Never the most consistent but always capable of producing something genius, Mario Vrančić is a unique yet confounding talent. The Norwich midfielder once again came to the rescue when his side was struggling, scoring a perfect free kick to beat Wycombe at the weekend, and it has left me wondering why he has always struggled to nail down a starting spot for more than a season wherever he has played.
Born in what is now Northern Bosnia in former Yugoslavia, Vrančić and his family fled the splintering country when he was just a young boy. Like countless others had done and would do in the coming years, they moved to Germany to start a new life, far away from the persistent bombardments and clashes back home. Settling down near Mainz, Vrančić and his older brother, Damir, began playing for local club VfR Kesselstadt. Damir joined Eintracht Frankfurt’s youth set-up in 2002 but made the switch to the other side of the Rhein-Main Derby two years later, joining Mainz. Mario eventually followed suit.
The younger Vrančić made his debut in senior football at 17, however, his first major success – and still one of the biggest achievements of his career to date – came with the national team. An ethnic Bosnian, Vrančić initially renounced his citizenship in order to be eligible to play for Germany’s youth teams. Inspired by Ermin Bičakčić, he would later switch allegiances once again, becoming a fully-fledged Bosnia and Herzegovina international, but back in his Mainz days, he donned the white of the DFB-Elf.
In 2008, the youngster, by now widely regarded as one of Germany’s biggest prospects, and his compatriots traveled to the Czech Republic to compete at the U-19 European Championship. It certainly wasn’t the most illustrious generation of talent – only the Bender twins went on to reach a borderline world-class level, with the likes of Bastian Oczipka, Stefan Reinartz, Dennis Diekmeier, Ömer Toprak, Danny Latza, and Ron-Robert Zieler (yes, he’s technically a World Cup winner, but come on!) carving out decent if unspectacular Bundesliga careers – nevertheless, Horst Hrubesch’s side got the job done, beating Italy 3-1 in the final.
Back at Mainz, Vrančić continued to mature under the tutelage of none other than Jürgen Klopp. It wasn’t easy, though, as he struggled to really break into the side – which would become somewhat of a common theme throughout his career. In an interview with the Independent, he spoke of the influence Klopp had on him:
“He helped me a lot, especially when I had a difficult time in my career, in the first few years when I didn’t develop how everyone expected. He always believed in me.”
Klopp eventually moved on to bigger and better things. Vrančić, feeling that his career was stagnating, and coming off an uninspiring loan spell at Rot-Weiss Ahlen, followed suit. Klopp once called him “my Mario Götze at Mainz” and although he never quite became what everyone expected of him at his local club, he did make his mark at 05: his record as their youngest-ever player was only broken last month by Paul Nebel.
Klopp signed Vrančić for Dortmund, but the latter never got on the pitch for the first team. After spending some time with David Wagner’s reserves, he got his career back on track, winning the Regionalliga West and joining 2. Bundesliga side Paderborn. His return to the second tier was markedly more successful than his initial spells with Mainz and Ahlen and for the first and only time in his career, he became a regular starter for more than one season.
After a mediocre mid-table debut campaign, Vrančić and his teammates massively improved in his sophomore season. Paderborn came second in 2013/14 and were promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time in club history. After four matches and against all the odds, Paderborn were sitting at the top of the table, but, with the influence of their midfield maestro subsiding, they ultimately ended up getting relegated.
Vrančić left after the conclusion of 14/15, signing for newly-promoted Darmstadt. He again struggled to assert himself, often being utilized as a substitute, but Darmstadt did manage to survive. Alas, the notorious second-season syndrome soon reared its ugly head, and Darmstadt were demoted in 16/17. Vrančić, however, saw his game time increase and he did enough in that relegation season to impress Stuart Webber and new Norwich head coach Daniel Farke.
It certainly did not seem like it at the time, but a very poor first campaign under Farke – with Norwich relying heavily on the magic of James Maddison, and with Vrančić in and out of the side – laid the foundation for better things to come. Maddison was gone, Moritz Leitner had been signed permanently, and it seemed like season two in Norfolk would be just as frustrating for the Canaries and Vrančić. Well, suffice to say it didn’t quite turn out that way.
After a slow start, Norwich got their act together and, buoyed by the emergence of Max Aarons, went on a tear through the Championship. In his second game of the season, Vrančić scored the winner at the Madejski Stadium – his second league goal for Norwich, his first also came against Reading; two games later, he converted a stoppage-time penalty against Wigan to hand Norwich all three points.
Super Mario finally got his first start of the season on December 1st – a 3-1 win over Rotherham – after 12 appearances as a substitute. A week later, he scored the opener in a 3-2 triumph over Bolton, which included a stoppage-time winner from Teemu Pukki – something they would make quite a habit of that season. Two more goals followed against Nottingham and Birmingham, but his magnum opus, the game that perfectly encapsulated what Mario Vrančić can do when he’s up for it, came in arguably the biggest test of the campaign – a top of the table clash with league leaders Leeds.
Although Marcelo Bielsa’s men had endured a recent slump, they still went into this encounter as the clear favorites. It seemed a daunting task for Norwich to go to a packed and rocking Elland Road and get something.
Vrančić started next to Tom Trybull in the heart of midfield, with the latter staying back and breaking up play, while the former assumed a more creative, free-roaming role. Farke’s burgeoning Canaries and Vrančić, in particular, were certainly up for it – the Bosnian had a hand in every one of Norwich’s three goals. After just five minutes, Super Mario opened the scoring with a deflected free kick. Later on in the half, his shot from the edge of the box was blocked and fell to Teemu Pukki, who had an empty goal to aim at.
Throughout the entire game, Vrančić showcased all of his talents with pinpoint passing, the ability to read the play and pickpocket opponents or to intercept passes, and, of course, by offering an attacking threat. He hammered the final nail in Leeds’ coffin in the second half with a scuffed shot that went through the legs of both Barry Douglas and Kiko Casilla. A late consolation goal from former Norwich man Patrick Bamford ruined the clean sheet but didn’t damper the celebrations. The Canaries went top of the table and eventually won the league. Unfortunately, their stint in the top-flight was short-lived.
Vrančić suffered ligament damage soon after the Leeds match and subsequently lost his starting spot. But that didn’t stop him from coming in clutch at the end of the season. He scored in three of Norwich’s last four games and chipped in with two assists to boot. A low-driven effort with his weak foot on the last day of the season against Aston Villa pales in comparison to his howitzer against Blackburn a week earlier, but hands down his most stunning post-Leeds contribution came in a 2-2 draw with Sheffield Wednesday.
He won a free kick deep into stoppage time and stepped up to take it himself. With Norwich trailing 2-1, he had to get it right. And get it right he did, wonderfully curling it into the top corner in the 97th minute to salvage a valuable point and send Carrow Road into a state of delirium. His winner against Wycombe at the weekend was almost a carbon copy of this strike and it wasn’t the first time he came to the rescue this season either – mere days earlier, he broke the deadlock against Birmingham with just a few minutes left to play.
Mario Vrančić is unquestionably an extraordinarily gifted footballer, a player with a knack for the spectacular. By the same token, you could argue that he is just another of a whole host of supremely talented players that often go missing and struggle to consistently showcase their ability. He’s a midfield maestro who can manipulate the opposition to dance to his tune without breaking a sweat and Norwich fans should appreciate him for what he is and cherish the special moments, even if they are sometimes few and far between.