As that final whistle blew in the Stadion Gradski vrt, it signaled not only survival for NK Osijek but also the end to a landmark season for a young Australian in his debut season. Steven Ugarković, who had a “feeling [he] cannot describe” when coming on with 32 minutes to play in the crucial fixture versus fellow relegation scrappers, Hrvatski Dragovoljac, achieved much more than he had expected at the beginning of the season.
With safety guaranteed there was a realisation of how much an affinity the 19-year-old had for the club, in Croatia’s fourth largest city.
“Playing only one season here in Osijek, the club already means a lot to me and that feeling was amazing knowing that we had done enough to survive,” Ugarković said.
“It meant a lot to [stay up] because next season we will be playing first division again.”
But more importantly the Croatian youth international felt a duty to the people of Osijek to maintain top flight football.
“It gave us all as a team the feeling that our job was done for the season and we had not let the club and city down,” he said.
The Osijek midfielder enjoyed a breakthrough season featuring in over 20 appearances-with over half being starts-for the club at the tender age of 19. Ugarković was grateful to “the players and coaching staff” for giving him the platform to step up from the clubs youth system.
The young defensive midfielder admits “it was a very bumpy ride with new coaches” and other obstacles but can now look back with satisfaction on what was “a very productive season.”
“This season I will take away a lot of things as a player and person. I have learnt a lot about myself and my team mates around me which will help us next season to be better,” Ugarković said reflecting on the season that was.
“There were a few big highlights. The first was making my debut as an 18 year old in the first division,” he said.
“Also, playing against Hajduk Split at the Poljud stadium had always been a dream growing up and to play there and have a draw was a big dream come true.
“And the last was grabbing my first goal for the first team that was a great feeling.”
With the season now over, the Osijek man refocuses his attention to some of the other important things in life, family and friends.
“In the off season I will be going home to Sydney, and taking some much needed rest with family and friends,” Ugarković said.
The young man’s eyes are firmly set on bigger honours, not content with fighting relegation he holds ambitions of “qualifying for Europe” with his club. And as he grows in stature he hopes for international recognition with either “Australia or Croatia.”
Stories and speculation on the future of young Australian players who have multiple nationalities crop up regularly in mainstream and social media. When a player accepts a call-up to play youth football for another country, as is the case with Sydney-born Ugarković, it is often assumed we have lost that player. Ugarković has often been cited as one of the players who we’ve let slip through the net.
The youngster rejects the notion Australia has missed out on him saying “I would love to play for Australia and would not decline the invitation” from his country of birth.
“No I do not believe Australia has missed out, because I believe next season will be a big one and I am ready to step up to the big stage for my club and hopefully my country,” Ugarković said.
But the young mans “heart” is also with his country of origin, Croatia.
“Croatia has a place in my heart and they had given me international caps but that does not close the door on me representing Australia,” he said.