Football: Warriors legend Mirko Grabovac to return to the club as head coach

Former Warriors FC striker Mirko Grabovac (left, with daughter Lucija, wife Katarina and daughter Karla) will be returning to the club as head coach.
Former Warriors FC striker Mirko Grabovac (left, with daughter Lucija, wife Katarina and daughter Karla) will be returning to the club as head coach. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MIRKO GRABOVAC

"A club legend returns for the 2018 season", nine-time S-League champions Warriors Football Club posted this teaser on their Facebook page last month.

The Straits Times (ST) can reveal that "legend" is none other than their former striker Mirko Grabovac, who has 218 S-League goals, five Golden Boots and four titles to his name.

Ten years after renouncing his Singapore citizenship to return to his native Croatia, the 46-year-old former Lion will be at his old stomping ground as head coach from the middle of this month. He replaces Razif Onn, who will remain at the club as head of youth development.

Grabovac told ST: "I don't want to talk about my achievements as a player because I'm now a coach.

"But Warriors are a big club, so we must work together to achieve something, maybe a trophy (Warriors last won the S-League title in 2014). I am very motivated to do well with my former club."

Warriors general manager Paul Poh confirmed an initial one-year deal and said: "We felt we needed a European-style training programme, and Mirko is now an experienced coach, so it's a good fit."

After representing the then Yugoslavian Under-16 and U-18 teams, Grabovac played top-tier football in Croatia with Primorac 1929 in the 1990s. But injuries and a fallout with an agent hindered his progress before he moved to Singapore for a fresh start.

He was an instant hit with the Warriors as he plundered 135 league goals from 1999 to 2003, winning the topscorer award in his first four seasons and leading his club to the 2000 and 2002 league titles before he switched to Tampines Rovers in 2004.

The hotshot was given Singapore citizenship in 2002, earned 12 caps but failed to score for the Lions.

Grabovac remained prolific at club level with the Stags, netting 83 league goals from 2004 to 2007, winning the S-League twice more in 2004 and 2005, when he also reclaimed his final Golden Boot.

In 2008, he joined Sengkang Punggol as player-coach, but struggled with the Beep Test at the age of 37 and opted to go back to Croatia to be with his parents, wife and two daughters.

In the decade that followed, Grabovac coached Croatian teams such as NK Imotski, NK Mosor and NK Junak Sinj before he took up the Warriors offer. He will be joined by fitness coach Marko Skomrlj.

"I like attacking football but, (to play) attacking football, the team must have good technique and good fitness," said Grabovac.

"Fitness is most important because if you are fit, you are not going to be easily injured and you make less mistakes on the pitch.

"I think our young players are fit, but I don't want them to just run all over the place. I like intelligent players who know what to do in every moment.

"I know of the changes the S-League has made, and it is not new to me. I worked with many young players in Croatia and I think it's good to give them a push."

Though he has been away for 10 years, Grabovac's presence was still felt in the local scene as he recommended several Balkan players, such as 61-goal Mislav Karoglan and S-League title-winning defender Marin Vidosevic for the Warriors, and 21-goal Miroslav Kristic for Balestier Khalsa.

He is on the lookout for a good foreign player to join Japanese defender Kento Fukuda who has been retained as one of the club's two imports.

"It's not easy because it is mid-season in Croatia and we must see who is free. We must find a solution and bring in a good player who can score many goals," he said.

While he declined to dwell too much on his decision to renounce his Singapore citizenship, he said: "In life, sometimes you don't know why you make certain decisions. I can only say I am a family man and my family needed me with them.

"But I remember only the good things about Singapore. I was proud to play for the national team and I feel I still can contribute to Singapore football in some ways."