Nikica Jelavic Exclusive: 'I Thought I Could Go Easier... And I Disappeared'

Nikica Jelavic has announced his retirement from football at the age of 35. Here is our recent interview with the former Everton striker, which first featured in the Official Matchday Programme for the Blues' clash against Manchester City.

When Nikica Jelavic joined Everton he channelled the spirit of the kid who spent childhood days in warring Bosnia kicking a ball without a care in the world. 

Jelavic was six at the outbreak of the Bosnian War in 1992, too young to understand the conflict raging in the country, and counts the period until a peace agreement in late 1995 among the happiest of his life.

 The opening phase of his Everton career belongs in the same bracket.

 Introduced to supporters during half-time of a Goodison Park game against Manchester City, Jelavic tugged the blue-and-white scarf hung around his neck and thought, “This is where I belong, this is what you played for all your career”.

 And, for eight months, Jelavic’s flame burned brightly.

He provided the winning strike on his home debut against Tottenham Hotspur, prompting a sequence of 11 goals from 13 starts.

 Of his 15 goals between March and October 2012, 12 came with a single touch of the ball.

“The first eight months with Everton was the best period of my career,” says Jelavic.

“After that goal against Tottenham, everything seemed so easy.

“It was amazing, whenever I shot, it was in.

“I was so relaxed and confident.

“I was like, ‘I don’t care who I play against, they have to care about me’.”

The impression of a player booking in for a long reign as Everton’s premier striker crystallised when Jelavic began his first full season – 2012/13 – with four goals in six Premier League matches.

Then a curious thing happened.

Jelavic stopped scoring. Not altogether but as good as.

He netted only three more times in the league season and once in five FA Cup ties.

For the first time, he tells his side of the story.

“Listen,” begins Jelavic, “probably I was thinking, ‘I had a good season, I can repeat this’.

“But in my head, I was maybe too relaxed and thought, ‘I can chill a bit after the season’.

“You have to do everything necessary, every single day, to keep that high level of football for many years.

“I didn’t do this.

“I thought, ‘I can go a little bit easier and still play well’.

“You need to slow down just one step and you’re gone – and this is what I did.

“I thought, ‘I can play a high level of football with a little bit less training’.

“If you do that in the Premier League, you disappear, like I did.

“Sometimes, if I didn’t feel well, I skipped training.

“Before, I would still have trained.

“They are small things but very important.

“I regret it, I would do it differently today.

“I still think I did a good job at Everton.

“But, for sure, I could have done much more.”

The universal puzzlement around Jelavic’s dry spell was shared by his manager.

“David Moyes called me for a meeting and said, ‘What can I do to get the old Jelavic back?’,” continues Jelavic.

“I was like, ‘Gaffer, I really don’t know, I am trying to find a solution’.

“He asked me if I’d like to go on the bench for a couple of games.

“I was playing bad.

“I lost confidence and he felt that – he was trying to help me.

“But I wanted to play.

“Maybe if I went on the bench for a couple of games, I would have been hungrier.

“I don’t know?

“The only fact is, I didn’t play well, especially in the second half of the season.

“He eventually put me on the bench and he was 100-per-cent right.”

Jelavic’s self-assurance took a hit, too.

The player who would “never think about the game” until kick-off – and was bemused at teammate Phil Neville mentally tuning in three days out from a match – began second guessing himself.

“Thoughts come to your head, ‘What is going on? Where did it go wrong?’,” says Jelavic.

 “I’d never been in that situation, so it was a surprise for me.

“This is your job, the job that feeds your family, so it affects your normal life.

“But I made it difficult for myself, nobody else did.

“The Club and my teammates were trying to help me.

“The supporters were cheering my name and I was grateful for that.”

Jelavic grew up in Gabela, a Bosnian village four kilometres from the Croatian border.

Between the ages of six and 10, his life was filled with football and swims in the Neretva River, which tracks through Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia on its way to the Adriatic Sea.

Dad Philip, formerly an “old-school right-back” in the Bosnian league, fought on the frontline for the duration of a war which spanned April 1992 to December 1995.

“It was the craziest period, no rules, we were just kids, doing what we do best – going outside and playing,” says Jelavic.

“Many times, we got in trouble, but who cares? You’re kids.”

Philip Jelavic is a shrewd man and would become his son’s agent.

Watching Nikica fling himself around as a goalkeeper when he started organised football with the youth team from Gabela, dad intervened.

“He told me: ‘You have to go up front, or you won’t earn any money’, says Jelavic.

“I was a very alive kid.

“Goalkeepers are always flying in the air and catching balls. I needed this.”

Jelavic’s father “definitely pushed me… he was football, football, football”.

When Nikica displayed a natural aptitude for his new striking position, Philip took him to Croatian side NK Neretva, “A better organised club with a good academy” – and closer, literally and figuratively, to Hajduk Split, the team of Jelavic’s dreams.

Why, then, did the boy raised in Bosnia and Herzegovina long to play for the illustrious club over the border?

More pertinently, why did he grow up picturing himself in the distinctive chequered red and white of Croatia – the country he represented 36 times, including at two major tournaments – rather than Bosnia’s deep blue?

“Listen,” starts Jelavic, “we are Croatian people there.

“Herzegovina is mostly Croatia people.

“In Bosnia, they are Bosnians.

“You cannot explain to foreigners how this works.

“We are Croatians but born outside Croatia.”

Jelavic was 15 when he won over Hajduk Split scouts in the year 2000.

He left his childhood home and older sister and younger brother, moving 95 miles along the coast to live with a host family.

“I had to learn everything when I got to Hajduk, they teach you how to behave, how to eat – all this basic stuff,” says Jelavic.

“I settled straightaway. I was a kid who left his house to come to a big city but the club does everything for you to feel comfortable.”

Jelavic made his debut at 17 but because of injury waited until 2006/07 for regular football.

At the end of that season, he decided it was “time to see something else… and try to improve my game”.

Jelavic joined Belgian club Zulte Waregem and in his lone season scored four goals in 25 matches.

“Mmm,” ponders Jelavic. “It was a mistake.

“I didn’t play well or settle well.

“I was young, 22.

“I thought, ‘Bigger contract’.

“You think, ‘That’s it’, you know?

“Now, I can say, I didn’t give my best.

“But, back then, I didn’t see it. I thought, ‘Now, you can chill a little bit’. That’s why I had a very bad season.

“The club tried everything to help me, I cannot say anything bad about them.”

Club and player both wanted to sever ties and Rapid Vienna in Austria “was my only option”.

“At Zulte,” continues Jelavic, “it was a small club, they invested a lot of money in me, so I thought, ‘My spot is guaranteed’.

“I went to Rapid with a different attitude and took every game and training session seriously.

“I thought, ‘It is a big club, with a lot of supporters, fighting for titles and in a great city’.

“Once I got my chance, I wasn’t going to give it away again.”

Jelavic had to play second fiddle to frontline strikers Stefan Maierhofer and Erwin Hoffer in his first season.

That pair’s exits in summer 2009 cleared the way for the Croat to take centre stage.

Jelavic scored 29 goals, including nine in 12 Europa League games.

“My first child was born in that year and everything was perfect,” says Jelavic.

“I was on fire and of interest to many clubs.

“I was honest with myself and knew I should try to find more of a challenge.”

Jelavic adopted a pragmatic view to joining Rangers in August 2010.

He would play for a “massive club with brilliant supporters” and a manager in Walter Smith who was “a gentleman and such a good coach”.

But, confesses Jelavic, “my target was to score goals and go to the Premier League”.

He won the Scottish Premiership and League Cup in his 17 months and answered Smith’s instruction to “just score goals” with 36 in 56 matches.

Among a flood of offers to financially ailing Rangers, Everton’s was the “most serious”.

“I was very sad to leave but… you have to follow your ambition,” says Jelavic, who discovered a “different intensity” in Premier League football.

“You have to fight more and run more,” he explains.

“With Rangers, you knew you could beat a side 3-0, so didn’t need to do extra jobs.”

Equally, Moyes was relentless.

“Honestly, I like this man so much,” says Jelavic.

 “You could see his passion for not only football but for Everton.

“He really loved being in charge of this club.

“His training was intense, to be honest.

“But this is his style.

“And we were flying, playing good, running like crazy.”

Jelavic knew he was bound for the exit when Roberto Martinez succeeded Moyes in summer 2013.

“Roberto had a completely different style,” says Jelavic, who scored twice in Martinez’s opening five Premier League games before Romelu Lukaku’s arrival relegated him to the bench.

“He is a good guy and a good coach. I liked him as a man.

“But immediately I could see we didn’t click, in terms of football.

“Hs style was very effective, especially in the first season, but different from what I like.

“Sitting on the bench was not going to give anything to him, to me or to the Club.”

Jelavic left for Hull City in January 2014, scoring five goals to help spare his new team the drop and claim a place in Croatia’s squad for that summer’s World Cup, where his two appearances included the opening game against hosts Brazil.

He retired from international football, aged 29, soon after.

“We had a young coach [Niko Kovac] and he changed everything,” says Jelavic.

“Our body fat was checked at 7am every day.

“We were like, ‘Come on, we don’t do this in the national team’.

“We didn’t fight but we had some arguments and, in the end, I left.

“I don’t regret it and we don’t have problems between us today.”

Jelavic had a personally sound first full season with Hull but the team went down and he was taken to West Ham United by compatriot Slaven Bilic.

After only six months in the capital, “an offer I couldn’t turn down” landed from Chinese second-tier club Beijing Renhe.

He spent one year in the Chinese capital before swapping to Super League side Guizhou Zhicheng.

Jelavic would visit wife Dajana and the couple’s three daughters back in Beijing once a week – they didn’t move to Guizhou because of the paucity of satisfactory schooling – but after one year of that arrangement the player’s family returned to Croatia.

Jelavic is candid about his reason for going to China and just as forthright explaining the transfer to Guizhou, which wasn’t motivated by the higher standard of football.

“Many people go to China to earn money, it is no secret” says Jelavic.

“And the reason I moved to Guizhou is simple: money.

“You think, ‘The city you are in doesn’t matter, it is important you know why you are here’.

“’Take the money for a couple of years and at the end your family has a good life’.

“But it was a good decision for other reasons.

“I met a lot of nice people and experienced the Chinese culture and mentality.

“If you ask me how I managed to stay so long by myself [two-and-a-half years], I have no answer.

“It was very, very, very difficult.

“Now I am back home with my wife and kids and family and it is amazing.”

Moving to Croatia in August this year, the football was relatively incidental.

Jelavic is playing for Lokomotiva Zagreb but “my body can feel the end is coming”.

“I am 36 next year. It is enough,” says Jelavic.

“I have many other things to do.”

Jelavic wants to remain involved in football – although he is undecided in which capacity – “because it gave me everything”.

There is only one stipulation.

“I want to settle here with my family for two or three years,” says Jelavic.

“The kids are still small [11, nine and four].

“They need their father.

“All my life I was moving, moving.

“But I will be busy. I am involved in a lot of private businesses.

“Even on holiday with my family, I don’t know how to rest.”

Jelavic collects his thoughts.

“It won’t be a boring life,” he concludes.

Nikica Jelavic has set the bar very high on that score.