It’s not difficult to spot the anomaly in Robert Jarni’s career path.
Just have a quick glance at his Wikipedia page. It’s there, look, right in the middle: 1998 – Coventry City – Appearances: 0 – Goals: 0. Sandwiched right in between spells with Real Betis and the mighty Real Madrid.
Yet 1998 was quite possibly the best year of Jarni’s career. His status as one of the best attacking left-backs in Europe had been cemented with 19 La Liga goals over the previous three seasons with Betis, including strikes against both Barcelona and Real Madrid, and he went on to prove that on the grandest stage of the World Cup.
While Croatia’s performances are best remembered for that kit and Davor Suker’s goals, Jarni made his mark with an excellent opener in the 3-0 victory over Germany in the quarter-finals as they went on to finish third.
Coventry, meanwhile, had just finished 11th in the Premier League, a year on from making a miraculous escape from relegation on the final day of the season.
Highfield Road appeared an unlikely destination for one of the most sought-after left-backs in Europe, especially when Real Madrid had a couple of bids rejected by Betis in the wake of the World Cup.
But there Jarni was, watching Coventry’s pre-season friendly against Espanyol after completing a £2.6million move to the Sky Blues.
Coventry supporters could hardly believe their luck. Gordon Strachan’s squad had plenty of reliable Premier League performers, but it was hardly a star-studded line-up of exotic talents. It was more a Gary Breen and Paul Telfer at the back kind of vibe.
But the dream turned out to be just that: a temporary glance of something too good to be true.
Around a week later, Jarni was on his way to Real Madrid after all, with Coventry making a swift £1million profit.
It hardly took the most cynical of outlooks to believe this was the ploy all along. Betis, unwilling to sell to Los Blancos, suckered into accepting a bid from an unthreatening English club, only for Madrid to be waiting in the wings all along.
After all, we’ve seen similar scenarios in recent years.
Wolves made Benik Afobe’s loan move from Bournemouth permanent in the summer of 2018 only to immediately sell the striker on at a profit to Stoke days later.
— Paul Armstrong (@P4rmstrong) June 12, 2018
Manchester United refused to sell Zeki Fryers to Tottenham, only for Spurs to sign the left-back six months after he joined Standard Liege.
Bayern Munich were always known to have been behind Serge Gnabry’s move from Arsenal to Werder Bremen, and there are suspicions they have done the same with Ozan Kabak.
While the theory that it was always the plan for Coventry to move Jarni immediately on to Real Madrid certainly makes sense, one big question remains: why Coventry?
Why, after all, would Real Madrid, quite possibly the biggest club in the world, turn to Coventry to get them out of a hole by signing a star Croatian left-back who had previously spent four years in Italy?
Who among Real’s hierarchy decided Gordon Strachan was the man they needed in this scenario?
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It’s difficult to know what to believe in this situation, but to this day Jarni maintains that his move to Coventry was genuine, only for his family to be reluctant to move to the Midlands.
“Gordon Strachan wanted me to sign with Coventry,” Jarni told Herald Sport in 2013. “He liked the way I played, he liked my performances in the Spanish league and with the national team, but after I received an offer from Real Madrid I decided to sign for them instead.
“I wouldn’t say it was my wife’s decision, but it was a family decision – my family was against moving to England. We had small children, my daughter was in elementary school in Spain and we preferred to stay there rather than move to England.
“I was honest about it, and when I told [Strachan], he understood.”
The duo crossed paths once again 15 years after the transfer, meeting when Strachan took charge of Scotland against Croatia while Jarni was working Hajduk Split.
“Our paths took different directions,” Jarni said. “We didn’t see each other and speak to each other for quite a long time. But I have learned we will be staying in the same hotel and I am very much looking forward to meeting up with him again.”
He added: “In spite of his height, he is a big man. I remember Gordon Strachan from his days as a player. He was always determined, full of will and desire.”
While Strachan will always hold a unique place in Jarni’s heart, it’s worth pointing out that the whole escapade was largely pointless.
Jarni spent just one season at the Bernabeu and struggled to break into the starting XI – they already had a pretty adequate goalscoring left-back by the name of Roberto Carlos – before dropping down a division to join Las Palmas.
Still, it’s nice to know that we live in a world so peculiar that Real Madrid can be dependent on Coventry City.