Having left Perth for Croatia at the age of just six, Tomislav Mrcela could have been forgiven for finding the transition back to life in his home town a little tricky.
And the fact that he was carrying a minor injury when he arrived some five weeks ago wouldn’t have exactly helped the settling in process either.
But it’s actually been plain sailing for the towering defender.
“It’s been absolutely fantastic,” he said. “From the lads, the coaching staff, to the people in the office, everyone has been really supportive.
“Every day my knee feels stronger. I’m getting more and more involved in the team training after the surgery to clean everything up and I’m getting closer to full training.”
While it is undoubtedly frustrating to be missing out on friendlies and restricted at training, Mrcela insists that he’s relishing the intensity of his rehab program and working under Head Coach Tony Popovic.
“To be honest, it’s been the hardest pre-season for me ever,”he said.
“There’s a great system of training in place. This is the best coaching staff I’ve ever worked with and I can’t wait to see the results from all the hard work down the line in one month and two months’ time when I can start joining in the games and reaching full fitness.
“I know it’s only been four or five weeks so far, but Popovic has been amazing. He’s already had such a big influence on the team, including myself. He wants every single pass and run to be executed with real purpose, even the yoga, pilates and gym work. He wants us to give 100% in everything we do and stay focused at every moment, which is something I personally appreciate.”
Mrcela, who joined Glory on a two-year deal from Korean outfit Jeonnam Dragons, was one of Popovic’s first signings at the club, with his experience and winning mentality outlined by the club’s new Head Coach as key factors behind his decision to snap up the 1.95m centre-back.
The 27-year-old and his family left Perth to return to their native Croatia back in 1996 and it was in the young Balkan nation where Tomislav fell in love with the game, starting out with RNK Split before moves to the likes of Imotski, Hrvatski Dragovoljac and Zagreb-based side, Lokomotiva.
“After playing my youth football in Split,” he explained, “I then went to the second division before making it in the top division and I’m really thankful for the experiences at the lower level because I really grew as a player and as a person.
“You learn a lot from the players there, just as you do with the players on the biggest stage. You really mature and become mentally stronger, so every coach and team that I played for in Croatia was a real positive time of development.”
After rising through the football ranks and being raised from such a young age in the country, he could hardly hide his pride following Croatia’s historic World Cup run in Russia which saw them go all the way to the final before being dramatically edged out 4-2 by France.
“It all means so much,” he said. “After the war, sport was the way to express yourself and after coming third in France ’98 with incredible players like Boban, Sukur and Bilic, football has always been a big part of who we are, which continues today.
“The team is very strong, so it wasn’t such a big surprise to see Modric, Rakitic and Perisic lead us so deep into the competition. But in that kind of tournament you need to have luck and we deserved it. Perhaps we played the best football and deserved to win, but the scenes in Croatia with half-a-million people on the streets celebrating the achievement was unbelievable and I was jealous I wasn’t there to support them. It’s a massive result for the nation.”
Mrcela lived every moment of the biggest match in his country’s history alongside teammates Ivan Franjic and Matthew Spiranovic who have played a key role in helping him settle into life at Glory.
“It’s always easier when you have a few friends at the club with you,” he said. “Everyone has been so welcoming and it’s been great to be able to spend time with them.
“Everyone approaches their football with such professionalism here, from the youth players to the experienced players like Dino [Djulbic]. The squad has been great and I can learn a lot from them. We’re all pushing each other forward in a positive way, so I can’t wait to see how we go this season.”
Mrcela continues to work closely with the club’s physio team and is hopeful of stepping out in Glory colours soon.