Thursday, July 28, 2011

Split defence: The fall and rise of RNK

To know the history of any Croatian club is, to a certain extent, to know the history of Croatia. Accordingly, RNK Split has undergone many transformations and has embodied many ideals and identities during its 99-year existence to get to where it is today – an ambitious, confident team making great strides in its progress.

It was on 16 April 1912 that the team came into being. Wanting to bring about a change in the fortunes of the hard-working but poor local people, the club was originally called Anarch (‘Anarchy’) to bring greater publicity to the plight of those living in such dire circumstances. To reflect the anarchistic principles of the club, the team wore a black strip in its early days.

RNK quickly took on the mantle of ‘The Workers Club’ with many local supporters earning a living in the nearby Split dockyards but the club, like so many other things, was thrown into turmoil when World War I broke out. When Croatia emerged from the conflict in 1918, it had become a component part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Anarch were forced to regroup under a new name – JNSK Jug – but constant political interference and upheaval meant the club endured a long and turbulent time in its history.

It wasn’t until 1933 that the team finally became known as RNK Split, whereupon they opted to wear the red of Communism instead of black. In the years leading up to World War II, RNK consolidated its position as the best team in the Dalmatia region but the outbreak of hostilities saw the team pay a heavy price for the battles that ensued. RSD Split, the sports society that incorporated RNK, was dissolved and many of its members entered the conflict to fight among Tito’s band of Partisans. Over 120 people associated with RSD Split were captured in the fighting and were taken to a nearby town where they were shot. A monument still stands in Ruduša as a permanent memorial to those that lost their lives.

After the war ended, Yugoslavia and RNK Split went about the business of rebuilding but The Reds would have to wait until the late 1950’s before they took their place among the top teams in the first national league. Sadly it proved difficult for RNK to stay there and the struggle they endured, often in the shadow of local rivals Hajduk Split, would see them slip far down the league pecking order during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

In the early 1980’s, RNK showed re-emerging signs of a fighting spirit, earning them the nickname ‘Little Nottingham’ – an association that no doubt flattered Brian Clough’s side more than the other way around. It was to be another short-lived period of hope, however, as the team once again slipped down the rankings. When the former Yugoslavia was dismantled and Croatia reappeared as an independent state in 1992, RNK Split was floundering in the regional depths of the country’s second tier.

For all that, RNK were still fighting the good fight and had moved up to the national second division by the end of the 90’s but then disaster struck. A large build-up of debt at the club resulted in RNK being declared bankrupt. Its punishment was demotion and a steady freefall to the fourth tier from which there seemed no immediate return.

Yet in 2007-08, following several seasons in the lower orders, a veritable miracle was set in train. RNK Split won the 4. HNL South-A title, then the following year won the 3. HNL South. The year after that, they won the 2. HNL championship and in 2010-11, they made a triumphant return to the Croatian First Football League (1. HNL), incredibly finishing third in the table. Their amazing rise and rise to Croatia's top table was rightly rewarded with a place in this season’s Europa League qualifiers and after such a history of adversity and struggle, few can deny them their chance to achieve further glory.

Team Spotlight
Scoring top marks for retro nostalgia is RNK's manager Ivan Katalinić. For a three year spell in the early 1980's, he played in goal for Southampton (that's him in green on the right) and notched up 54 appearances before they went and bought Peter Shilton in 1983.

Prior to his spell at The Dell, Katalinić spent almost the whole of the 1970's between the posts for RNK's great rivals Hajduk Split. It was while there that he also got the chance to represent Yugoslavia 13 times between 1977 and 1978. After that, a lengthy coaching career beckoned that included three spells at Hajduk (where he won the Croatian 'double' in 1995) plus a year at Ittihad of Saudi Arabia and Hapoel Haifa in Israel.

Undoubtedly his proudest achievement was acting as assistant coach with the Croatia national team that finished third at the 1998 World Cup, and a little of that glory would do very nicely as he attempts to guide HNK Split past Fulham in the present Europa League campaign.

Current form
The 2011-12 1.HNL is only a week old but it's already a week too long for Split. Playing away at Cibalia last Sunday, they fell behind to an early goal by Mladen Bartolović but RNK defender Filip Marčić thought he'd got the equaliser two minutes from the end. Unfortunately for Split, Frane Vitaić scored the winner for the home side four minutes into injury time to earn Cibalia all three points.

Road to Bucharest
The 2nd Qualifying Round of the Europa League this season provided RNK Split with their first ever European tie, a trip to another part of the former Yugoslavia to play NK Domžale of Slovenia. The first leg finished 2-1 to Split but the Croatians had to work hard for their advantage. Duje Cop gave them the lead just before half time but Damir Pekic equalised just after the interval. With both teams looking tired in the second half, the game deteriorated in quality until Ante Vitaić hit the winner from 10 yards out, leaving Split to hang on to their victory for the remaining 14 minutes.

With an away goals advantage, Split returned to home soil last Thursday intent on defending their lead but were put under pressure when Domžale's Lucas Mario Horvat levelled the aggregate score from the edge of the box in the 46th minute. Fortunately for Split, the pressure didn't last long as Duje Cop was on hand once again to complete a beautifully direct passing counter-attack to make it 1-1 on the night.

Velimir Vidić, sent off in the league match against Cibalia on Sunday, made it 2-1 with a crisp strike from a corner in the 72nd minute and the cherry was placed firmly on the cake when another corner resulted in Split's third courtesy of a simple shot from Goran Milović. The tie finished 5-2 on aggregate and with it, Split head into a 3rd Qualifying Round tie against Fulham knowing that the standard of opposition will be altogether tougher than that offered by Domžale.

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