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Time for the Nikola Milenković story

As our Serbian giant signs a new contract, we take a look back at his career to date

Nikola Milenkovic of ACF Fiorentina gestures during the... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Today is the day that Nikola Milenković committed his future to Fiorentina. It has been very clear since the beginning of last season just how attached to the club Nikola is, when he signed that extension to his contract. Even just for one season, unlike Vlahović, this was a statement that he would not be looking for a fast exit. He never tried to force the club’s hand, and the relationship the player has with those in charge of Fiorentina is due to the fact that he has always been open and honest with them.

There were no underhand, shady dealings going on in the background, no risk that the club would end up with nothing or forced to sell in order to avoid that outcome. As the player himself explained after renewing his contract, there had been plenty of offers from some of Europe’s top clubs but he had never made any request to leave Fiorentina.The club and player had an agreement in place since last season, that if a good enough offer came in, and the player wanted to leave, then they wouldn’t stand in his way.

Then, along came Vincenzo Italiano, Fiorentina’s fortunes improved. The team started to enjoy their football, they entertained the fans, they became a proper squad. They also achieved European qualification, instead of looking to avoid the relegation battle. Milenković and Italiano have forged a great relationship, a bond which the player obviously found hard to break, unlike others, and has also been convinced by the club’s ambitions that Fiorentina is the best place for him right now and for the foreseeable future.

Atalanta BC v ACF Fiorentina - Coppa Italia Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

The past, was growing up in Belgrade and achieving his dream of playing for the team he supported as a boy, Partizan. He joined the club at a young age coming up through the youth ranks, having first been at the academy of OFK Žarkovo. In 2015 he was sent on loan to FK Teleoptik, a club also from the Serbian capital, but playing in the third tier, a good opportunity for an 18-year-old to gain experience. The defender was already known to the club having completed a successful trial there, but at the time it had been too far from the family home. He was brought back to Partizan later that season, having made his debut for the Serbian Under 19 team in December 2015 in a 4-1 loss against Italy.

In March 2016 he made the bench for the Partizan senior side when they travelled to take on FK Cukaricki. Six days later he scored for the national Under 19 side in a Euro qualifying game against Montenegro. Coming on as a sub at the start of the second half, he scored nine minutes later, the final goal in a 4-1 win. Montenegro had taken the lead and it was none other than our new signing Luka Jović who levelled the tie. Jović had just signed for Benfica having played for Partizan’s biggest rivals, Red Star, and although the same age as Nikola, the striker had already been a regular player at his former club for the past two seasons.

Jović had made his debut for Red Star almost two years previously when at the age of 16 he came on as a sub in the final game of the 2013/14 season. Away to Vojvodina and with his side 3-2 down, Luka became the youngest ever player to score for the club when he netted the equaliser. That draw ensured they won the league title, finishing a point ahead of Partizan who had won their final game that day against Cukaricki.

Two weeks after his goal against Montenegro, on April 10th, 2016, Nikola made his club debut, playing the full 90 minutes at the Partizan Stadium, as the home side defeated Mladost 4-0, with Valeri Bojinov scoring twice. A fortnight passed and Nikola was back in the side for another game with Cukaricki. This time he lasted only half an hour on the pitch when he received a straight red card for a reckless challenge on Petar Bojić, which would see him handed a four-match ban. In that same game, Dušan Vlahović later appeared as a sub.

Vlahović, although over two years younger than Nikola, had made his debut for Partizan back in February, the youngest player to ever play for the club. A week before Nikola made his debut, Dušan scored his first goal for the club. Just like Nikola against Montenegro, the striker made his entrance after the interval, and nine minutes later he scored the goal that began Partizan’s comeback. They had been 2-0 down at the break against FK Radnik, but went on to win 3-2, with Dušan’s goal making him the youngest ever goal scorer for Partizan.

Nikola returned from suspension to play the last two league games of the season. He had missed the Cup final against Javor Matis, another game in which Vlahović came on as a sub and scored. Partizan were 1-0 up when deep into added time the striker made sure of the win, earning himself a booking in the process after pulling his shirt off to celebrate. On the final day of the season, in which Red Star had already wrapped up the title, Milenković scored his first goal for the club. In a home game against Vojvodina, he gave Partizan the lead after just seven minutes, heading home from a corner. His side won that last game of the campaign 3-2, and when the following season came around it would be Nikola and not Vlahović who would become a fixture in the Partizan team.

In that 2016/17 season, Milenković missed just five league games, and he played the full 90 minutes of all 32 league games he appeared in, as well as six cup games. His first goal that season came on Day Seven, another header from a corner, the second goal in a 4-0 win over FK Rad. A month later he made his debut for the Serbian national team in a 3-0 friendly win in Qatar. In October in a cup win, club captain Miroslav Vulićević went off injured and the following week Nikola took over the role in a league win away to Radnik. In March 2017, Nikola scored another goal in another 4-0 win, and in April came a 3-1 win away to Red Star, a victory which drew them level at the top of the table with their rivals.

Partizan won all six of their remaining games, and with Red Star losing one of their matches Partizan were crowned league champions. Three days after the final league game of the season, the club announced that Nikola Milenković would be sold to Fiorentina for a fee of over 5 million euros. Just three days later Nikola played his final game for the club, a cup final against city rivals Red Star. Played at the Partizan Stadium, Nikola said goodbye in the best way possible, scoring yet another headed goal from a corner, the only goal of the game to win Partizan the Serbian Cup, to add to the league title they had just won.

Fc Partizan v Fc Crvena Zvezda - Serbian Football Cup Final Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
Fc Partizan v Fc Crvena Zvezda - Serbian Football Cup Final Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Now he was off to Italy, to Florence, a 19-year-old saying goodbye to the club he had supported as a boy, to his home of Belgrade, and to the two people closest to him, his biggest supporters, his mother Nadežda, a schoolteacher who made sure Nikola stuck to his studies in those early years as a youth player, and his older sister Jelena. It had been Jelena who first brought Nikola to play football, a game she also played unknown to their mother.

Italian League Serie A TIM 2017-2018

As Nikola settled into his new life and club, it took a while to break into the side. Stefano Pioli surprised many by throwing the young defender in from the start in a game away to Cagliari three days before Christmas. After two scoreless draws, the manager decided to drop both Vincent Laurini and German Pezzella. He lined out alongside Davide Astori and Victor Hugo. Khouma Babacar scored the only goal of the game to give Fiorentina the win in a game in which Milenković impressed.

It’s interesting to see how our own Tito rated him after the game, giving him a vote of seven, and this is how he described the defender’s performance: Looked really good. Shut down everything that came his way, showcasing some surprising agility and foot speed for a man his size. Also stepped forward into midfield with the ball on occasion and seemed way more comfortable in possession than you’d expect for a 20-year-old who’s never played in Serie A before. May well be the real deal.

The real deal indeed. He did sit on the bench for the next three games, although he played in the Coppa Italia loss to Lazio just after Christmas. After coming on as a late sub against Verona, Nikola then started the next three games. The last of those was a draw away to Atalanta which saw the defender sent off. Having been booked just two minutes earlier, five minutes from time a foul on Papu Gomez brought a second yellow card. Missing the next game through suspension, two weeks later Fiorentina were due to play away to Udinese. Then came the tragic death of our captain Davide Astori.

When Fiorentina next lined out, in the emotional home game against Benevento, Nikola was in the starting eleven. Shortly afterwards Nikola spoke about that game “With Benevento all our eyes were full of tears. We gave one hundred per cent to win and dedicate the victory to Davide. The tragedy has united the team and now we will dedicate our every victory to him because he has left an indelible mark on us. Florence and all of Fiorentina will never forget him”.

Davide Astori, as captain, and as the type of person he was, welcomed all new players to the club, especially the younger players who needed support fitting in. For the young Serbian it was a heartbreaking loss, “he immediately accepted me in the squad, he made me feel at home straight away, he helped me, and I learned so much from him. He was a great player and in six months he entered my heart. Without him, nothing will be the same. I will remember him for as long as I live”.

Nikola missed just one game in the remaining 11 after the Benevento match, and once the season was over he joined the Serbian national team at the 2018 World Cup. He played every minute of Serbia’s three group games but they failed to make the next stage in Russia. Fiorentina had made a remarkable recovery after the loss of their captain Astori the previous season, to finish in 8th place. The next few seasons would prove to be more disappointing on the football side of things.

The 2018/19 season would turn out to be the last of the Della Valle era, and see Stefano Pioli replaced by Vincenzo Montella. Throughout all the turmoil, Nikola Milenković became a fully fledged first team player, starting 34 of the 38 league games. The opening game of Fiorentina’s season gave no sign of the disaster to come as they put 6 past Chievo at the Franchi. On August 26th, 2018, in that 6-1 win, Nikola scored his first goal for Fiorentina. It was the opening goal of the game after just eight minutes. Marco Benassi had his shot saved and when the ball was cleared away Milenković beat his marker to the ball and from outside the area he let fly with a beautiful shot which sailed into the top corner.

A month later he scored the second goal in a 3-0 win over Spal. Jordan Veretout took the corner and Milenković rose highest to beat the keeper and headed home his second goal in five games. In December came a crazy 3-3 draw away to Sassuolo. With Fiorentina 3-1 down, Benassi scored in the 89th minute, and in injury time first Milenković was sent off for a second booking before Kevin Mirallas snatched a draw right at the end.

Towards the end of the season, with Montella now in charge, Fiorentina travelled to Turin to take on league leaders Juventus. Juventus needed just a draw to secure the league title but Milenković almost spoiled the party when he scored after only six minutes, but Juve came back to win 2-1 and clinch the Scudetto. Fiorentina were more worried about their own league position and only secured survival on the final day of the season with a scoreless draw against Genoa. Rocco Commisso then bought the club, as a new era was set to begin.

Milenković scored on the opening day of the new season, 2019/20. At home to Napoli, another header from a corner levelled the tie at 2-2, but Fiorentina went on to lose 4-3. Nikola missed just one game that season, through suspension, scoring five goals, Vlahović netting just one goal more than the defender. Nikola scored the only goal in the win over Udinese, he scored the winning goal as Fiorentina came from behind to beat Sassuolo, he levelled the game against Roma which Fiorentina lost 2-1, and on the penultimate day of the season he scored the third goal in a 4-0 win over Bologna.

The 2020/21 season saw Beppe Iachini replaced by Cesare Prandelli only to return later in the season. In October Nikola scored the second Fiorentina goal in a 3-2 win over Udinese and in December he gave Prandelli his first point in his third game back at the club. Fiorentina had fallen behind in the 89th minute at home to Genoa, having lost to Benevento and Milan in Prandelli’s first two games in charge. It looked like another disastrous result but deep into stoppage time Nikola showed his grit and determination to salvage a point. Patrick Cutrone’s shot was saved, Milenković reacted to the rebound, his effort was blocked but when given a second chance he fired home and raced away in a mixture of joy and relief.

In late January came a sending off in a bad-tempered game away to Torino. With the game scoreless just after the hour mark, after a VAR check the referee sent off Gaetano Castrovilli for a foul just outside the box. Fiorentina down to ten men but they still took the lead six minutes later through Franck Ribéry. Just four minutes later and when Nikola was taken down by Andrea Belotti, he was quick to react going head-to-head with his opponent.

Belotti made the most of it to make sure the defender got sent off, embarrassing himself as he rolled around clutching his head. Fiorentina were now down to ten men and just when it looked like they may hold out to take all three points, it had to be Belotti who scored a late goal to snatch a draw.

March 2021 saw another six-goal thriller, this time against Parma. With the sides level at 1-1, Nikola put Fiorentina in front before the break after Pezzella’s effort was poorly dealt with by the keeper, Milenković fired home a volley from close range. The game ended 3-3 after Fiorentina had later gone behind. Nikola also captained the side in two of their Coppa Italia games that season.

After the managerial merry-go-round of that season, last summer brought even more drama with the Gennaro Gattuso fiasco. Finally, Vincenzo Italiano was unveiled as the new man in charge, and his arrival and the pre-season with the squad played a major role in Nikola renewing his contract for an extra season.

Just a few days later on the opening day of the season the Serbian scored in a defeat at Roma. Bartłomiej Drągowski’s early sending off had already made things look impossible for Fiorentina and shortly afterwards Roma scored the opening goal. With an hour played and Fiorentina still just one goal down, Nikola levelled the game when he controlled a Pulgar ball into the box with his right foot before scoring with his left. Roma went on to wn 3-1.

In November Fiorentina travelled to take on Juventus, and with the game scoreless Milenković saw red in the 73rd minute. Having already been booked seven minutes earlier, when he took down Federico Chiesa as Juventus launched a counterattack out came a second yellow card. Another ex-Fiorentina player, Juan Cuadrado scored a last-minute winner.

Nikola scored the opening goal in a 2-1 win over Benevento in the Coppa Italia in December and in the quarter-final clash away to Atalanta he scored a dramatic last-minute winner. Krzysztof Piątek had scored twice as the game looked set to go to extra-time with the sides level at 2-2, but when Atalanta failed to deal with a free kick into the area it came to Nikola just outside the box and after controlling the ball with his knee he let fly into the far corner. There was a long wait for a VAR check but Fiorentina could celebrate a last gasp win.

Unfortunately, we went on to lose both legs of the semi-final against Juventus, with Nikola having to pull out of the away game with illness just before the match.

On the last day of the season, Fiorentina did manage to beat Juventus and to celebrate European qualification. It has been a long wait, and probably went a long way towards convincing Nikola Milenković that there was more joy to be had at the club. After his Serbian teammate Dušan Vlahović left for Juventus in January, there was plenty of speculation over Nikola’s future this summer, with many convinced that he too would end up playing in the black and white stripes, as he had done with Partizan.

As Joe Barone revealed today, there have been plenty of offers from not just Italy, but many top clubs in Europe. When the news started to break last week that Nikola now looked set to sign a new contract with the club, it was first expected to be until 2025. Then came the rumours that it could be until as late as 2027, and this was finally confirmed today.

At a press conference Joe Barone and Nikola Milenković sat smiling as they revealed the news that our Serbian giant was indeed signing the new contract which ties him to Fiorentina until 2027. This is fantastic news for everyone, as we finally have a player willing to commit his future to the club and expressing the love he has for Florence and Fiorentina.

Joe Barone began by thanking the club’s owner, “it’s a very important day for Fiorentina. I want to thank Rocco Commisso who will be present at the stadium on Sunday. He was very keen on the renewal of Nikola. In a negotiation it takes two people to reach a good conclusion. We worked on it and Nikola believed in it a lot. Fiorentina has always believed in it”.

He also revealed that there was a lot of interest in the player from other clubs, “There have been many teams which play in the Champions League who tried to buy Milenković. It also happened last night, but both the club and the player decided to refuse. This makes us understand the seriousness of Nikola who has Fiorentina in his DNA. Nikola signs a five-year contract and it is a life choice he makes with Fiorentina”.

Speaking about his decision Nikola had this to say “It’s a very important day for me, I’m happy and excited. I would like to take a step back to last year. We had come from two difficult seasons and neither the club nor I were convinced about parting ways. I wanted a confrontation to understand the club’s project. Then the arrival of Italiano was decisive for me. So, I renewed for a year with a promise to talk again this summer. I understood that there is a great project here, the club had great ambitions. We all see what kind of Fiorentina is taking shape. The confirmation of Italiano was very important to me. The fans have always given me a lot of affection in recent years but especially in recent times. I feel very loved here in Florence. Commisso, Barone and Pradè did a great job to keep me here and I’m happy to have made this choice”.

He spoke about how qualifying for Europe was his best moment so far at the club but that it would be even better to get to the Champions League which is what everyone at the club now has in their mind. While many will look to Nikola as a future captain, for now he’s happy to leave that to Biraghi, “wearing the captain’s armband is a special thing. Wearing Davide’s would be even more special. Now our captain is Biraghi and he’s doing it very well. We’re all very happy with him”.

When asked why he had chosen to stay at Fiorentina, his reasons were simple, “for the club, the fans, and the manager. I felt inside of me that staying here was the best thing. I love this city, this club, and I couldn’t betray my feelings”. We’ve often heard similar words from players before, declaring their love and commitment, but this time the words are backed up with actions, and signing with the club until 2027 is a clear signal of Nikola’s feelings.

The player’s mother, sister and partner then posed for photos with Nikola and his Fiorentina jersey. Nikola is someone who clearly enjoys life in Florence, often showing his sister and mother around the city. It had been his mother who visited the Uffizi art gallery first and told him if he didn’t go there she wouldn’t speak to him again. He may no longer be a schoolkid, but his family still make sure he keeps on educating himself, and Nikola still follows their advice.

It would have been very easy for Nikola to have accepted a big offer at a club where he would earn more, have guarantees of playing in Europe regularly and winning trophies. After all he has given the club, I don’t think anyone would have begrudged him that.

Instead, he is here to stay, the speculation is over, and we can look forward to a bright future at Fiorentina.What better way to start the new season, whatever about the new arrivals and those which may still come, the news that Nikola Milenković is still here and has committed his future to Fiorentina, for me it’s the only announcement I wanted to hear.

From the bottom of all our Fiorentina hearts, a sincere thank you to Nikola for showing just how much this club also means to you. It won’t be forgotten!

Atalanta BC v ACF Fiorentina - Coppa Italia Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images