Being known as ‘David’ rather than his genuine forename ‘Manuel’ merely adds to the intrigue surrounding Hearts’ latest signing. The No.11 bearing the surname ‘Milinkovic’ who debuted against Aberdeen on Saturday offered plenty promise that he is a useful, if unknown, quantity.
Hearts negotiated a complicated loan agreement with the player’s parent club, Genoa, to bring him to Tynecastle on the final day of the transfer window last month. He had recently been loaned to Foggia, so an unusual sub-loan to Hearts had to be signed off by all parties. Meanwhile, the suspense amongst supporters in Edinburgh over this incoming French-born Serbian winger was growing.
Such a deal is usually either a huge success or an equally glaring failure. Milinkovic isn’t a direct replacement for Sam Nicholson but, actually, he kind of is. Aged 23, he is of slender build with excellent technique, pace and a desire to attack down the left side. Having grown up in France and sampled Serbian and Italian football, he isn’t short on European experience, either.
He doesn’t speak English but Hearts will send him for tutoring to learn the language. After Nicholson’s June departure on freedom of contract for the American MLS club Minnesota United, Milinkovic’s arrival fills a void on the left flank. He looked lively and energetic as a substitute against Aberdeen and Hearts fans are keen to see if he provides more touches of flair over the coming weeks and months.
“He’s an attacking player with good pace. He’s a Genoa player so he’s coming from a really big club. I think he’s a wee bit away from making their first team,” explained manager Craig Levein, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“When you sign this type of player, sometimes it’s a hit or a miss. Wingers tend to be quite unpredictable but he definitely has talent. If he can put everything together, then I’m sure he’ll be a threat for us. He likes to run with the ball and he’s quick, so that’s very beneficial for us.
“We were short of wide players. I really like Lewis Moore and I think he’s done well with the opportunities he’s had this season. With Sam leaving, that left us a little bit short in the wider areas. Jamie Walker isn’t really a winger as such, so you’ll probably see more of Lewis and David as the season goes on. In certain games, we’ll need that creativity in the wider areas.”
Levein is correct in his assessment that Milinkovic is being loaned out because he isn’t rated by Genoa. At least, not enough to make an impression in Italy’s ultra-competitive and highly technical Serie A. Yet, his background suggests he does have something to offer if he can find the appropriate level.
He emerged from the youth academy at Cannes having been born in the nearby town of Antibes and grown up on the French Riviera. He used his father’s Serbian nationalism to obtain a Serb passport and, at 18, joined the pressure cooker that is Red Star Belgrade. They loaned him to FK Rad – a club now managed by former Hearts defender Gordan Petric – and later BASK Belgrade.
After struggling to make an impact in his paternal homeland, Milinkovic decided to try Italy. He went on trial at several clubs including Cagliari, Roma and Frosinone. Ternana offered him a contract, although he managed only three games there in six months. A move to Salernitana followed before Genoa signed him in January 2016, immediately loaning him down a division to the Serie B club Vitrus Lanciano. He spent last season farmed out to Messina and was set to play for Foggia this year until that move went sour in August.
That opened the door for a complicated loan transfer to Edinburgh for a player who, on the face of it, has become something of a footballing nomad. Hearts hope a settled year in Scotland can help both parties. Tynecastle officials spent most of deadline day striving to conclude a loan deal with the various parties who hold a vested interest in Milinkovic.
“It was a little bit trickier than normal and it lasted most of the last day of the transfer window,” explained Levein. “People were very helpful trying to get the deal across the line but it did drag on a little bit because there were more parties involved than normal.”
Players plucked from relative obscurity always carry that extra touch of mystique. Levein, though, knew precisely what type of player he wanted when he dispatched out a mandate to agents in the summer.
“We had sent out lots of information saying we were looking for a quick wide player. Milinkovic’s name came back through an agent that I know, so that’s how it came about. It’s a pretty normal process.”
The player’s lack of English was a further stumbling block but it hasn’t hindered him on a football pitch so far. The 24,248 people who attended Saturday’s goalless draw with Aberdeen at Murrayfield saw a player keen to impress, full of running and forward-thinking. Football is the same language the world over, after all.
“Malaury Martin and Esmael Goncalves speak French so they can help with any translations we need,” said Levein. “David seems to be in a fairly good place. He’s got a smile on his face for a start. My French isn’t what it should be but he understands a little bit of English. He seems fine.
“I’ve been watching him in training, he seems in good form and seems to have settled in quite well. The fact he isn’t fluent in the English language doesn’t seem to be a problem just now. He’ll be getting English lessons and that will help him as well.”
Milinkovic doesn’t seem the type of player to respond to commands of “intae him” or such like, even if he did understand them. He is more technical and creative, and may just be the missing link Hearts were looking for.