Alex Krstic quickly emerged as a cult hero during two spells on Foyleside in the late 1980s as his scoring prowess helped guide Derry City to promotion to the League of Ireland top flight.
The charismatic Serbian striker still speaks fondly of his time at the Brandywell club and more than 30 years on from arriving in Derry for the first time, he recalls humorous anecdotes of training ground bust-ups, driving Liam Coyle through Paris on a motorbike and how he had women falling at his feet during a ‘special’ and ‘unforgettable’ time of his life.
Krstic arrived at Derry City in 1986 from the US Orleans Club in France. He was part of Noel King’s cosmopolitan team which included the Brazilian flair of Nelson Da Silva and silky South African skills of Owen Da Gama in a squad full of personalities during what was the rebirth of a football club.
Battle hardened in the French leagues, it was still a culture shock meeting the likes of hard-tackling Derry native, Raymond McGuinness whom Krstic famously clashed with during a training ground altercation.
Recalling the incident, the Serb laughs wholeheartedly and explains how the ‘fight’ was quickly settled over a beer before the pair sat down to enjoy dinner together the following day.
“And we were good friends!” he laughs. “Yeah, we had a fight, boxing. They took us to the dressing room. There were three or four people there because they were afraid we would start fighting again.
“The funny thing is Raymond and his wife were supposed to come to my house the following day for dinner. They came but he had a sore ear and couldn’t hear all the discussions we had,” he adds with a grin.
“Ray is a great guy and we are really good friends. This is sport and sometimes these things happen. We stayed half an hour afterwards. He was going first in the shower and then I was going and all the time there was still three or four people in the dressing room waiting, just in case.
“Then we were sitting on each side (of the dressing room) and looked at each other and started laughing. Ray said, ‘Let’s go for a beer’ and we went, had a beer and it was finished.
“It started over a bad tackle from Ray because he was tough. I mean it was silly, it was stupid but I think it was a good fight and he definitely had a sore ear the following night,” he chuckles. “We’re still very good friends and I was delighted to see him when I came back a couple of years ago. He’s a really great guy. We’ve laughed many times about it since. He hasn’t changed.”
Kristic made a lasting impression on the people of Derry when he arrived as a 24 year-old Yugoslavian searching for a ‘new life’ in a strange country in the midst of the Troubles.
The striker had big money offers to play in France but decided a new challenge in the League of Ireland appealed more to his sense of adventure and he insists it’s a decision he’s never regretted.
“The support we got at Derry are memories that will stay with me forever and you can’t buy that. You can’t buy the happiness we had there.
“It was a really strange decision. I wasn’t supposed to come to be honest. I had contacts in France and good clubs but it was a very special period of my life. I had just got married two months before. My wife was pregnant. So I became a married man and a father and suddenly you want to do things by yourself. I really wanted to discover something else and start a new life.
“We met in Belgium with Noel King and I wasn’t sure. I was waiting for my baby to come but I really liked what they showed me on video, the fans. When you play football you want to play in full stadiums. You want to play in a great atmospheres and then after that comes money and all the rest.
“I’m delighted I made the right decision and I came to Derry to discover a new country, new people. You can’t buy what we had. All the players in the team were feeling the same way.
“I remember, especially when the Troubles were there, the only thing you would think about was football. There were people in the team from Scotland, Northern Ireland, South Africa and Brazil and it was great. We were all feeling that same spirit.
“The support and love they gave us when meeting people outside training and out of the stadium was fantastic. They really made us play better. With no support and empty stadiums, I’m not sure we would’ve been that good.
“They were really part of our game. And as much as we were a part of their lives, they were a part of ours. I was really, really proud to wear the jersey and play for this city.”
His goalscoring exploits in his first season, scoring 18 goals in 17 games as Derry clinched promotion, saw him establish himself as a fans’ favourite. He scored 50 goals in 72 appearances in total during two spells but it wasn’t just on the pitch where he made a special connection with the people of Derry. Like many of the Derry team at the time, Krstic was regarded as a ‘sex symbol’ around town.
Reflecting back to his mini-celebrity status, Krstic still finds it hard to fathom as he recalls a story about a waitress literally falling at his feet in a local cafe.
“A sex symbol?” he laughs. “I wish I was still. No, but that was part of this love that we gave each other.
“There was a girl behind the counter and she looked up and saw it was me and fainted. It’s funny today but it’s part of the great memories of that time.
“It’s difficult to think about myself as a sex symbol though,” he laughs. “There were many, many good memories, in and outside football. It makes me an ambassador of this club really forever.”
While Krstic missed out on the ‘treble’ winning season after moving to Germany, he always felt the urge to return to Derry and did so the following year.
He keeps in touch with former teammates and in 1989 City legend, Liam Coyle stayed with Krstic in Paris as he was taking him to see a specialist in Reims about his troublesome knee.
Indeed, Krstic took Coyle on a hair-raising motorbike ride through the busy streets of Paris that left the Brandywell native flatly refusing to get back on afterwards for fear of his life!
The Serbian striker, who has been working for several years as a football agent in his native Belgrade, keeps in touch with Coyle and his former teammates as much as possible and was delighted to see some when he last returned to the city and went to watch Derry play at Maginn Park in 2017.
“It was nice to see everybody, the likes of Stuart Gauld, Jack Kaey, Kevin Mahon. I’m sorry I didn’t see Felix Healy but next time hopefully. I saw Liam Coyle and lots of others so it was great to be back.”
The club invited Krstic over for the reopening of the new Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium at the beginning of the season but he was unable to attend due to work commitments. He was delighted to learn the Brandywell club reached a special 90th anniversary milestone recently and is happy to have played his part in its history.
“It’s great to celebrate an anniversary. It’s a special club for me because I had two or three fantastic years there, not only for football but also discovering Ireland.
“Naturally I would like to see Derry City top of the league but sometimes you have great periods in history and other times it’s more difficult. It’s important for the club that you keep on going and growing.”
Similarly to when Krstic first joined, the club is now rebuilding under Declan Devine and Krstic hopes it can go on to enjoy significant success.
“I don’t really know the situation at the club now but in my time it was a bit special because it was a kind of rebirth of the club. We were there to start something new. .
“It’s normal a club will have up and down periods during 90 years but just as long as it keeps growing. In sport all you can do is ask people to do their best. You can’t ask them to win all the time and you have to be satisfied knowing that people are doing their best for the club.”
Krstic played in the UEFA Cup against Benfica and won the First Division title but his favourite memory was his hat-trick against Cork in the FAI Cup.
“It was the Cork game in the cup away when we won 3-1. The previous year Derry were beaten in the quarter-finals by Cork.
“I had Richie Kelly from Radio Foyle in my house one or two days before the game. I told him I would score three goals so unless we conceded four I don’t see how we can lose. And my wife was going crazy on me.
“She said, ‘Do you hear yourself?’ and she went crazy. But this was part of the confidence we had. We knew we could do something and we had a really special spirit.
“I scored three goals and we won 3-1 but my wife said could you imagine if you don’t score and you lose. Sometimes you say silly things.
“That game was important because we had five or six thousand people travelling down to Cork from Derry and the weather was terrible with the rain and it was a terrible pitch but we won 3-1 and it was a great atmosphere which was made by Derry fans. That was one of the good memories. One of them because there were many.”
Krstic is still taken aback by how he’s so fondly remembered in Derry so many years on.
“It’s really pleasant. I’m old now and that was some 50 years ago but the people are so nice. It wasn’t only football. I gave everything I could to the club and people recognised that.
“I’m conscious that I gave, with my teammates, a lot at this time but I loved it an awful lot.
“I have these great memories and I can thank them for that for life.”