The Renaissance of Josip Ilicic

‘I’ll drive them there myself’ is a term of disrespect regularly used whenever the transfer window comes around by football fans in England in regards to the rumoured departure of a player who is disliked. A player who has had such little impact on a fanbase that people are willing to give up their time to make sure they don’t return isn’t a legacy anyone wants to leave behind at a club, and whilst it’s a shame that there is no evidence of this scenario ever actually playing out, the sentiment often seems genuine. 


Conversely, the term ‘I’ll drive there to see him again’ isn’t one you ever see, in fact the idea of it seems ludicrous, because no matter the reputation of a player, it is some commitment for fans of a player’s former club to maintain such respect after they have parted ways. 


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Such is the impact Josip Ilicic had during his time at Serie A club Atalanta, in October 2023, two buses full of 120 La Dea fans travelled to another country to see their former favourite on a day when he wasn’t even playing a match. 


The Italians were heading to Austria to watch their side face Sturm Graz in a Europa League fixture. Setting off on a six-hour coach trip at midnight between Wednesday and Thursday ahead of the Thursday night match, they had ample time to stop on their way through Slovenia in Maribor, home to Ilicic’s current club, NK Maribor. 


The supporters embraced Ilicic at the club’s training ground not just with the warmth fit for a former player, but with passion and emotion in the knowledge of his influence on La Dea’s rise and the eternal legacy of being one of their own. 


Ilicic was gifted the banner Atalanta’s fans used on his farewell night whilst chants of his name rang out around Maribor’s training ground. A surreal setting for a man who left Atalanta due to mental health issues in 2022, a setting that only served to strengthen a beautiful, unbreakable bond that is increasingly uncommon in modern football. 


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In 2017, the Slovenian arrived in Bergamo at a team on the up having just finished fourth in Serie A starring the likes of Alejandro Gomez and Franck Kessie, but it was that summer – in which Robin Gosens, Timothy Castagne, Jose Luis Palomino, Marten de Roon and Ilicic among others were signed – that Gian Piero Gasperini’s really began to put themselves on the map. 


Each of those players came in and improved a team with already strong foundations, but it was the Slovenian at the focal point of the attack who really elevated them to the next level. In his first season, Ilicic would play in behind two strikers, as part of the two or on the right of a front three as Gasperini developed an adaptable attacking setup, but he was always front and centre of so much of their increasingly eye-catching, free-scoring play.


He scored 15 and assisted 10 in all competitions, and although these stats usually only tell a small fraction of the picture, they reflect his ability to produce chances of all kinds for himself and his teammates, and symbolise an impressive sign of things to come


After failing to qualify for the Europa League through the play-offs at the start of 2018/19, Atalanta’s sole aim was to secure a Champions League spot for the following season, and at times, they were devastating in their pursuit. An encouraging 4-0 victory at home to Frosinone on the opening day was followed by a run of seven games without a win, but in his first start of the campaign after being out with injury, Ilicic netted a 26-minute hat-trick away at Chievo Verona to set the ball rolling. 


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Atalanta and Ilicic’s form was still patchy in the coming months, leaving them ninth at Christmas, but when they were on it, very little could stop them. On December 29th, the forward went one better than his earlier hat-trick, coming off the bench at Sassuolo with the game at 2-3, and making it 2-6 with three goals in just 17 minutes this time. 


Incredibly, however, those were the only six goals Ilicic had scored in 13 Serie A appearances by the new year. It was a slow start for the entire team which stagnated Atalanta’s progress, but didn’t hinder it entirely. The ruthlessness shown by Ilicic ignited a spark in strike partner Duvan Zapata, who scored nine goals in the last six matches of 2018 having netted only once in 13 prior to that run. 


From there, the Ilicic-Zapata partnership blossomed. La Dea lost only two games after the turn of the year, with the pair combining for 19 goals in 19 games to help the side finish third with the most goals in the league (77). Champions League was secured along with a chance to display their free-flowing, fearless attacking football on the world’s biggest stage.


The arrivals of Luis Muriel and Ruslan Malinovskyi bolstered their attacking potency even further, and 30 goals in their opening 10 Serie A matches showcased the team’s superiority going forward. By this point, however, Atalanta were bottom of their Champions League group after three matches in which they conceded 11 and scored just two. 


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The Italians eventually scraped through with seven points in a group stage which Ilicic failed to score in, setting up a round of 16 tie with Valencia in February. As was the case the previous season, the Slovenian was heating up in the height of winter following months of struggle in front of goal up until December, just in time for the knockout rounds. 


Ilicic scored braces in back-to-back 5-0 victories at home to AC Milan and Parma, before putting three past Torino in a 7-0 win to claim his fourth hat-trick for the club, all of which had come away from home. As the excitement built around the Valencia games, the plethora of attacking options at Gasperini’s disposal were starting to gel at an unstoppable pace, so much so that their 4-1 victory in the first leg was hardly a surprise to avid Serie A watchers. 


A brace from right wing-back Hans Hateboer sandwiched goals from midfielder Remo Freuler and Ilicic, proving that goals could come from anywhere in this side, and plenty of them at that. When someone needed to pick up the slack in front of goal, they weren’t just looking at one or two, the dynamic system worked in a way that allowed anyone to get forward and chip in. But even when that wasn’t possible, they had those game-breaking attackers to call upon. 


Valencia scored three goals in the second leg at the Mestalla, all of which were somewhat in vain. By the time Ferran Torres netted their third on 67 minutes, Ilicic had already scored two first half goals before doubling his tally in the second half in a quite extraordinary performance, the pinnacle of his Atalanta career. 


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Only three players – Mario Gomez, Robert Lewandowski and Lionel Messi (twice, of course) – had scored four goals in a Champions League knock-out match. The Slovenian also became the oldest player to score an away Champions League hat-trick. He was 32, and in his post-match interview, he said: “I don’t want to stop, I want to continue. I’m having fun.” 


At the time, Ilicic’s outstanding form and improvement year on year suggested he wouldn’t stop any time soon, but this was March 2020, that ill-fated month he never completely recovered from. 


After PSG knocked Atalanta out of the Champions League on it’s return in August 2020, Ilicic was on the verge of retirement, but instead he decided he wasn’t done yet, playing out another 18 months which saw the infectious joy and ruthless nature in the final third he was known for gradually start to wane. 


In January 2022, Gasperini told Sky Sport Italia: “It is never easy for me to talk about a situation like this, because it is very personal. I can only say we will always be close to him, because there are situations that go beyond football, beyond the profession.” 


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That sentiment runs right through a club with an exceptional connection to its fans and players to this day, and has since helped Ilicic enormously through darker times to a point where he is back playing and enjoying football with Maribor after some time out. 


The brutal nature of professional football and life as a whole is encapsulated in that interview immediately after the shining moment in Josip Ilicic’s career, and the events which played out afterwards, but it is the measure of a man who has brought so much life to the clubs and country he has donned the shirts of that he has bounced back and continued to maintain such strong connections with the places and the people he has played for. 


On June 4th, “Grande Jojo, welcome back!” read a sign in the stands at Stozice Stadium, host to Slovenia’s Euro 2024 warm-up friendly with Armenia. Unbridled joy was shared between Slovenia’s fans and players when four minutes after coming on, Ilicic cut in from the right and hammered home a left-footed winner in trademark fashion to give Slovenia hope going into the 36-year-old’s first ever major tournament with his country. 


A fairytale ending is what this story deserves, but Ilicic knows as well as anyone that things don’t always play out as you might hope, and he will find comfort in those around him throughout this tournament and beyond. Slovenia would draw their opening four matches to Denmark, Serbia, England and Portugal, with Ilicic failing to beat Diogo Costa for the opening spot kick as Portugal prevailed 3-0 on penalties in the Round of 16.


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As Atalanta’s official website wrote following his departure: “He made us dream with his magic on the pitch and moved us with his sensitivity and humanity off it. His four goals at Valencia will forever remain a portrait of the champion Ilicic, while the noble gesture of donating the ball of that magical evening to Bergamo’s Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital is a portrait of the man Josip. There would be goals and assists to list, but what these five seasons together have meant goes far beyond numbers. Now we part ways, but the memories and emotions will remain forever.” 


By: Brad Jones / @bradjonessport

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images / Getty Images