The Irish Times
Bojan proves there is life after Barcelona
Spanish international striker’s offer from Stoke City was too good to turn down Resounding victory over Manchester City vindicates move to Britannia Stadium
Despite the determination not to resort to that cliche about wet and windy nights in Stoke, it does not help that Bojan Krkic introduces himself and immediately pops a couple of paracetamol out of a packet to knock back with a slug of water.
This slender Catalan attacker, whose lively mind and light feet have won the hearts of fans at the Britannia Stadium, has a nasty cold. He laughs as he confesses he thinks he picked it up during that sparkling victory over Manchester City last week, which was played in the kind of miserable blustery weather that whips in through the open corners of a ground that is the stereotype nightmare for fancy dans.
There was always something paradoxical about the idea of Bojan, the meandering little Barcelona prodigy, turning up at a club with a reputation for no-nonsense firmness. He gets that. He recalls the reaction of a friend when Stoke made their initial approach.
“What do you think?” asked Bojan.
“Oh, but it’s not your style,” replied the friend.
Bojan mulled it over. He was eager for a fresh start to a career that was bound up with his boyhood club and with more investigation realised Stoke were eager to refine their style. “I thought: ‘Look, if Mark Hughes is the gaffer, if he called me it’s because he wants to play. If he wants long ball he doesn’t call me,’” he concluded.
Struck a chord
Hughes’s explanation about polishing Stoke’s image, and his plan to use Bojan in his favourite position up front, struck a chord and he signed up for a step into the unknown.
Almost 18 months and one cruciate injury later, he looks entirely at ease with life at Stoke. He wants to improve his very reasonable command of English – adding depth and variety to his ability to make himself understood – and finds it helpful watching series with subtitles. He prefers to listen to the Spanish and read English rather than the other way round.
Otherwise, he explains, he just concentrates on reading his mother tongue and manages to almost block out the sound. His latest favourite was Breaking Bad. “Heisenberg!” he chuckles, eyes wide.
Being able to express himself is a big thing. Out on the pitch Bojan relishes Hughes’s trust to do exactly that. Bojan is equally happy as striker or second striker but, having spent most of this season in the more withdrawn role, he was surprised to find himself picked as the spearhead against Manchester City.
It was in that position, creating combinations with the fresh attacking zest of Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic, that Stoke blew away Manchester City and caused proper shock waves.
One of the locally born fellas who minds the reception of Stoke’s Clayton Wood training ground proclaimed that it had to go down as their best performance in the Premier League. It certainly felt like a gamechanger. Seeing Stoke duff up a member of the elite with old-fashioned physicality is one thing. Seeing them outwit a team of City’s stature and resources with stylish creativity really was something else.
Bojan speaks with genuine warmth about the emotion that engulfed the dressing room afterwards. But the awareness of how significant this felt to everyone at the club touched the players profoundly.
“It was really special,” says Bojan. “Maybe sometimes these experiences are better because you didn’t expect before the game you are going to win 2-0 against Man City and play amazingly. When these things happen it makes you so proud of everyone. Everyone hugged. Everyone shook hands with each other, looking in our team-mates’ eyes and thanking each other for how well they did.”
Bojan is proud of being one of the catalysts for the changing style. His education at Barcelona’s La Masia set him up for his career, he says. “For me that is one of the best times in my life. I learned everything, not only for football, also for what you have to do as a person. I was there from the age of nine to 21 and it is thanks to that time I am able to play in different teams and can enjoy my life in football.”
Is La Masia more about nature or nurture? Are the skills the boys have there instinctive or the result of a lot of hard work? “Both,” he says. “Some people like Messi didn’t have to learn a lot as his is a natural style. But of course you can improve your technique, your football intelligence, your everything.”
His early success – he broke Lionel Messi’s record as Barca’s youngest player in La Liga and the club record for youngest performer in the Champions League – was a whirlwind.
“Amazing,” he reflects. “Some trainers give you a chance and after that you return to the second team. Frank Rijkaard put me in the first team when I was 17 and gave me every week the chance to play with the first team and start my way in football. I was so young and my dreams came true so quickly thanks to Rijkaard.”
Sustaining those dreams at Camp Nou was the tricky part. In Pep Guardiola’s era, Bojan soon found himself parked at other clubs, either sold with a Barcelona buy-back option or loaned, and he found it awkward feeling simultaneously out of the picture and yet still attached to Barca.
“It is like you have a cable connecting you to Barcelona. So you are in Rome and play there but still feel connected to Barcelona. Then I played in Milan and was connected to Barcelona. That is why after Ajax I said: ‘Look I want to cut this cable. I
‘‘ If I wanted to improve I had to break this cycle and make my own way
want to feel like I am only in one team.’
“I tried be totally immersed in the new team but it was not easy. If you become their property it is much clearer for you, for the club, for everything. It was a great experience to play in three different teams, different leagues, different experiences, but if I wanted to improve I had to break this cycle and make my own way. That’s why I signed this contract to come to Stoke. It is a new chapter of my life.” The experience makes for a mature 25-year-old.
The one obstacle he has found most difficult to adjust to in England is the lack of a winter break. As a strong family man, playing over Christmas felt weird.
“Christmas time is for me one of the most special times of the year. I was always celebrating with my family and friends, and when you come here you can’t do this.
“Last year I remember I spoke with my father on December 25th and said: ‘It is hard for me, now we go to the hotel to play Everton away.’ But after, on the 26th when we see Goodison Park full, it all feels okay.” As it turned, out, Bojan scored the winner that day.
One month later, however, his opening campaign in England was abruptly halted in an FA Cup tie at Rochdale. His cruciate ligament damage was a season-ending injury and he returned to Barcelona for rehabilitation. He threw himself into it with absolute dedication to ensure a complete recovery as quickly as possible, even forgoing a holiday.
“I don’t have pain,” he says. “So when I go out on to the field I try to forget everything and do my best, improve my fitness, improve my effort every day. The knee is okay.”
Returning to the Potteries in the summer, he was buoyed to see Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay and Marko van Ginkel arrive to bring the next wave of this more continental approach.
“When I came back after my injury, we started to sign new players and I was excited,” he says. “This means Stoke City wants to improve every year. We did last two years top 10 but we don’t have to be satisfied with that. Each season we want more.”