, which probably explains why the “Karate Kid” Ivic is in goal. The fight VV demands, sometimes becomes problematic. They are by far the most ill-disciplined team in the knockout stage with 72 suspensions and 3 automatic red cards to their name.

For all the negative things, there are moments of pure delight. Sometimes their movement in defence is of a level that it should be put in every coaching manual.

Their attacking prowess is there for all to see, with exceptional back-court players. And in my view they have one of the best captains in all of Europe.

Horvat has been at the club since the year dot. For all the changes in club name and personnel he has been a staple in the maelstrom. He is the most wonderful advertisement for the club and our great sport. Media savvy and a role model to boot he is the perfect antithesis of the coach.

And perhaps that is why it is working. They have an uncanny ability at the club to source new talent, although they missed the boat with Sliskovic and Cindric, but they have some pure class in the ranks.

I personally like Obranovic (a distant Balkan member of the Ó Brannagain tribe), the Valcic boys, Pavlovic, Mandalinic and just to prove they can find talent everywhere, they lose Stepancic only to find that Sebetic is probably just as good.

Whatever you say about this great club, you have to admit that in a tumultuous time when big budgets bring big rewards, they, minus the budget, are competing at an incredible level. Together, the club, coach and team have rediscovered what it is that makes the fans tick in that part of Europe. They are in love with their club once again and that is only a good thing.

“It is never wrong, if you do it right” is a great motto for anyone and they are doing something right. We don’t all have to love them, but the variety they bring is a panacea in a handball world of conformity.

This weekend the “Lions” of Germany are coming.

Last time I was there, a novice coach called Vranjes brought Flensburg.

They left on the back of a 31-26 defeat.

What chance they repeat the feat?

I reckon VV could tame a lion with just a stare.





 

 


TEXT: Tom O Brannagain, ehfTV commentator
 
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