A big season ahead for Haris Vuckic

HARIS Vuckic has to repeat the number twice, just to emphasise the point.

Haris Vuckic in action
Haris Vuckic in action

HARIS Vuckic has to repeat the number twice, just to emphasise the point. He has been in and around the Newcastle United first-team squad for long enough to make it feel like a make-or-break season unfurling ahead of him, but his age betrays him.

“I’m still only 19. 19. I will be 20 in August but I am still one of the younger players,” he says.

It is perhaps because of his build – he towers over virtually every other player who files out of the cavernous Algarve Stadium as we chat in the concourse of the grandiose arena – that we assume he is a shade older than his birth certificate states.

Or maybe it is because he has long been saddled with the tag of potential superstar, a millstone that does nothing to guarantee you a future at the highest level.

Vuckic was the kid that AC Milan wanted, and the one that Manchester United were supposedly ready to poach when he was still in the Newcastle Academy set-up. With those great expectations comes a certain degree of pressure.

“This is an important season but they are all important,” he said.

“I am frustrated so far because I have not really had a chance without injuries getting in the way. Newcastle supporters haven’t seen enough of me with the injuries so that is now the main thing for me – just to stay fit for long enough to have a chance.

“It is great for me to have these games in pre-season because I know it is up to me and I feel happy and a I feel strong.

“The manager has said that he’s happy with me. He thinks I will get a chance because players might be tired in the Premier League with all the added games.”

Despite his youth, it is not piling undue pressure on his broad shoulders to see this as a crucial 12 months for the Slovenian.

Long considered the next cab off the rank as far as United youngsters progressing into the first team go, he now has to consolidate that potential and stay injury-free for long enough to show what he can do.

And if he doesn’t do it this season, he knows that there will be no excuses. United battle on four fronts next season and boss Alan Pardew will look to his existing fringe men to cope with the added burden rather than a raft of new recruits.

Opportunities are one thing, though – making the most of them is an entirely different matter.

“I think there will be more opportunities for us to play next season with Europe,” he said.

“There will be Carling Cup, the FA Cup, Europa League and of course the Premier League so I think there will be chances there for me to play. Cardiff was very good for me. I now feel as if I have the confidence to cope if the chance comes.

“I feel stronger, I feel fitter and I will be ready now because it always helps to play those kind of games.

“Yes it was a level below the Premier League, but Cardiff is a big club where the games mean a lot and that has helped me a lot.”

Vuckic doesn’t shy away from that pressure but if there is one thing that he does offer as mitigation for not yet having broken through, it is a collection of injuries that belie his tender years.

It is not uncommon for young players of a similar build to suffer injury problems as their bodies get used to the athletic demands which being a professional footballer places on them.

Steven Gerrard had a spate of back injuries as he grew and, at 6ft 3ins, Vuckic is certainly tall for his age.

The Ljubljana-born schemer has already battled back from an ankle problem and a serious knee condition but last year’s freak hand injury against Fulham was one of the cruellest blows for the forward.

Handed his Premier League debut against Fulham in October, he collided with Clint Dempsey and was forced off just as he looked to be asserting himself. “The most important thing for me is my fitness. I know I have said this before but injuries have been the thing that has most hurt me,” he said.

“Last season I was gutted to be injured when I was very close to the first team because I had earned the chance but there is not much you can do with an injury like that.

“Now I feel good and hopefully I will be fit for all of this season. The main thing is to be fit, train hard and to make my opportunities count when I get them. But it has been so frustrating for me to pick up all those injuries as a young player.”

Vuckic furthered his point with a smart cameo against Olympiacos on Friday night and will hope to play a part in United’s next game, away to Den Haag on Saturday.

Newcastle travel back to Tyneside today with the Guadiana Trophy in tow – a satisfactory conclusion to a five-day training camp under the Portuguese sun.

“It was excellent experience for us ahead of Europe,” Vuckic said. “We played well in the games and this a very good standard of opposition for us to be playing against at this point.”

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