A career that was ended voluntarily at 29; a figure who paraded around the Selhurst Park pitch with a placard, protesting about NATO’s bombing of the former Yugoslavia, a campaign he also took to the gates of Downing Street; a skilled individual who went by the possibly self-anointed nickname of the ‘Serbian George Best’; the winner of his home nation’s version of Celebrity Big Brother in 2007; the purchaser of a double-decker bus which he turned into a party palace: Saša Ćurčić was nothing if not fully committed to both himself and the things that piqued his interest.
In 2015, Ćurčić was reported in the Sunday People to be posting leaflets through doors in west London, advertising his newly-launched football coaching school at a sports centre in Acton. When he called time on his playing career, in April 2001, he insisted that even if he were offered £15m, he would never sign for another professional club, yet if he were to be offered 15 different women from all over the world, then he might consider a return to the game, alluding to his lust for more than just life itself.
The Times, in the summer of 2007, declared Ćurčić’s 1996 move from Bolton to Aston Villa to be one of the 50 worst Premier League transfers of all time. Ćurčić himself rated it as the biggest mistake of his life.
Upon his arrival in England from Partizan Belgrade in October 1995, he signed for a team desperate for a hero. On his debut for Bolton, Ćurčić played his part in a 1-0 victory over an Arsenal team led by Bolton’s previous manager Bruce Rioch, almost making it a goalscoring introduction to the Premier League.
Not a victorious sensation he was allowed to get used to, Ćurčić and his teammates didn’t pick up another Premier League win until mid-January, by which time Roy McFarland, one of the men who brought him to Burnden Park, was gone. The club’s experiment of co-managers coming to an end, McFarland’s counterpart, Colin Todd, would continue singlehandedly. That mid-January win, at home to Wimbledon, began a run of 13 games where Bolton collected six victories. Never to climb out of the relegation zone, rarely lifting themselves from the bottom of the table, what Ćurčić did was offer his club hope.
Incorrigibly doomed at the turn of the year, when Bolton beat Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea on Easter Monday with three games still to go, it was a 2-1 win that put the Trotters to within two points of safety. Ćurčić had supplied the winning goal, his fourth strike of the season. Two weeks earlier, he had scored the winner against Sheffield Wednesday.
Had Bolton started the season with Ćurčić in their team, it might have been a very different outcome. With a low centre of gravity, an eye for a cutting through ball, combative in the challenge and not shy when it came to going for goal, the Yugoslav international was key to everything that was positive about Bolton’s faltering first top-flight campaign in a decade and a half.
Despite relegation, Bolton were a club on the up. With a new stadium in construction, Ćurčić was a player that they could build a team around, which would not only be capable of gaining an immediate return to the Premier League but one which could stick around once they got there.
Making noises of his willingness to stay and fight for promotion, it was a bitter disappointment to the Bolton supporters that Ćurčić was soon heading to Villa Park. Signed by Bolton for £1.5m, on the eve of the 1996/97 season they accepted Brian Little’s £4m bid. Just how much it was Ćurčić who agitated for the move, and how much it was Bolton cashing in on a quick £2.5m profit, is open to debate. The truth probably sits somewhere between the two possibilities.
Wherever the truth lays, the chance to remain in the Premier League, the opportunity to team up with his compatriot, Savo Miloševic, and the lure of UEFA Cup football, with what were the holders of the League Cup, would have been a temptation to any player staring at the dawning of a First Division campaign, resplendent with trips to the likes of Port Vale, Grimsby, and Southend.
Too strong of a calling, Ćurčić made his Aston Villa debut at home to Derby. Going against the grain of his reputedly poor spell at Villa Park, he actually made a promising start to his time with the club, linking well in midfield with Andy Townsend, Ian Taylor and Mark Draper. Off-field distractions began to take over, however, and his behaviour became erratic. Ćurčić would later admit to a problem with drugs. Repeated rows with the Villa management and little in the way of games led to him demanding a transfer in 1998.
Having been Little’s biggest signing in the summer of 1996, both manager and player would depart the club within a month of one another. John Gregory, Little’s successor, focussing his efforts on procuring the best from another complex individual he had inherited, Stan Collymore, gladly waved Ćurčić off to Crystal Palace in March 1998, just before the transfer deadline, for a cut-price £1m.
Perhaps finding a club that matched his own high standards of unpredictability, Palace had reached March without having won a single home game during the 1997/98 season. The owner of the club, Ron Noades, had even had a spell in charge, after the repositioning of Steve Coppell as director of football. Noades was eventually replaced by Attilio Lombardo, who was yet to master the English language, after the former chairman sold the club to Mark Goldberg. Tomas Brolin acted as Lombardo’s interpreter.
Amidst this surreal backdrop, Ćurčić found his form once again. He was instrumental in Palace finally garnering a first home win of the season, against Derby. Cult status affirmed, relegation still befell the Eagles. Unlike in the summer of 1996, when he opted out of Bolton’s bid for promotion, in the summer of 1998 Ćurčić invested himself in Palace’s bid for a quick return to the Premier League. In a blaze of publicity, Terry Venables had returned to Selhurst Park. Much was expected of them – and Ćurčić was to be central to this rebirth.
On the opening day of the season, Ćurčić was on target during a 2-2 draw against his old club, Bolton. It was a frustrating yet entertaining start to the campaign, though rather than the wheels coming off, they were never truly attached in the first place. Goldberg’s brave new Palace were a mirage. By mid-January Venables was gone, replaced by Coppell, and Ćurčić fell onto the periphery of the team. Sat on the bench or patrolling the perimeter of the pitch with his anti-NATO placard, he became a peculiarity, even to a club that was something of a collective oddity.
His interest in football waning, in the summer of 1999 he left Palace as part of a massive cost-cutting exercise, joining the MetroStars. Not short of self-confidence, on his arrival Stateside, Ćurčić declared he could become the “Dennis Rodman of MLS.” The season already underway, he would return to the UK at its end, signing for Motherwell.
Ćurčić’s flirtation with Scottish football a short-lived one. Motherwell’s would be the last shirt he would pull on as a professional footballer, before setting sail on his odyssey towards reality television and his eventual return to the game, via posting leaflets through the doors of west London. A talent lost, Ćurčić would eventually return to Palace in a coaching and hospitality capacity. As a player, however, it was all about fleeting glimpses of the genius he proclaimed himself to be, and the excesses of human fallibilities.
Had Ćurčić remained at Bolton in the summer of 1996, he might well have become an enduring hero of a club that returned to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Yet, nobody could blame him for his move to an Aston Villa that was in rude health. It was a big-money transfer that proved to mark the beginning of the end for him, rather than the start of something bigger and better. Instead, Ćurčić was one of the first true instances of the Premier League boom and bust future.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74