'Oddball, genius, chilled, dour, world class, lazy': 20 years on - Robert Prosinecki's Pompey team-mates remember ex-Barcelona and Real Madrid great

Robert Prosinecki and Kevin Harper celebrate after Pompey's last-gasp win over Gillingham in September 2001Robert Prosinecki and Kevin Harper celebrate after Pompey's last-gasp win over Gillingham in September 2001
Robert Prosinecki and Kevin Harper celebrate after Pompey's last-gasp win over Gillingham in September 2001
This weekend marks 20 years since Pompey signed a Fratton Park icon – Robert Prosinecki.

The gifted Croatian arrived from Standard Liege on July 31, 2001 following service with distinction at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Red Star Belgrade, while appearing at two World Cups for two different countries.

The 2001-02 campaign represented his sole season with the Blues, with the 32-year-old scoring nine times in 35 appearances, including a hat-trick against Barnsley in February 2002.

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The classy Prosinecki is widely-regarded by fans as one of Pompey’s finest modern-day players.

Here those who shared a club and dressing room with cultured midfielder during the 2001-02 season reflect on what he was really like….

Courtney Pitt:

‘In the dressing room there were debates, confrontations about Robert Prosinecki not working for the team, but you were never going to get that from him.

‘So it was the job of the rest of us to do his running, get him the ball as much as possible. We knew what he could do – and he was unplayable in some of those matches.

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Harry Redknapp, Milan Mandaric and Graham Rix welcome Robert Prosinecki to Fratton Park. Picture Allan HutchingsHarry Redknapp, Milan Mandaric and Graham Rix welcome Robert Prosinecki to Fratton Park. Picture Allan Hutchings
Harry Redknapp, Milan Mandaric and Graham Rix welcome Robert Prosinecki to Fratton Park. Picture Allan Hutchings

‘I didn't criticise his work-rate, those of us who generally appreciated him didn’t. So the likes of myself, Lee Bradbury, Nigel Quashie and Peter Crouch accepted it.

‘One of the main instigators criticising his lack of work was Carl Tiler. He wasn’t happy, he wanted people to get behind the ball and track back, but it was never going to happen with Prosinecki.

‘A few others were also questioning it. When the conversations were happening he was saying “Fine, I just won’t play then, that's fine”. We were saying: “No, no, you’re playing!”. We needed him.

‘He had that drag back, yet you didn’t know he was going to do it. People would jump and he’d laugh out loud, before passing the ball.

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Robert Prosinecki fires in a free-kick against Preston in October 2001. Picture: Craig Prentis /AllsportRobert Prosinecki fires in a free-kick against Preston in October 2001. Picture: Craig Prentis /Allsport
Robert Prosinecki fires in a free-kick against Preston in October 2001. Picture: Craig Prentis /Allsport

‘He’d smoke before the game and at half-time, but that wasn’t new to me. I had been at Chelsea, where Gianluca Vialli did the same in the changing room.

‘Seeing Shaun Derry throwing up in the toilet before every game was more strange to me than a team-mate having a cigarette.

‘I have to say, Prosinecki did have loads of time for us younger boys, I always found him pretty chilled out.’

Gary O’Neil (Played Up Pompey 3, 2020):

Robert Prosinecki in action against BurnleyRobert Prosinecki in action against Burnley
Robert Prosinecki in action against Burnley

‘He couldn’t move, wasn’t in great shape, looked older than the 32 years he actually was and didn’t take his fitness seriously – yet was the best footballer I played with.

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‘Prosinecki turned up at HMS Collingwood for his first training session and I thought “Oh my God, this guy just cannot move”. He was slow and old, so how on earth was he going to play football?

‘We started the warm-up with some little drills and I thought he was absolutely useless. Then our manager, Graham Rix, wanted to have a look at him on a full-size pitch, so we split into teams.

‘I lined up against him thinking “I’m going to run all over him. Every time he gets it, I’ll take the ball off him”. However, when we started playing, I couldn't believe how good he was.

‘He couldn’t run, he didn’t move, he stood on this awful muddy pitch at Collingwood spraying the ball everywhere. There was me, haring around with steam coming off me, while he stood still without breaking sweat, comfortably dictating play.

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‘No matter what side you pressed him on, he always found a way out. He was incredible.

Robert Prosinecki and Mark Burchill celebrate during victory over Gillingham in September 2001Robert Prosinecki and Mark Burchill celebrate during victory over Gillingham in September 2001
Robert Prosinecki and Mark Burchill celebrate during victory over Gillingham in September 2001

‘I remember him smoking everywhere. It’s probably an exaggeration, but that’s how it felt. Seeing a footballer smoking was a new one for me. You get the odd one having a cigarette on a night out following a couple of beers, but to turn up at training in the morning and spotting a guy leaning against his car puffing away was incredible.

‘I played in that famous Barnsley match. We had a tiled floor and I can still hear the noise of him afterwards slamming his metal-studded boots on the floor as hard as he could, with mud flying everywhere.

‘He then sat there with a look on his face which said “You lot are absolutely useless. What more can I do? I’ve scored three goals and we still can’t beat Barnsley at home”.’

Jason Crowe:

‘He was a strange cup of tea that boy, he’s an oddball.

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‘Prosinecki didn’t really speak much and didn’t speak great English, but he was some player.

‘It must have been a weird situation for him, he was a terrific player, an international, probably at the pinnacle of his career, so to come to Pompey at that time must have been a bit strange for him.

‘He kept himself to himself, didn't really say a lot, wasn’t a great trainer, but his ability was unbelievable.

‘Like Paul Merson after him, these were match winners who could create something out of nothing and had that Midas touch.

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‘His English wasn’t the greatest, but he’d tell you if you weren’t great or your pass wasn’t good. He’d let you know – or you’d get the look!’

Lee Bradbury (Played Up Pompey 3, 2020):

‘Prosinecki was lazy and frustrating, yet one of the most technically-gifted footballers I have ever seen.

‘He turned up at Pompey and everyone was thinking “What is this guy doing here?”. He had the ball on a yo-yo, producing things in training and games you’d normally attempt in a charity match or mucking around with your friends.

‘At half-time, Prosinecki usually hid in the changing room toilet for a smoke. At Fratton Park there was one cubicle, which was reached by walking through the bath and shower area, for what is now a broom cupboard.

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‘Somebody would say “Where’s Robert? Robert?” and he would respond with “Two minutes, coming”.

‘Then the cubicle door would open, with smoke billowing out, like something from Stars In Your Eyes with Matthew Kelly. Tonight, I’m going to be Liam Gallagher or something.

‘Prosinecki was relaxed, it was like he was on holiday with his mates, but didn’t smile much, quite a dour guy, and very serious about his football.’

Milan Mandaric (Pompey: The Island City With A Football Club For A Heart, 2020):

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‘We first met in Monaco when I was the owner of Nice and we became friends.

‘After I took over as Pompey owner I told him “Robbie, I need your help, I need you to get involved” so he came in, no problem. He shook my hand, he was never interested in a contract, I just said what I would do for him and I did. That was it.

‘Of course he had to sign a contract to be registered for the club, but money-wise it wasn’t a concern. He said: “I know you will take care of me and let me do the job”. That’s the type of guy he is, we are good friends.

‘The guy played for Barcelona and Real Madrid and on the training ground you would see Robbie take the guys on and sometimes, when he lost the ball, the assistant, Jim Duffy, would yell “You’ve got to tackle, you’ve got to get into the game”.

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‘When I told that to Harry Redknapp, he said: “That’s stupid, you give the ball to Robert Prosinecki, he’s not going to tackle anyone, just give him the ball!”.

‘What a special player, he was my present to the fans, a good person too, solid as a rock, someone you can rely on.

‘I can promise you, he loved it at Pompey.’

Linvoy Primus (Played Up Pompey Too, 2017):

‘When you saw him around day in, day out, you thought “Is that really him, is that really Robert Prosinecki?”.

‘A few years earlier, in the 1998 World Cup in France, he was an unbelievable part of a Croatia side which finished third, so among the Pompey players there was an air of “Oh my word, that’s the king”.

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‘He was humble, though. Not a great talker, mind, his English was poor, although he knew he had the respect of the dressing room and could do whatever he wanted.

‘When we had pre-match team meetings – sometimes at the Portsmouth Marriott Hotel, on other occasions in Fratton Park’s Chimes Bar – he’d smoke away at the bar and have a coffee, but that was him. You weren’t going to change this European Cup winner. How can you tell him what not to do?

‘In that Barnsley game, Prosinecki got a hat-trick, while I also netted my first Fratton Park goal. I was then sent off in the 84th minute as we let slip a two-goal lead to draw 4-4.

‘I was fuming, absolutely fuming at the decision, because I never did anything wrong. However, referee Phil Prosser claimed I threw a punch at Chris Morgan during a corner, so brandished a straight red card and awarded Barnsley a penalty.

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‘Martin Ebbage was the linesman and later told me he didn’t see anything, yet the referee claimed I pushed Morgan. I couldn’t have, I had my back to him and would have had to turn round to get him.

‘Prosinecki was very good that day, it was like watching a big lad playing against little kids, like a Year 10 pupil up against Year 5 pupils.’

Alan Knight:

‘I was goalkeeping coach at the time and the guy was on a different level. This was at the end of his playing career, I dread to think what he was like at his peak.

‘He played at a different time to everyone else, with the ability to slow the game when everyone else was running around like headless chickens.

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‘Prosinecki loved the Marlboro Reds, whereas me and Big Kev smoked Marlboro Lights. He was always nicking our fags and would say “I want Marlboro Red”. So we’d reply with “Well, you buy them then”.

‘He was tight with his fags, he’d never buy his own, bless him.

‘Prosinecki also had the worst dress sense I have ever known in football. Supposedly he had a couple of designer outlets in places like Barcelona – it’s a shame he didn’t shop at them himself.

‘I would stay on the pitch with him after training and he challenged me to go in goal, while saying “I bet you a tenner I can do this”. He would then bend them into the top corner.

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‘My job was to keep it out, he even told me where he was going to put his shot, but I still couldn’t get to it!

‘It was a pleasure and honour to have been on the same pitch as him, even if it was just in training. That man was world class.’

Lewis Buxton (The News, March 2021):

‘I was on the same pitch against Barnsley and stood behind watching him as we attacked the Fratton end.

‘He was on the edge of the box, shaped to shoot, and then chopped it onto his other foot – two of their players went to block.

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‘Then he did it again, fooling the same two players, and creating space to drive it left-footed into the far bottom corner. Wow.

‘I can still see that goal now, it sticks in the memory. Out of all the goals I’ve seen live, that’s the one I can always picture.

‘I didn’t score many, I’ve even forgotten some of them, usually bundled over the line from a corner, but that one from Prosinecki is lodged in the memory.

‘It’s comical. As a defender, when somebody throws you a dummy or pretends to shoot and chops it back, most of the time you can read it. But they couldn’t – it was a fantastic goal.

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‘Having only drawn that game, he must have been thinking “Who are these numpties I am playing with?”. He was dumbfounded at us clowns.’

Kev McCormack (The News, August 2019):

'He was one of the best players I've ever seen – and I loved listening to him.

'To think we had him when his legs had gone, but he was still a genius, an absolute genius, and funny.

'The first time he came in he said "Kev, fire, fire". I said "What? Where?". He actually wanted a light for his fag!

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'Every game I’d have a Marlboro Red lit for him, at half-time and the end of the match. He would smoke in my room or the dressing-room toilets.

'On away trips, before the game, he would have a smoke and order either a double espresso or triple espresso, while telling me stories about Real Madrid and Barcelona.

'Rob once gave me a Rolex watch to look after. I asked "What’s this, Rob?" - and he replied it was worth £85,000 and Barcelona had given it to him as a present.’

Rowan Vine (The News, January 2015):

‘Prosinecki was brilliant, but quite lazy and quite unfit. Still, I loved watching him thinking “This is genius”, whereas Nigel Quashie wouldn’t have liked him too much because he had to do two people’s running!

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‘On match days we had to wear suits and ties and meet at the Portsmouth Marriott for pre-match meetings. Robbie would be wearing boots, jeans, T-shirt and a cardigan.

‘The assistant manager Jim Duffy would say to him every week “Robbie, suit” and he was “Yeah, yeah, Jim” and never did!

‘It was before the smoking ban and for those team meetings he would sit at the bar with double espressos, smoking Marlboro Reds.

‘He didn’t talk English, didn’t listen. There was no way he was ever going to learn English, it was “Give me the ball”. He was unbelievable.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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