David Milinkovic endeared himself to the Hearts support with his performances last season, now fans are pining for the club to bring the player back to Tynecastle explains Joel Sked.
It was a relationship which began at the end of August 2017, then sparkled into life on 17 December after a 4-0 thumping of Celtic at Tynecastle Park. From there, it continued to blossom.
It was meant to be no more than a fling, a short-term marriage of convenience. Yet feelings grew stronger, especially on the side of Hearts fans, to such a point that they pine for more.
With the apple of their eye no longer at the club, travelling around the world, they’ve had to console themselves with remembering the good times as they hope and pray for a more meaningful, long-term relationship. Every day, every few hours checking in, following his every move on social media, hoping for his return, even pleading with the club to make something, anything happen.
To say a large number of Hearts fans have been taken with David Milinkovic is an understatement. His personality, on and off the field, has enamored him to the club’s support during what was a trying season, both on and off the field.
When Craig Levein took over the vacant managerial position after the sacking of Ian Cathro and the interim spell of coach Jon Daly, the team were lacking balance, width and pace. The signing of a wide player was imperative and the unknown Milinkovic arrived ahead of the transfer window closing.
Such was the mystery and intrigue which surrounded the player, there was confusion as to whether he should be called David or Manuel - his Wikipedia page suggested the latter. As for his nationality, he was born in France but had a Serbian surname and spent his formative years playing for clubs in Serbia.
Yet, he arrived from Genoa in Italy via loan spells in the Italian lower leagues.
It was a largely inauspicious start from the player. There was an assist against Partick Thistle in his third appearance but he had to wait until the end of October for his first start.
Levein teased excitement-starved fans at the end of September: “I like David – he’s something different. It looks like something is going to happen when he receives the ball.”
That’s exactly what he brought to the team, something different. Before Celtic arrived at Tynecastle in December Milinkovic had already begun to win over fans with his attitude. Positive in possession and determined out of it, the player mixed attributes which fans loved.
The 24-year-old was one of few who excited fans on the ball, took on full-backs and took risks. But in the transition from attack to defence he continued to do something which was out of keeping with normal wingers and attackers, he worked his socks off to win the ball back, and appeared to relish doing so.
Milinkovic ran Celtic left-back Kieran Tierney ragged, assisted one goal and scored twice as Hearts recorded a famous victory, ending Celtic’s record breaking 69-game unbeaten domestic run. It cemented his place as a fan favourite.
Something which only grew each time he went on the pitch, or took to social media platform Instagram to keep fans up to date with his daily routine, whether it be a range of selfies, his love for pasta, work in the gym or just being in and around Edinburgh.
His popularity was such that Evening News writer Anthony Brown noted that he had never had such a reaction to a story he had written about a player’s fitness, with Milinkovic reported to be recovering from injury.
The club, and more so the fans, seemed to have been dealt a major blow when it emerged recently that his parent club Genoa put a £600,000 price tag on the player.
It would be a significant outlay for the club. Especially for a player who is still a largely raw talent, having only played consistently for the last two seasons, and one who Levein, wary of Milinkovic’s positional sense, or lack thereof, admits runs his throat into the ground as he careers around the pitch.
The club are investing wisely in the stadium and a new pitch, therefore it will require all of Levein’s transfer nous to coax a deal with Genoa, whether it is another loan or a permanent transfer at a knockdown price.
Fans are anxious to see what unknown quantities Olly Lee, midfielder signed from Luton Town, and striker Uche Ikpeazu can produce, while Jake Mulraney has made the step up from the Championship and fellow winger Danny Amankwaa is still adjusting to Scottish football. But re-signing of Milinkovic would be a fillip for the team’s creativity.
He was head and shoulders above his team-mates in a maroon shirt for chance creation last season. No Hearts player recorded more assists than the Frenchman’s five and he was in the top ten in the Ladbrokes Premiership for assists per 90 minutes, ahead of the likes of Ryan Christie, Scott Sinclair and Tom Rogic.
Perhaps most impressively Milinkovic was third in the entire league for key passes per 90 minutes. These are passes which lead to a shot. Only Rangers’ Daniel Candeias and Hibs/Dundee’s Scott Allan produced more.
He was the only Hearts player in the top 30 in the league for crosses per 90 minutes and top 20 for dribbles per 90 minutes.
Stats can be taken out of context, but without watching a single minute of football you would come to the conclusion that Hearts were a one-man attacking force. Get the ball to Milinkovic and something will happen.
While not as straightforward as that, it isn’t that far from the truth.
Hearts were a different team with Milinkovic on the park, especially away from home. He was the only player capable of consistently taking the team up the park, turning defence into attack quickly. He is as quick and strong running with the ball as without it. His chest puffed out, he is a one-man counter-attacking machine.
In the final game of the season at Kilmarnock, anything positive in the attacking phase involved Milinkovic. His crossing, his dribbling and his passing created chances and caused Killie’s discomfort.
His influence, however, was never more evident than in the quarter-final of the Scottish Cup away at Motherwell in March. Left on the bench in the first-half, his arrival transformed Hearts into a competent unit. If he had started Hearts would, at worst, earned a replay.
Understandably, he can frustrate by overdoing it, whether that be a trick or running into areas which leads to him giving up possession. But it is something which can be forgiven by his reaction when the ball is lost and more importantly the understanding that he produces moments such as the assist which allowed Steven Naismith to net against Aberdeen.
A lot of love for the player comes from his apparent affection for the club via social media, but to go alongside it, there’s a lot to like about his productivity on the field.
“He provides energy,” Levein said towards the end of the season. “Sometimes it’s just energy, nothing else, but it has an impact on the match. I really like him. I love him to bits, actually, but his retention of information at times is something else.”
Fans will be hoping it’s that love which prompts Milinkovic’s return.
Join our Facebook group Our Edinburgh to share images and news from and around the Capital
Know someone that makes a difference in our community? Nominate them for a Local Hero Award HERE