I struggle to think of a player in my lifetime watching Rangers who has made the transition from total flop and write-off to a fan favourite who is arguably our most valuable asset. Yet here we have the curious case of Borna Barisic who has done just that.
From being told by Gerrard to toughen up after a friendly against Helsinki and playing in the now infamous bounce match against the Liverpool U23s, to our first choice left-back who is catching the eyes of the biggest leagues on the continent, it has been some journey at Rangers for Croatia’s left-back.
He dazzled Ibrox with his performance for Osijek before we signed him, but how did Borna Barisic become the sparkling modern full back that caught the eye of Rangers?
Ladies and gentlemen welcome back to The Road to Rangers. Alexa, play Karma Chameleon.
Early Life, Osijek Academy and BSK Bijelo Brdo: 2003 – 2013
Barisic is an Osijek boy born and raised. The fourth largest city in Croatia, it was previously dominated in a footballing sense by Slavija Osijek, who were the cities biggest club until their eventual collapse in communist Yugoslavia in 1945. Their downfall paved the way for a new club by the name of NK Osijek to be formed in 1947 which quickly established themselves as the city’s biggest team by becoming a mainstay in the old Yugoslav First League and being one of only four sides to have never been relegated from the top flight of Croatian football after the nations independence in 1992.
It was in that year, just 34 days after the Croatian Parliament cut ties with Yugoslavia, Borna Barisic was born. At this time, Osijek were unable to play any football in the city due to the ongoing Croatian war of Independence and were therefore ground hopping in and around the Slavonia region of the country. By the time Barisic joined the clubs academy in 2003 as a ten year old, Osijek were back playing in their home city and had established themselves as one of the best sides in the country while having the top two goalscorers in the HNL during the 2003/04 season. The academy has a strong history of producing quality players that have went on to play for the likes of Dynamo Zagreb, Besiktas and, well, Rangers (obviously).
Barisic spent nine years developing in the academy until he was nineteen and ready to go out on loan for his development. In 2012, Barisic was sent to Croatian second division side BSK Bijelo Brdo on loan for a season to provide him game-time which would stand him in good stead for his return to Osijek where he would become their first choice Left-back at the age of 20.
Osijek: 2013 – 2015
Barisic made his Osijek debut in the opening game of the 2013/14 season away to Dinamo Zagreb, who were the current defending champions and would go on to win their eight successive title that season. Barisic played 55 minutes in that game before being brought off for Antonio Pavic as Osijek found themselves trailing 2-0 and chasing the game. The substitution mattered little as they succumbed to a 3-1 defeat. Barisic was utilised at times by Osijek coach Stanko Mrsic (who has managed a remarkable 22 clubs in his career to date) as a left-winger as well as a left-back depending on the opposition, and it was from this position that Barisic provided his first assist in an Osijek jersey in a 1-1 draw against NK Lokomotiva.
In his next appearance, Barisic came off the bench to provide another assist for a late winner against Dinamo Zagreb in mid-March at a time when Osijek were struggling badly in the league. Their reputation as being one of Croatia’s premier clubs was fading fast ass the side were staring down the barrel of relegation. In the following game Barisic got his first goal for the club, popping up with an 88th minute winner against NK Lokomotiva as Osijek made it back to back wins for the first time that season. Barisic was to build upon this and be an integral part of Osijeks survival campaign, as he provided a further two assists against RNK Split in a 3-1 win with three games remaining proved to be a crucial win. A goal and an assist was not enough to spare Osijek from a 4-2 defeat on the penultimate game of the season against Hajduk Split meaning they went into the final day at home 3rd from bottom on 32 points against bottom of the league Hrvatski Dragovoljac who were sitting on 29 points with a superior goal difference with Slaven Belupo a point and a place below Osijek in the relegation play-off place. A 1-1 draw on the day saw Osijek survive the relegation by the skin of their teeth, a point above the relegation play-off place and three above the automatic relegation spot.
The 2014/15 season was the seasons that cemented Barisic as a left-back rather than a left-winger, with all 28 appearances for Osijek coming with Barisic lining up at the back. This was reflected in Barisic’s return of goals and assists as he was developing in his new role as he managed just three goal contributions all season.
Dinamo Zagreb and NK Lokomotiva: 2015/16
Barisic however did his claim as one of the best young left-backs in the country and was rewarded for his efforts when, with three games remaining in the 2014/15 season, he was unveiled as Dinamo Zagreb player.
Speaking as he was unveiled at Dinamo, Barisic said to the press:
“I am very happy and proud to have signed for Dinamo. We all know what Dinamo means and what kind of club it is and the tenth title that was secured the other day really says enough and I am happy to be a part of it”.
The Dinamo director Zoran Mamic also expressed his delighted with the new signing:
“We have been following him for a long time and we are convinced that Borna is a player who can raise the quality of our team. he is 22 years old so he is young but he also has two seasons and 50 games behind him so he is experienced. I always say that there are players in our league who are interesting to us and who we believe are at the level needed for Dinamo and Borna is one of them”.
He returned for the final three fixtures of the 2014/15 season to help Osijek survive by the skin of their teeth once again with a 3-2 win on the final day enough to secure them an 8th place finish, finishing one point above NK Istra 1961 in the relegation play-off zone and four points above Zadar who finished bottom.
Upon securing Osijek’s top-flight status for another season Barisic set his sights on kick-starting his career with the Croatian champions. He wasn’t included in the sides Champions League squad Zagreb’s qualification campaign as they entered in the second round, beating Fola Esch of Luxembourg 4-1 and progressing past Molde of Norway on away goals as the sides drew 4-4 on aggregate. Barisic’s first start for his new club came against his old one, as Barisic returned to the City Garden Stadium as he played 72 minutes in a 1-1 between the two sides.
However, Barsic’s career at Zagreb never really caught fire and he was left out of the squad for the next four league games, during which time a loan deal was agreed between Zagreb and their feeder club in the league, NK Lokomotiva. This is a club that Barisic had done a lot of damage against in his time playing against them, with his new side being on the wrong end of a Barisic 88th minute winner for his first professional goal.
He replayed his new club for that goal handsomely, as the first of two assists he managed for Lokomotiva came in the 94th minute against NK Istra 1961 to claim a 3-2 victory. His place in the Lokomotiva side was irregular to say the least as he was never able to string long run of starts together, with the most being five consecutive starts before being dropped from the squad. When he was in the squad, Barisic proved to be a versatile asset as he complimented his usual position of left-back with two games against Inter Zapresic and NK Zagreb playing at right-back.
Interestingly, Dinamo Zagreb elected not to exercise their right to stop Barisic playing against them domestically, with Barisic playing the full 90 minutes in a 4-0 defeat to his parent club on the final day of the season. It mattered little for both sides though, as Barisic’s Lokomotiva had already secured qualification for the Europa League first qualifying round though finishing 4th in the league, while Zagreb had (once again) comfortably secured the title for an 11th successive season.
In 2016, Osijek found themselves struggling to cope with mounting debt and a lack of success on the pitch resulting the club standing on the edge of bankruptcy. In an effort to save the club, they agreed a deal with Hungarian businessman Lorinc Mezaros, partnered by the Croatian Ivan Mestrovic, that would see them purchase the majority of the clubs shares therefore sending the club into private ownership for the first time in its history.
After stabilising the club through repaying and restructuring the debts, their next port of call was to improve the playing squad as the club were constantly teetering on the brink of relegation to the second tier of Croatian football. Who did they identify as one of their top targets? The left-back they sold to Dinamo Zagreb just one year previously.
And with that in mind, Barisic re-signed for his former club that summer on a three-year deal. He fit the new profile of player that Osijek were looking to bring through in that both talent and youth were on his side, with the fact he was an academy graduate also acting in his favour. Speaking upon his return, Barisic said:
“I immediately accepted Osijek’s offer as soon as they called me. I see that there will be a positive, good story that the club has ambitions and I am glad to be in this club”.
Upon his return, Barisic was awarded the club captaincy at the age of just 23 and he made his ‘second debut’ on the 23rd August in a 2-0 win over Inter Zapersic where he provided the assist for the second goal of the game. In his next two appearances, against his former club Lokomotiva and Hajduk Split, Barisic provided an assist in each game that proved to be vital as Osijek won 3-2 and drew 1-1 respectively making it 3-in-3 assists for Barisic. His first goal on his return came in the penultimate game before the Croatian winter break as he scored and assisted in a 3-1 over NK Istra 1961.
During said winter break, Barisic was called up to the Croatian national team for the first time for the China Cup which they were due to take part in. On 11th January 2017 Barisic earned his first cap for Croatia coming on as a substitute against Chile, coming on in the 64th minute for Mario Situm. The game would finish 1-1 in normal time as the Chileans prevailed on penalties to the final. Barisic’s first start for his national side came in the following game in the third-place playoff against the Chinese who were also beaten in their semi-final. The game ended 1-1 and Barisic lasted 91 minutes before being substituted for Filip Ozobic who was brought on specifically to take a penalty in the shootout (despite Ozobic scoring his penalty, China would prevail 4-3).
Back to domestic duties, Barisic’s Osijek built upon their strong first-half to the campaign and he led Osijek to their highest finish in the league for ten years, as they romped home to a European spot as they finished 22 points ahead of Lokomotiva in 4th place. He finished the season with one goal and seven assists in the league totalling eight goal contributions overall.
It was in the Europa League qualifying campaign for the 2017/18 season that Barisic really began to shine as Osijek managed to reach the play-off round of the qualification campaign. After overcoming Romanian side Santa Coloma 6-0 on aggregate (with Barisic scoring one and creating one in the 4-0 home victory), they then progressed to play FC Luzern of Switzerland. A 2-0 win in Croatia meant that despite going down 2-1 in the return leg Osijek would progress to play PSV Eindhoven in the 3rd round as massive underdogs. Barisic and Osijek travelled to Eindhoven knowing that a strong performance would leave them with a great chance of qualification.
As an interesting anecdote – this game was refereed by none other Scotland’s very own Andrew Dallas, the man who was criticized (wrongly) for awarding Rangers four penalties in the one match against St Mirren.
It was a penalty that was to prove decisive in this game as well as Robert Mudrazija was fouled in the box and Dallas awarded Osijek the spot-kick and a chance to go 1-0 with a vital away goal. Barisic stepped up and despite the keeper guessing correctly he smashed the ball home to give Osijek the 1-0 win in Eindhoven in arguably their greatest ever European result. They sealed the deal with another 1-0 victory in Osijek to send them through the play-off round where they faced Austria Vienna for a place in the Europa League group stages. Barisic and Osijek went down 2-1 at home and went to Vienna needing two goals. They managed to pull one back with just under half an hour left to level the tie on aggregate but despite their best efforts they couldn’t find a second goal and Austria Vienna progressed on away goals.
Back on the home front, Barisic captained Osijek to European qualification once again as Osijek repeated their 4th place finish from the previous season. Barisic only managed a single goal In the league that season which once again came from the penalty spot and it was once again the decisive strike in a 1-0 victory against defending champions Rijeka. Two assists in the final three games of the 2017/18 season secured that European spot for the second season running once again at the expense of Lokomotiva.
The culmination of Borna Barisic’s Road to Rangers cannot be fully described without discussing that game against Rangers at Ibrox while he was still an Osijek player.
Barisic’s form leading up to that game was magnificent. In the previous round, he provided the assist for the opening goal in a 1-1 draw away at Petrocub of Romania, before scoring the decisive goal in a 2-1 victory in Osijek that saw them progress to play Rangers in the next round. Barisic played the full 90 minutes as a header from Alfredo Morelos earned Rangers a 1-0 victory in Croatia.
We all remember his performance at Ibrox in the return leg. A brilliant display from Barisic wearing the headband and he definitely caught the attention of the crowd at Ibrox. No matter where you watched that game or who you watched it with, I can guarantee at least one person commented on Barisic’s quality during that game. That quality came to the fore when he became the first player to score against Rangers that season with a last minute goal to make it 1-1 on the night (Barisic now being in a record breaking Rangers defence makes up for that I say).
Five days after that game, Borna Barisic was announced as a Rangers player for a fee of £2.2m on a four-year deal and Barisic’s Road to Rangers was complete. Speaking upon his arrival, Barisic said:
“I think the most important thing is that every game I give 100%. I see that the Rangers fans recognise that I am very happy because of that. I will give my heart on (sic) Ibrox and every other stadium for Rangers. I think that is the most important thing. I want to thank the manager Steven Gerrard, director Mark Allen and to all the fans because of course they believe in me and now I need to pay this back on the pitch”.
I think it is fair to say that Borna is currently doing just that.