Fulham’s first proper UEFA Cup tie was against Hadjuk Split back in September 2002 in one of the most intimidating arenas in European football. Next week, the Whites – now much more experienced in continental competition – return to the beautiful Croatian city to face a side whose recent history rather mirrors our own. The question is: who will be this side’s Steed Malbranque?
RNK Split were languishing in the fourth tier of Croatian football four years ago. Formed in 1912, the club has strong working class and anarchist links. RNK stands for Radni?ki nogometni klub which literally translates as ‘workers’ football club’. The club has a particularly political history off the field too. During the Spanish civil war, the club organised a legion of men to fight against Franco and more than a hundred of the club’s players were killed during the Second World War as they battled the Axis powers.
The club have largely been a lower-league side for much of their history. In the days of the former Yugoslavia, the closest RNK came to a degree of success was when they reached the semi-finals of the Yugoslavian Cup in 1960-61. They were beaten by now Macedonian side Vardar.
RNK have enjoyed a meteoric rise over the last few years. They stormed to three championships in three successive years having narrowly missed out on promotion from the fourth division in 2006-07. Last season, only their second in the Croatian top-flight in their history, saw the club finish third in the table. Inspired by their experienced coach Ivan Katalini?, who made 54 appearances in the Southampton goal during the 1970s, RNK were formidable at home and played some sparkling football. Their success was built on an impressive home record (they only lost three home games all season) and a strong defence, spearheaded by Croatian international centre back Ivica Križanac. Midfield creativity comes in the form of the experienced veteran Zozul Ante, who was part of the side that rose through the divisions.
RNK’s third place finish ensured a place in the Europa League this year. They were comfortable 5-2 aggregate winners over Slovenian side Domzale. Young striker Duje Cop, a summer signing from rivals Hajduk Split, announced his arrival with a brace in the first leg and the 21 year-old, whose father Davor was a Hajduk legend in the 1980s, has the ability to trouble the Fulham defence with his aerial ability and a penchant for running with the ball.
Here are the goals from RNK’s first leg victory over Domzale: