The following interview appeared exclusively in the third issue of SAINTS, Southampton Football Club's Official Matchday Magazine. The piece is now reproduced on saintsfc.co.uk on a one-off basis.
To read more exclusive features with Saints players, pick up your copy of SAINTS – priced at only £3 – at each home game this season.
LOV AT FIRST SIGHT
HE MAY ONLY BE TAKING THE FIRST STEPS INTO HIS SOUTHAMPTON JOURNEY, BUT DEJAN LOVREN SAYS HE'S ALREADY FALLEN FOR HIS NEW CLUB
Words: Jim Lucas
Images: Paul Watts
THERE aren’t many players who can be termed as a fan favourite within a couple of months of their arrival at a new club. Sure, newly-signed goalscorers and playmakers can soon find themselves the subject of much adulation, especially if they hit the ground running. A defender, though? No chance.
Not long into his Southampton career, though, Dejan Lovren seems to have broken the mould. His four competitive appearances for the club have been impressive, but it takes more than that to convince a new supporter base this quickly.
Anyone who noted his celebrations after Saints’ late winner at West Bromwich Albion and equaliser against Sunderland at St Mary’s will attest that he already displays a level of passion that makes him instantly amiable to those who support him.
Interesting, too, is fact that the Croatian has embraced social media as a means of connecting with Saints fans. He uses Twitter to openly discuss matters – both footballing and personal – with his followers, and posts images of his life on and off the pitch via his Instagram account.
“These fans are something different to what I’ve experienced before,” he enthuses when asked to explain how this evident bond has formed so quickly. “Against West Brom, I didn't expect to have so many fans on our side. I was actually quite touched, and it made me want to do my best for them. It was a long trip they made, so if they make that step then I will follow them.
“I think it's a good thing to have a relationship with them because, when the bad days come, somebody will stay behind you. Things aren't always perfect. I will try to be the best all the time, but it's not always possible.
“The most important thing from the first three months that I've been here is that I've been accepted at the Club. I'm happy about that. I love being in contact with fans. I want to show people my normal life because I'm a normal person, just like them. Before I became a player, I was a fan.”
Lovren meeting young fans with Victor Wanyama last month
Lovren’s words have further resonance when you consider the experiences he had at his previous club, Olympique Lyonnais. On the whole, he describes his three-and-a-half years in France as a success, but adds that his time there was bookended by a tough start and a bitter end.
He arrived at the Stade de Gerland at the age of 20, initially struggling to impress as he felt the burden of the pressure generated by the reported €8million fee the club paid to take him from Dinamo Zagreb.
Moving at a young age was nothing new, though. Dejan was born in the former Yugoslavian city of Zenica, and was three years old when the war began. At that point, his family made the decision to escape for a new life in Germany, settling in Munich.
“We moved for my safety,” recalls Lovren, who grew up supporting the Bayern Munich side that won the Bundesliga in 1994. “We spent seven years in Munich, so it was actually a beautiful childhood. I was happy there, but eventually they told us that we had to go back because we didn't have the right papers.
“That was really hard for me because I didn't actually speak very good Croatian, but we moved back to a little town called Karlovac, which is about 50 kilometres from Zagreb.
“It was hard to start again – new school, new friends. My mum worked for practically nothing and my dad couldn't find a job, so it was really hard. There was one really horrible winter that I will remember for the rest of my life, but we did it together.”
Dejan's family values are inked in
Dejan’s first footballing steps came during his time in Germany. His interest in the game was initially casual, but soon developed: “I started at about seven years old. I wasn't thinking about being somebody – it was just a game. I was just like any kid who liked playing football.
“By the time I got to 13 or 14, though, I started to think I was quite good, so why not do something with that? In fact, I thought to myself: if I don't play football, what will I do? I didn't like school, so it was my destiny. There wasn't any choice.”
Lovren started out in the youth side of local team NK Karlovac where, aged 14, he was spotted by top-flight Dinamo after impressing their academy coach Zeljko Adzic while playing against them. Destiny had taken him away from home once again.
“I commuted for 100 kilometers each day to get to and from Zagreb because I was still in my last year at school in Karlovac,” he recalls. “After that, I was practically alone in Zagreb, other than being in a small room in a boarding school with five other kids.
“But, when I was 16, I started to train with the first team at Dinamo. It was amazing. At 17, I went on loan to [newly-promoted top-flight side NK Inter] Zaprešić – which is near Zagreb – for two years. When I came back to Zagreb at 19, I was ready to play for Dinamo.”
Lovren’s reputation grew quickly. His first league title arrived at the end of his first season back with his parent club, with his maiden international caps not far behind. Interest from overseas intensified and, in January 2010, Lyon came calling.
He says: “I was really, really happy to go to Lyon. I was still only 20, but it was the right time to move. I was ready.
“But I didn't play that many games at first – Lyon is a big team, and there was a lot of pressure there so the first six months were really, really difficult for me. I didn't speak the language so I didn't understand anything. Journalists were killing me, asking why the club played millions for a player who didn't have enough experience. Imagine being 20 and reading that – you start to think that is the truth.
“Thankfully I have the right people behind me and, after a year, things got much better. People quietened down, but I still needed to prove myself. I did my best, and I think it was a good three-and-a-half years in Lyon.
“Eventually it started again, though, so I think Saints came for me at the right time – when you are unhappy, you get injured easily. They were saying 'thank god Dejan is going' – that was horrible to hear, but that's life. It's not just me that's happened to.
“Now I am stronger and I'm really happy.”
Enjoying life, on and off the field
Lovren says he already feels settled in Southampton. Both he and his wife, Anita, speak excellent English and he hopes that his daughter, Elena, who turned one last month, will enjoy a pleasant upbringing in this country. “If my wife is happy, I'm happy,” he laughs. “We love Southampton. It's a good city with good people.”
Away from the field, despite his fears in his early teens, football isn’t Dejan’s only talent – as those who follow him on Twitter and Instagram will testify. The 24-year-old backed his best man, Lovro Krčar, in founding fashion label Russell Brown. High-profile footballers have been pictured wearing their items, and Lovren hopes that will encourage fans to follow suit.
“In the beginning, it was just something to do and there wasn't a lot of money involved,” he says, “but it's unbelievable how big it's getting in Croatia – we've already sold more than 1,500 hoodies and t-shirts.
“I know a lot of players, like Luka Modric and Mario Mandžukić. Luka knows Karim Benzema, and Mandžukić knows Franck Ribéry. People love football players – they are their idols – so I didn't put big prices on things because we want them to be for everyone.
“It's really strange – I was on vacation in Croatia and I saw someone in one of my t-shirts. That made me proud, and now I've ordered some for every player here, so maybe we will see some of our t-shirts in Southampton soon…!”
Lovren’s priorities remain firmly on the pitch, though. Now back in England after international games against Serbia and South Korea over the past ten days, he is fully focused on recapturing the joy he experienced on his debut.
And, as the bond with his fans continues grows, Dejan’s message is quite clear: keeping giving me your support, and you won’t be left disappointed.