Roko Simic has arrived! The young Croat is a bundle of top-class attacking threat and has started scoring goals by the bucket load this season. In a half-time in Salzburg interview he talks while walking through our stunning old town about his career to date, the importance of belief, his gratitude to Gerhard Struber and his incredible footballing family background.
The name Simic is synonymous with football! Roko was virtually born with a ball at his feet. His father, Dario, played for AC Milan, AS Monaco and Dinamo Zagreb as a defender and was Croatia's record appearance-holder in his day. The father of our striker, who was a right-back and even a goalkeeper in his younger years, has always had a massive influence on his development.
It is a motivation for me to be better than my father was!"
The decision to follow into his father's footsteps was one Roko made by himself. The boy may remain fond of his family but wants to make his own history: "My father never put me under pressure. He always said 'What will happen, will happen.' When I didn't play well, he was never angry or anything. He helped me hugely in my development as a footballer, however, and prepared me for a lot. Thanks to him I could train several times a day from an early age. If I was ever a bit lazy, he motivated me. To drive me on he then trained with me too.
He is still really fit today, and he could probably still be a professional if he wanted to be. He has showed me just how defenders operate, how best as an attacker to deal with them and make their life difficult. It is a motivation for me to be better than my father!"
Roko's father and Roko are not the only successful footballers in the family by a long shot. His Uncle Josip Simic was also a Croatian international and even played in the Austrian Bundesliga for FC Kärnten. Roko's cousin Jakov Medic is currently a pro and is a real inspiration for our attacker to never give up.
"He has the kind of career that can be a role model for many. He shows what is possible if you just keep on giving your all. When he was 18 years old, he was still playing in the Croatian third division, and then he made it to Nuremberg's team in the German regional league. Then he went to Wehen Wiesbaden in the third division, then to St. Pauli in the Second Bundesliga and after two good years there he has moved to Ajax - a really top club! That just shows that you can achieve anything you want to, you just have to work hard for it!"
Roko took his first big step at a much younger age when he left his hometown club, Croatian first division side Lokomotiva Zagreb at the age of 17 to join us in Salzburg.
I love the people here in Salzburg and most of all I love the club.
"At this time, I didn't know much about Salzburg and the thought of leaving my home town, my mother and my family made me sad at first. My father was already raving about FC Red Bull Salzburg though and told me it is the best possible place for young talents. After two-and-a-half years, I love the city and love the people here in Salzburg, but most of all I love the club. I definitely don't regret making the move!"
Roko's rapid ascent is not something that could be taken for granted. The 20-year-old had plenty of obstacles in his path to conquer before the goals began to fly in. A loan to FC Zürich was supposed to help him find his feet, but he wasn't able to get the playing time he hoped for there – despite making the perfect start with a dream brace: "I came there when they were already well into their winter preparation period. The coach didn't have any belief in me, unfortunately, and as a loan player it is particularly difficult as you can't have any bad days.
It was the sporting director who really wanted me, and he wanted to see me selected in the team. I didn't play much at all though. That's football. Now, just six months later, I'm playing regularly here - even in the UEFA Champions League."
Roko has certainly wasted no time in impressing on Europe's biggest stage. In our first match of the group stage at Benfica he scored a penalty and provided an assist in our fantastic 2-0 win.
Alex Schlager played really well, and I thought he would win the trophy.
Roko was rewarded by UEFA shortly after full-time with the official Man of the Match award – which he found surprising, as he told us: "Alex Schlager played really well, and I thought he would win the trophy. I was delighted though, of course, to get a personal recognition after a win like that. It's on the shelf right above my television with a lot of other mementos I've been able to gather during my career - for instance the UEFA Youth League second place medal or the commemorative Red Bull can for our 10th league title in a row."
The last few weeks have been like a dream for the Croatian youngsters, with Roko even winning our award as Player of the Month in September. The season started with his role in our squad still relatively unclear.
He has believed in me like almost nobody else has.
A boost came in the appointment of Gerhard Struber as head coach: "I have to say the change of coach was a good thing for me, as Gerhard Struber gave me the chance from day one. He was the first coach that has fully believed in me as a professional and kept on selecting me. He gave me the chance to start in the UEFA Champions League. I got my confidence back with that. He has believed in my like almost nobody else has and said that he sees potential in me. That was just what I needed, and it is what I want most in a coach."
Having the faith of Gerhard Struber proved to pay off, even if the striker was not able to find the back of the net in his opening appearances. Roko embodies our playing philosophy like hardly anyone else does, putting opponents under pressure and charging around the pitch at all times.
"It was the most important thing for me to give my best and win the match at the end. I knew if I gave 100 percent for the team then the goals would come at some stage. I'm still not pleased with my scoring rate and would like to keep on improving, but the most important thing is to win and ensure a good atmosphere in the team. One thing for sure is that scoring a goal is the greatest feeling in the world."
There was a time when the talented goalscorer almost slipped out of Croatia's grasp. Not that there was any chance of his international allegiances lying elsewhere, but he proved to be a mega talent at a different sport too - ping pong: "I was really good at table tennis as a child, and I was the best in the country at my age for a while. My coach at Lokomotiva Zagreb said that I had to decide between table tennis or football, as it wasn't possible to fit it all in with training and school."
Roko has not forgotten his table tennis background entirely and has regularly challenged Oscar Gloukh. The open and relaxed Croatian loves all kinds of hobbies.
There isn't anything in the world I don't enjoy.
"I like playing chess, mostly on my phone when we are travelling. Otherwise, I watch a lot of films and series, especially detective programmes like the new season of Lupin on Netlfix. I like to hang out with friends or spend the day with my girlfriend. I visit my family often too. Whether it's sitting at home and chatting or taking a trip to the city, I'm very flexible. There isn't anything in the world I don't enjoy."
He definitely deserves time to relax - as he doesn't see too much of it right now. Roko is currently away on Croatia U21 duty and hopes to follow his father's footsteps into the national team. The 20-year-old will be back soon enough at the Red Bull Arena to send our fans into a frenzy again with his scoring exploits! On Saturday 21 October at home to LASK it will be time, once more, for ROKO ’N’ ROLL!