Everton finished 7th in the Premier League last season, which has led to some trips to European outposts for Europa League qualifiers. The MFK Ruzomberok trip was a fascinating encounter, and it looks like the upcoming Hajduk Split tie will be too.
Hajduk, a Croatian side, are well known for their boisterous supporters, and enjoyed a solid season last year, finishing third in their division. Hajduk Split’s history includes notable players like Dario Srna, Niko Kranjcar, Slaven Bilic, and, believe it or not, former Evertonian Nikica Jelavic.
Given the relative lack of English-language information regarding Hajduk, Royal Blue Mersey reached out to one of their supporters from Croatia for a sit-down. The results were fascinating and informative. Enjoy.
What kind of European history does Hajduk have? Is this one of their biggest games in club history?
Hajduk Supporter: Yes and no. Everton is indeed one of the strongest opponents in club's history since Croatia became an independent state in 1991.
But back in the 1970s and for most of the 1980s, Hajduk was a big name. Not Real Madrid big or anything such, but we were surely a top 30 European club (as Everton is nowadays) at peak moments back then. We have lost to Leeds in the semifinals of the Cup Winners' Cup 1972/73, and to Tottenham in the 1983/84 UEFA Cup. Played some European QFs too.
On the opposite end, our rock bottom was 13 years ago when freaking Shelbourne eliminated us from European competition. The season after it, the Hungarian champions eliminated us with aggregate 8:0 over 2 legs!
Today we're somewhere in the middle, not a team that 7th placed from the EPL should fear in any regard, but we aren't a walk in the park either.
How did Hajduk Split qualify for Europe last season?
HS: Hajduk qualified for Europe by finishing 3rd in the Croatian championship, some 20 points behind Rijeka and Dinamo Zagreb. Rijeka played really well, and deservedly won the title. The Dinamo scumbags are different story, and they are helped a lot by referees each season (I mean, really a lot), it doesn't matter whether or not they're the best team that particular season (they get the referees’ help whether they need it or not).
It's not hard to qualify for Europa in Croatia, because most of the clubs are poor as a church mouse. Hajduk spends only some €3 million on the 1st team players and coaches wages, yet that's 3rd highest in the league (Dinamo spends roughly €15m on the 1st team, and Rijeka roughly €6m).
Hajduk fans don't consider qualifying for Europa a success, but rather a lucky break, a consequence of us being less poor than the most of our opposition. Moreover, fans would consider 4th position a failure, and 5th or lower place a disaster.
What kind of tactics do the club play, and what formation do they use?
HS: 4-3-2-1. Or rather 4-1-2-2-1 with central DM Radošević playing behind other two midfielders (Hamza and Savvas).
Spanish coach Carrillo was appointed last December, and he has improved our play since he’s been here. We're playing our best football of this decade. Most importantly, we are now a much more organized team. It is especially visible in defense, where we often used to be chaotic. Too often in recent history.
Carrillo plays it narrow, both vertically and horizontally. His general idea is to shut down any play in half-space. Our defensive line stands high-ish, and 3 midfielders unusually close to them. He allows a lot of space on the flanks, daring opponent to play through there. It's kinda trap - when opponent moves balls to a seemingly open side, then Hajduk players swarm in there attempting to do pressing. It's a double-edged sword, because we're very vulnerable to diagonal balls that switch play to the weak, practically empty side, with all players moved from initial position to one side for sideline pressing.
It is expected Hajduk will play very defensively in the 1st leg, because it wouldn't be smart to play open against a very strong team that is also clearly physically superior to us.
What player or players should Everton fans keep an eye on on Thursday?
HS: Young offensive midfielder Nikola Vlašić (1997) is a future star. If he improves precision of his shot and his decision making, then he might become even a superstar. Very good dribbler, and it's very hard to tackle him. Fun fact is his sister Blanka is famous high jumper.
On the left side is Ante Erceg. He can be very efficient in counterattacks in the case opposing team's RB tends to go up. Though, Hajduk domestically never plays teams strong as EFC is, we're yet to see how Erceg fares against such a good defense.
Our best striker Márkó Futács is injured, but everyone expects Franck "Zolja" Ohandza would replace him well. Zolja seems fat, but it's deceptive - he's explosive and fast. It's only that he's not tactically refined as Futács is, and isn't as much involved in play as the Hungarian is.
Borja López is a very good defender. In 2013 Monaco paid more than €2 million to Sporting Gijón for him at the age of 19. This summer he moved from Barcelona B-team to Hajduk, he’s trying to revive his career (injuries caused setback) here. He might be out on Thursday, though, adductor injury.
There's been a lot of chatter about Hajduk's impressive supporters. Is there an organized group?*
HS: Torcida is the only organized supporters group. They are Ultras and they are really intense, famous for their choreographies and performances, notorious for causing fights and other trouble.
There will be no flares during the games vs Everton. Torcida stopped using pyro in European games few years ago, because UEFA fines are high, especially for recidivists. They simply have understanding for club's financial situation, it's not that they've suddenly became choirboys.
Fans are involved in clubs operations, but that goes through fans NGO "Naš Hajduk" (Our Hajduk), which any fan can join. Fans are not running the club, but since 2011 fans are electing members of the Supervisory Board.
That fan-elected Supervisory Board appoints club's CEO, supervises club management, and all the most important management's decisions require Board's approval.
Fans actually own 24.53% of the club shares since October of last year. However, it's pending paying the remaining 17 installments (around €250K each) over the next 8 1/2 years to the company named Tommy. Tommy is a nickname of a local businessman, and he named his company after it. He's a Hajduk fan and a rich guy whose company is the biggest Hajduk sponsor.
*Stay tuned for a more in depth look at Torcida ahead of Everton’s away leg in Croatia
Many, many thanks to our friend from Croatia for his time. After the two legs have been completed, we’ll certainly be wishing Hajduk Split the best in the remainder of their season.