Despite being back in Budapest, thoughts of what could have been on Merseyside are never far away from the mind of former Everton midfielder Muhamed Bešić.
He has no choice.
The combative midfielder, who turned 31 last month, returned to 34-time Hungarian champions, Ferencváros, upon leaving the Blues in 2021 but is often reminded of a spell on Merseyside that started brightly but ended in frustration, despite now plying his trade more than 1,000 miles away from Goodison Park.
“My connection with Evertonians always meant a lot to me… it still does,” he reveals. “Even now, here in Hungary I see a few Evertonians now and then and every time they will say, ‘It was a shame it didn’t work out’, and things like this.
“The fans and the Club’s values are what make it so special. We say in Bosnia, the fans are from the streets. They are not like some fans of other clubs. When you see Evertonians on the street, they are the people who will talk to you like they are one of your friends. I love that connection.
“Things didn’t end up going as I would have liked but that is life. It means a lot to me to be part of Everton and to know that the people still remember me fondly. I still support the Club, of course. I still watch nearly every game even now.”
Signed for Everton by Roberto Martinez on the back of an impressive World Cup campaign with Bosnia & Herzegovina in the summer of 2014, Bešić’s style felt like an ideal fit from early on.
His duel-winning abilities combined with confidence in possession made him an ideal candidate for a role in the base of Everton’s midfield, but, as he explains, it was a position that he was learning on the job.
“It was an instant decision [to join Everton], to be fair,” reveals Bešić, whose children still live and attend school in the north west of England. “I had other options at that time because, of course, when you play a World Cup and you are a young player — I was 22 at the time — then you are going to attract some teams, but when Everton called it became extremely straightforward.
“It’s a big move, obviously, coming from the Hungarian league to the Premier League but my mentality helped me because I don’t get fazed and try to take everything in my stride.
“Something I don’t think people really know that I played at Ferencvaros as a centre-back for the two seasons before joining Everton. So, when I came to the Premier League, the number 6 role was quite new for me in terms of the position.
“I had won the best player of the league two years in a row in Hungary as a central defender but I had conversations with Martinez, who said he wanted to make me into a box-to-box player.
“I arrived and I felt like I fit in well. As you know, they call Everton the People’s Club and there were people like Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines and other really great people in the Club.
“They made me feel really welcome and I got a very good feeling straight from the beginning.
“Then, I think my mentality and style of play was the perfect fit for Everton in terms of the values of the Club and what the fans like to see, you know. When it fits together you get that feeling and I had that. You cannot force it but it was there for me.”
Bešić’s memory borders on photographic.
He doesn’t just remember results and opponents, he remembers the individuals he faced and specific actions on the pitch with impressive accuracy.
Unsurprising, then, that two moments – one good and one bad – from early on in his Everton career are brought up by him, before he is even prompted.
“For the first handful of games it was a case of getting used to the quicker tempo more than anything but my teammates — particularly people like Jagielka and Baines, like I say — were great with me in terms of helping me on and off the pitch,” says Bešić. “Martinez was a big help to me as well. After the first few games, I felt I got to grips with it.
“People might remember the Cruyff turn that came off against Porto, in a friendly, for my first game at Goodison, but then I remember the back-heel against Chelsea, which didn’t go right, on my Premier League debut.
“For me, I never let those bad moments affect me too much. Of course, it’s frustrating when you make a mistake but my mentality has always been to keep moving forward and I’ve always been confident in my ability. I think that made the transition of coming to England quite easy for me.”
Beśić continues to regale with his versions of various events from his early days at Everton.
Top of his list of favourite moments, he says, was a crunching – but fair – tackle on Joey Barton when QPR visited Goodison Park.
“Goodison Park,” he exhales audibly and pauses for a second. “An amazing stadium. I will never forget a big tackle I made on Joey Barton. The whole stadium stood up and roared. It gives you a great feeling, you feel 10-feet tall.
“The fans in Goodison can celebrate an important tackle almost as much as a goal and I always loved this. The fans’ reactions, even to the small things that happen on the pitch, are incredible.”
There was also the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg win over Manchester City on home soil in January 2016, when Bešić dominated an in-form Yaya Toure and David Silva to help seal a 2-1 win on the night, but that lead would ultimately be overturned in the second leg to deny the Toffees a date at Wembley.
There would be a trip to the national stadium that season, though – Bešić’s second with the Club – in the form of an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United in April 2016.
Bešić overcame a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined for six weeks to regain his place in the starting line-up in time for the clash, as the Blues squandered a chance from the penalty spot and ultimately fell to a 2-1 loss after Anthony Martial’s late winner.
But things were about to get worse.
The Berlin-born midfielder suffered an ACL rupture in Wayne Rooney’s testimonial – an otherwise uneventful 0-0 draw played out between Everton and Manchester United – in August 2016. It was an injury that would rule him out of the entire 2016/17 campaign and, on reflection, signal the beginning of the end of his time in royal blue.
“In life you can never predict what is going to happen and how things are going to play out,” he explains. “I had lots of injuries and this pulled me down a lot in the end.
“The Club cannot wait for you too much, if you have too many injuries, like I did. I was out for nearly two years at Everton with my ACL rupture and after that another bad hamstring injury.
“It felt like the injuries always came at the worst possible times as well. When I’m feeling at my best, I’ve had setbacks with injuries. At Everton it was the same. Like that Man City game, a couple of games later I had a hamstring tear and I was out for a while.
“Every time it felt like I had my peak time, something would happen… We qualified for Europe, then I did my ACL in Rooney’s testimonial.
“I think it’s difficult to come back in the Premier League after injuries because you need some time to find your best again, but the level is so high you can end up putting in bad performances. I remember when we played Arsenal at home I played really bad and that affects things.
“It’s really difficult to keep coming back and in the Premier League nobody is waiting for you. If you miss one or two games, there are good players everywhere who will come and take your place.
“I have no regrets, though.
“There was no stopping the injuries I had but I can’t help but think if I didn’t have them, I think I could have stayed at the Club for a long time. That was always my dream - to stay at Everton for a long time.”
Just prior to that season-ending knee injury, then-manager Ronald Koeman had told Bešić he was part of his plans for the coming campaign but the long-term nature of the problem meant it would ultimately see him replaced.
“I remember when Koeman came in and we had good talks about where I would fit in,” he says. “But then I got injured in pre-season and missed the whole season. Of course, he couldn’t wait for me and he bought Morgan Schneiderlin, Idrissa Gana Gueye… good players. Of course for me it was difficult but for other players it was a positive, that’s how it goes in football.
“I never had problems with any coach. I always felt at home in Everton. They really took care of me and gave me the time I needed to properly recover from my injuries as well.
“They could have easily just kicked me out but they never did, they always supported me and I will always be thankful for that. In my most difficult times, Everton were always there for me.”
After loan spells with Championship clubs Middlesbrough and Sheffield United, Bešić rejoined Ferencváros, from whom he’d joined Everton seven years previously, in the summer of 2021 on a free transfer.
It was a decision, he says, based on finding “peace” after a turbulent time with injuries. While Bešić has found that to some extent, he suffered another ACL rupture – to the same knee he damaged previously – in February this year.
“I had a spell, with the COVID pandemic included, where I didn’t really play for two years,” explains Bešić. “I just wanted to go somewhere where the people like me. Everton was not possible, so I had to find another club. I chose Ferencváros, even though there were plenty of other options. I wanted this peace in my mind after a sustained difficult period in my career.
“It hasn’t all been straightforward. We made the Europa League and won the group stage, but after this I suffered another ACL injury, which put me out for a long time again.
“If I look back, I’ve lost around four-and-a-half years of my career, taking into account injuries and the COVID pandemic.
“As you get older you learn to cope. I focused on my religion [Islam] a lot after my first big injury and that has helped me a lot ever since.
“You could say it’s been a difficult journey football-wise but I have no regrets and I am fortunate to have found some amazing clubs and amazing people, not least at Everton.”