There’s a few things that surprise people about Matija Sarkic.
Speak to him and it’s the perfect, accentless English that belies his status as a Montenegrin international, raised in Belgium.
That’s because he was born in Grimsby.
Watch him play and it’s the unfussy composure and willingness to encroach into areas that would give most goalkeepers vertigo.
And listen to anyone who has had anything to do with the 24-year-old’s nomadic career and it’s the fact that he was sold for peanuts as a teenager – and released, for absolutely nothing, by Aston Villa a couple of summers ago.
Yet here he is, playing for his seventh team in four years and doing so to a standard that means no other Championship goalkeeper has more clean sheets this season. Sarkic and Luton Town’s Simon Sluga have six from 11 games.
Which is why Birmingham City’s goalkeeper coach Andy Marshall told BirminghamLive: “From my point of view it became a bit of a no brainer to bring him into the building,”
Sarkic’s arrival at St Andrew’s is a textbook case of one player’s misfortune being another’s opportunity.
And quite some misfortune Neil Etheridge suffered too. After a commendable first campaign at Blues, Etheridge was struck down by Covid-19.
After testing positive at Blues’ preseason training camp in Troon at the end of June, the former Walsall and Cardiff City man ended up in hospital, with him and his new wife fearing for his life. His harrowing tale can be read in all its terrifying detail here.
The illness gave Lee Bowyer a complication he hadn’t anticipated so the head coach’s first port of call was to knock on Marshall’s door to source a replacement.
Marshall quickly set to work and drew up a list with Sarkic’s name at the top.
The pair had worked together when a gangly 18-year-old arrived at Villa, where Marshall had been a back-up towards the end of his playing days – and in 2015 was the club’s goalkeeper coach.
Sarkic spent a week on trial – under Marshall’s guidance – and was quickly offered a contract.
But it was former Head of Academy Recruitment David Downes, now at Sheffield Wednesday, who was responsible for finding him.
Downes remembers the circumstances well. “I knew the agent of his brother, Oliver, who was at Benfica at the time, we ended up having a chance conversation about it,” he said.
“He asked if I had seen Mati – which I had – but I didn’t realise he was born in Grimsby. I remember asking him to send me a picture of his passport.
“We needed a goalkeeper, we had seen quite a few and it was a bit of a tip off that Anderlecht thought they had one younger that was better.
“Matija was with Montenegro Under-19s and it was one of those things where we were with Villa, you see a decent goalkeeper, he’s at Anderlecht and you think ‘We have got no chance of getting him’.
“He came over and had a lot of good things going for him, the thing that made us scratch our heads was that Anderlecht were willing to let him go – and willing to let him go quite cheaply.
“We only paid about £30,000 for him. With his pedigree we were thinking ‘what is wrong with him?’ He came over with perfect English, a great kid, incredibly driven and knew where he wanted to be and how to get there.”
That comment, the sense of direction, is one that remains constant whoever you talk to about Sarkic.
Marshall noticed that at Villa – and talks about it now.
“I got to know him very quickly in that week and the thing with him is he is a very confident person. He comes from a very good background, he is very well-educated.
“So anything that you told him it was very easy for him to take on board very quickly.
“One of the things I liked was that his development skills and learning was first class. Anything I told him he literally immediately picked up on it.
“It wasn’t telling, telling, telling, once or twice was enough. He absorbs information very quickly and by doing that you progress yourself very quickly.
“He was a model pro. Once we started to teach him how to look after himself – and what I mean by that is on a Saturday everyone sees all the gloss and glamour of Matija Sarkic playing the ball out, making saves and coming for crosses.
“But the hard work you do on the training field and the work you do away from the training field is paramount.
“The way you live your life, the way you conduct yourself around the city of Birmingham, the way you go to bed early. As a professional footballer you can’t be going out the evening before a game and then expect to play at an optimum level the next day.
“Sacrifices have to be made as a professional footballer and Matija brought this onboard very early. That was a part of what I had to educate him in and what I am trying to educate our other young goalkeepers in.”
Sarkic had a bumpy start to the 2015/2016 Premier League Two campaign conceding five in a heavy defeat at Swansea in his first match, but remained part of the squad which by the end of the competition had reached the final of the PL2 play-offs.
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He was sporadically on the bench in the Championship the following season and in 2017/2018 was sent to Wigan on loan, where he played in two FA Cup games but primarily backed up Christian Walton and Jamie Jones for Paul Cook’s Latics.
It was the start of a period of his career which saw him oscillate between Villa’s PL2 team, various loan clubs, including spells with lower league Stratford Town and Havant & Waterlooville, with the odd call up to the first-team bench.
And then in the summer of 2019 came his first big break. Gary Holt, now director of football at Falkirk, was then manager of Scottish Premiership outfit Livingston.
The Lions had just sold Liam Kelly to Queen’s Park Rangers and Holt, a former striker with Norwich and Nottingham Forest, was intent on replenishing the department.
“Our goalie coach at the time Tony Caig knew through the goalkeeper coach at Villa that Mati might be available,” Holt recalled.
“We did a bit looking at him, saw some clips, liked what we saw but made it plain and simple to him that ‘You come in and fight to be No. 1 because we want two No. 1s. Two young, hungry goalkeepers to push each other’.”
It was a fight Sarkic initially lost, with Ross Stewart given first crack.
“Don’t get me wrong, when we told him he wasn’t starting the season. Was he crestfallen? Was he hurt? Yes,” Holt said.
“Is that a bad thing? No, it shows he cares, it shows he’s hungry. He didn’t go away and wallow in self-pity and say ‘let’s be a No. 2’.
“He believed he would be No. 1 and he pushed himself. There was no negativity at all, he was ‘I will show you’. And I loved that about him.
“When he got his chance he took it with both hands and wasn’t prepared to let someone take it away from him. That was a good thing as well.”
It took a couple of months before Sarkic dislodged Stewart, making his league debut against Celtic. It was one that would not be forgotten.
“He stood out in most games. The Celtic game we won 2-0 and he had an assist for one of the goals. It was a free-kick and he identified Lyndon Dykes with the run and he zipped the ball over the top for Lyndon to lob the ‘keeper.
“Suddenly it was ‘Who is this guy?’ I’ll not make any bones about it, he’s a big, good-looking bugger, this good-looking boy is a good goalkeeper and his perfectionism to his trade was second to none – and that’s the one thing that will always stick with me.
“He’s very humble but he knows what he wants and he is going to go all out to try and get it and if that means he treads on some toes and puts some noses out of joint – not a problem for me.”
Unfortunately what was supposed to be a season-long loan was cut short.
Back at Villa Tom Heaton and Wesley both suffered serious knee injuries in what turned out to be a Pyrrhic 2-1 New Year win at Burnley.
In January 2020 Sarkic was recalled – and wouldn’t even make get a place among the substitutes as Orjan Nyland, Pepe Reina and Lovre Kalinic dominated Dean Smith’s thoughts.
“It was a massive body blow,” Holt remembered. “We’d had a phenomenal run and Mati was part of that. We wanted to continue that to the end of the season.
“It just didn’t happen but that’s the gamble you take with loans. Mati knew that, we knew it, we were probably both disappointed with it but sometimes you have to take these bumps in the road.
“Mati took it in his stride but aye, I wouldn’t say it was one of the better conversations I had.
“That’s what happens, he did phenomenally well for us so his parent club thought ‘Let’s have a look’. We tried to get him back, they wouldn’t allow it – the big boys overpowered us.”
Just four months later, having seemingly made a big breakthrough in his career, Villa released him at 22.
“It did surprise me,” Marshall picks up the story. “I had moved on, other people had come in and decisions were made for his future.
“But I have got to say that it did surprise me. I always believed that he was an extremely talented young goalkeeper, somebody just needed to put their arm round him and point him in the right direction. Maybe he is getting that little bit of an opportunity now.”
It was Wolves and Scott Sellars who offered the metaphorical arm.
The ex-Blackburn and Bolton midfielder is Head of Academy at Compton and was on the look-out for a ‘keeper.
“Matija’s name came up, he had a British passport and we knew one or two people had liked him at Villa,” Sellars told BirminghamLive.
“We’d had good reports on him at Villa, we watched him at Livingston and compared him to one or two other goalkeepers and just felt his performances were very strong, very consistent.
“The one thing from my point of view when I watched his videos was to beat him it had to be a really good goal. Other goalkeepers that we were recommended were letting in goals that were quite suspect or didn’t have to do a lot to beat them.
“We all came together and came to the opinion that a free transfer, at his age – still young for a goalkeeper he was probably the best option going around and one we liked.”
A three-year contract followed: “We thought we’d only be having the same conversation in a year, so we could protect ourselves, give the boy some confidence that we believed in him.
“At his age, what he had done at Livingston before, I think we were a little bit surprised he was on a free – but sometimes that happens, clubs have other goalkeepers on their books and sometimes they are going to put more faith in those. But our interest was he was available and he had to do something.”
With Rui Patricio monopolising first-team selection – and the excellent John Ruddy as back-up, Sarkic was taken to Wolves as a development project.
Within months he was back on the road – the M54, on loan to Shrewsbury where he worked under Steve Cotterill.
“He started the season very well then got injured and it almost appeared once he came out of the team the team struggled, then when he went back in the team results picked up,” Sellars noted.
“We analysed his points-per-game ratio and saw that he was really progressing. It wasn’t an easy role, they weren’t at the top of the league, it was going to be challenging for him – but sometimes that’s what you want for goalkeepers.”
One final injury would end his time in Shropshire and see him return to Molineux.
He started the pre-season with Wolves – until an Etheridge-less Blues made contact.
“I watched him last week against Preston when he got a clean sheet,” Sellars continued. “Our goalkeeping coach Tony Roberts has watched him on numerous occasions, our loans manager Matt Jackson has watched him a lot.
“It’s an ideal one for us, he is not far away. The feedback we are getting is very positive from Birmingham, all the reports show he is having a really strong season.
“The number of clean sheets he has had over the season so far is obviously another benchmark he doing well – we see it as a really positive loan for him.”
As does Marshall, who is once again overseeing Sarkic’s career.
“I brought Matija in at Villa with the long term view that he would be a Premier League goalkeeper – and I still stand by that,” Marshall insisted.
“He is now becoming a Montenegrin international, a regular goalkeeper for them because he is playing regularly in the Championship. For Matija it’s a case of trying to stay in the team and playing for the rest of the season.
“Beyond that it’s what do Wolves want for him? Where does he sit at the end of the season? I have a view what I think will happen but it’s down to how he progresses over the next six months.”
Staying in the Blues team is the more immediate issue. Etheridge is very, very close to full fitness and his challenge to Sarkic will be reinforced by the experience of 263 senior appearances, many of them in the Premier League.
Just as he did at Livingston, the lad from Grimsby will find himself in a head-to-head battle for the one goalkeeping spot.
Holt knows how he’ll respond. “If Etheridge is No. 1 and a good goalkeeper, that won’t faze Mati. He will take it in his stride and be like ‘OK, I am in control, I have got the jersey, you have got to push me out now’.”