Alexander Cvetkovic knows he can reach the highest level in football – just like his close friend, Sebastien Thill.
It was the latter who scored a last-minute winner for Moldovan minnows Sheriff Tiraspol against Real Madrid in the Champions League this season.
And, having already played for the youth teams of Manchester United, West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur, Cvetkovic thinks he is on the right track to emulate his former team-mate Thill.
“It is my dream to come back to the Premier League – and I think that is what will happen,” he says. “It may take some time, but everyone’s path is different.”
But the midfielder, who will turn 25 next week, is far from arrogant when he makes that statement. Rather, he has complete belief in his ability.
He’s already appeared alongside such names as Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford, as well as Kyle Walker-Peters and Harry Winks at Spurs.
London-born Cvetkovic currently plies his trade at Croatian First Football League club HNK Sibenik, where his contemporaries include ex-Chelsea youngster and former Wales Under-21 international Cole Dasilva.
He had a rich footballing education, having learned the game at various Dutch clubs whose emphasis was on the total football style of play developed by the legendary coach Rinus Michels.
Cvetkovic – the son of an English mother, Annabel, and Croatian father, Zok – was raised in the Netherlands due to his father’s job.
As is typical in that country, he started playing the game when he was four, turning out for local teams who regularly met the Ajax and Feyenoord academies.
That led to him, aged nine, being noticed by West Ham talent spotter Tony Carr, who was instrumental in the early careers of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Jermain Defoe.
Cvetkovic recalls: “I was invited to a trial by West Ham, which worked out well because my dad wanted to return to the UK. I signed a deal there and even became a ball boy at Upton Park, which is something I will always remember.”
After two years in east London, he moved to the capital’s north when he signed for Spurs, which had been preceded by a trial at Arsenal.
But he was soon on the move again, after being picked out by scouts when he played against United during a tournament at the David Beckham Academy in London. At just 14, he headed to Manchester with his dad.
“United were on a different level,” Cvetkovic says. “Sir Alex Ferguson came to a few of our training sessions and spoke to us a group.
“As I was getting older, I was becoming more self-aware, so I sensed that I was developing footballing-wise, although it took me a little while to settle.
“I played with Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay, Andreas Pereira and Angel Gomes. Even at such a young age, you could see how much technical ability Marcus had – he was in the right place at the right time, which led to him exploding onto the scene.
“James Wilson, who scored twice on his first-team debut, always impressed me, too.”
Eventually, he was told, like so many others, that he was not going to make it at United, although he tried to take the positives.
“The coach, Tommy Martin, sat down with me and my dad and said few kids will go on to play for United’s first team,” Cvetkovic, who also gained three A-Levels, adds.
“He said that leaving United at an early stage might benefit me as I could move to a smaller club, but would be closer to reaching that side’s first team.”
He thought that would be the case at Wigan Athletic, whom he signed for after departing Old Trafford.
Cvetkovic trained with the first team under then-manager Uwe Rosler, but the German left soon afterwards, and a revolving door of successors did not help his case.
He went on trial at MK Dons and Crawley Town, before he moved to Fola Esch, in Luxembourg, thanks to his father – and former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s son.
“Nicky Blair took me on as one of his clients and my dad had contacts in Luxembourg, where I also have relatives,” Cvetkovic says. “The level of players was actually good, and that’s where I met Sebastien Thill and Gerson Rodrigues, who is now at Troyes, in France.
“One of the best games I played in was when we met Ostersunds in the Europa League. They were coached by Graham Potter and had beaten Galatasaray in the previous round. I set up our goal and we were 20 minutes from beating them, but they scored two late goals.”
Cvetkovic left Fola Esch in 2018 and had a trial at Sunderland, but nothing came of it. It was a year later that he moved to Croatia for the first time, when he began training with NK Varazdin.
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He played in numerous friendlies but, as he hadn’t inked a contract, he wasn’t eligible for league games. Cvetkovic went back to England, training under the auspices of the Lancashire FA with ex-Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair.
Next was a return to Fola Esch, which fitted in nicely as his partner and their daughter, Ayana, were based in Luxembourg.
He joined Sibenik in the summer and is enjoying life in his ancestral homeland under Spanish manager Mario Rosas, who came through Barcelona’s famed La Masia alongside Xavi.
“It is a very respectable league and we regularly play against good clubs who do well in Europe, such as Dinamo Zagreb and Rijeka,” Cvetkovic says. “Croatia is beautiful, too, so it has been easy to adapt from that point of view.”
Cvetkovic, who speaks French and understands German, is also relearning Croatian, having spoken the language fluently as a child. Truly a global citizen, he has travelled across Europe in a bid to return to where his life began in England.
Cvetkovic adds: “I have so much more to give and I believe that I am on the right trajectory.”
By Simon Yaffe
This interview was originally published in November 2021.