This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palce v West Bromwich Albion matchday programme – 13th May 2018
It’s been quite a season for Luka Milivojevic. He’s hit double figures for goals for the first time, helped his nation qualify for a World Cup, undergone more managerial upheaval, been involved in all sorts of penalty shenanigans and captained Palace to Premier League safety despite a nightmare start. With the campaign’s curtain about to fall, he talks Jonathon Rogers through all of it.
When I sat down with Luka Milivojevic for his first programme interview in February last year, his standout quote was: “the fans don’t know me now, but I believe in myself”. In just 14 months, his impact has been so great that he has made one of the division’s biggest tongue twisters a household name. Mission accomplished.
The Serbian is the personification of the Eagles’ miraculous transformation from relegation certainties to top-half hopefuls – dogged, gritty, never-say-die. He leads the team out of the tunnel, and the squad’s statistics when it comes to passes, tackles, distance covered and, remarkably for a holding midfielder, goals.
In any other season he would have coasted to the club’s Player of the Year award, but Wilfried Zaha’s spellbinding displays saw Luka settle for second place. Individual glory doesn’t bother a man whose selflessness was shown by him literally handing Christian Benteke the chance to end his goal drought from the spot against Leicester City, having already become only the fourth player in the club’s history to hit double figures in a Premier League campaign.
“It’s the first time in my career I’ve scored 10 goals in a season,” he said. “I’m happy and surprised. I understand I’ve had a lot of penalties to take, but they are not easy to score because there is a lot of pressure and concentration, and goalkeepers prepare for where they think you’re going to shoot.
“The most important thing for me is the team, and I would easily swap my 10 goals for us staying in the league. I didn’t score alone because someone gave me the ball or was fouled, but in the end, someone has to get on the scoresheet and it’s been me. It doesn’t matter – we are all together.
“Staying up this season is an amazing achievement because of how we started. If we had had all our best players available throughout the season, then we would be in the top 10.”
That optimism was being cautiously whispered between fans, as well as some of the squad, way back in the halcyon days of August. Frank de Boer’s arrival promised an exciting future as he swept away the pragmatism of Sam Allardyce for a more attractive approach. The Dutch legend suggested his tenure would be about ‘evolution rather than revolution’. It proved to be the opposite.
After 77 days of trying to force his methods on a squad unaccustomed to his systems – including installing an uncomfortable Milivojevic at a centre-back – the Dutchman was replaced by Roy Hodgson, but the damage had been done with the beleaguered Eagles pointless after four games.
Looking back to the season’s early weeks, Milivojevic said: “Frank had some ideas, but maybe he didn’t have to change too much and just add his style of football into the system we used under Big Sam. He decided to play three at the back and it didn’t have a lot of success, and after that we know what happened.
“It wasn’t a big shock when he left to be honest. We knew we had a good squad but things weren’t in the right place. I know in England it isn’t usual for a club to fire the coach after four games, but it happened. Roy came in after him and he’s done an amazing job. He put everything back in the right place and made the dressing room very strong, and then we could just do our job.”
The passing of time clouds the memory, so having just seen Hodgson mastermind a miraculous escape, it is very easy to forget that his early days yielded little success, ensuring that the Eagles became the first team in 129 years of league football to not record a goal or point from their opening seven games. “It was a very bad feeling,” Milivojevic reflected. “You think ‘wow, when is this going to stop?’. It was very hard – I can’t say you stop believing, but your confidence is low and you need some victories to get it back again.”
Fortunately for the Serbian’s side, a first dose of that confidence came at the eighth time of asking and, in true Palace style, at the expense of the reigning champions Chelsea on a memorable afternoon in SE25. The smallest of steps forward was taken that day, but one that has eventually propelled Palace to a record-extending sixth successive top-flight campaign.
“Chelsea was a very important victory for us,” Milivojevic added. “After you have lost seven games and you have Chelsea next, you think it will be hard to take a point from them because they are a top team. When we beat them you could feel the situation become a little easier straight away because we saw that we could win games. It was a very nice atmosphere afterwards.”
During a profitable winter that saw only Arsenal beat the Eagles over the course of 15 league matches, Luka would take turns at playing hero and villain as last-gasp ecstasy and agony began to thread its way through Palace’s season.
Against all odds, the Eagles found themselves perched above the bottom three when Big Ben chimed in the new year, but celebrations were at a premium in the Milivojevic household following his last-minute penalty miss against Manchester City earlier that day; mere weeks after enduring spot-kick misery against Bournemouth when his generous decision to hand the matchwinning glory to Benteke backfired spectacularly.
Shedding some light on how that infamous scene played out, he revealed: “I’ve never said anything about it before because no-one has asked me! I want to make it clear that I gave Christian the chance to shoot – he didn’t take it from me. He said he wanted to shoot, and I asked him if he was sure and he said yes, so I gave it to him. When he missed I was a little bit angry because I knew we were in trouble!
“The worst moment for me was against Manchester City when I missed. It was 31st December and all the world was watching that one game, but luckily for me we had a game two days later against Southampton to try to change things, and thank God I scored and we won. That was my favourite goal of the season because it gave me my confidence back, and after that I knew that everything I was doing was right. That was an amazing feeling, but even after that I was still thinking about Man City.”
That day against the champions-elect would see Jason Puncheon and Scott Dann added to an ever-lengthening casualty list, leaving the captaincy in the balance. Despite being less than a year into his time at Selhurst Park, Milivojevic was handed the task of keeping Palace afloat and moving in the right direction, and admits he was determined to repay that faith.
His task was made all the more difficult during a run of seven games without success as winter turned to spring, injuries piled up and the fragile confidence began being chipped away at. Once again, Hodgson’s team found themselves the wrong side of the dotted line.
“When we dropped back in the relegation zone, we didn’t worry,” he said. “When you have three games against Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea and you should take three or four points but you take nothing, then you have a problem. We knew it would be hard after that, but if we repeated those performances against the top teams, then we’d beat the teams around us.
“If I had to pick a turning point, I would go for Huddersfield away or Brighton at home. They were perhaps the most important because they would decide if we would go up or down. After that, we started to believe in ourselves and perform well, and as you saw against Leicester we showed a lot of quality.”
Points and league placings had eased the pressure going into that memorable afternoon when the Foxes were put to the sword, and another successful scrap for survival – probably the most audacious of them all – could effectively be celebrated. It also allowed Milivojevic and Benteke to exorcise some demons in the process.
Once again putting the good of the team ahead of himself, the skipper’s almost-symbolic handing over of the ball to the Belgian, while he patted him jovially on the head, probably epitomes the squad’s spirit better than any other moment this season.
“I know how much he needed a goal and in the Leicester game I gave the penalty to him because he is a very good guy and a good player,” Milivojevic explained. “People look how many goals strikers score, but if you’ve watched Christian this season, he’s done a lot for our team, and in my opinion, he is a very important player.”
But perhaps no-one has been as crucial to Palace’s incredible escapology act than Milivojevic. He will be hoping for another rags-to-riches tale at the World Cup this summer, but for now, he can reluctantly soak up the acclaim from jubilant Eagles supporters.
They certainly know who he is now, and after his contributions this campaign, will also never forget him.