Aleksandar Mitrovic has about half an hour to spare. Training and lunch are done but there is a tactical meeting to attend and then, as team-mates drift home, there will be the gym. For Mitrovic, there is always the gym.
‘My body is my weapon and I have to keep it in shape, I need to feel strong,’ the Fulham forward shrugs.
‘I like the gym, I need the gym. On days off, too. I wake up early, work out here, have breakfast here and then come back to the family. They understand it. It’s my job. I am not that fast and skilful. I am not Raheem Sterling, am I? So I know I have to use my strength and power in the box.’
Aleksandar Mitrovic reveals his love of the gym and how it helped him in the Premier League
Back in the Premier League after an uncertain spell in the top division with Newcastle three years ago, Mitrovic is joint top of the scoring charts with three goals.
His two headers in the 4-2 win over Burnley last Sunday perfectly summed up what he brings to Slavisa Jokanovic’s promoted team. Strength, power, aggression, goals.
Folded into a chair at Fulham’s training ground in south west London, the 23-year-old is actually a little shy, but does have the look of a powerful man.
Not super-tall but with square shoulders, his upper arms are big for a footballer. If he looks like a bit of a throwback centre forward in this age of false nines and split strikers then it’s not a coincidence.
Mitrovic steered the ball beyond the reach of Joe Hart as Fulham picked up their first win
The striker has been hugely impressive since he made the switch to Fulham from Newcastle
‘I grew up on Alan Shearer and Didier Drogba but now the game has turned round,’ he said. ‘Teams want fast players. That’s not me. But I know my strengths.
‘The defenders here in the Premier League are really strong. Sometimes I feel like I am wrestling more than playing football. After the Burnley game I was really tired, more from fighting than running. But you have to show you are not afraid.
‘If they give you a punch you have to give it back stronger. I try to play my game but it’s like war for me. I will do everything. But always afterwards it’s a handshake and wish them all the best. It’s sport, after all. It’s about respect.’
Watch footage of Mitrovic’s goals and it’s clear he undersells himself when he says he has no skill. He can score with both feet and, of course, his head.
When he scores — which he does on an average of once every two games — there is what appears to be an outpouring of emotion. This season he has started to hold his hand to his ear as he celebrates. There is no real explanation, but now he cannot stop.
‘When I get home my two-year-old son Luka is doing it,’ he smiles. ‘So I have to carry on, don’t I? Football is about passion and when I score I have so much inside me that has to come out. I need the release.’
When he scores, there is an outpouring of emotion and holds his hand to his ear to celebrate
Mitrovic has worked hard to be where he is. As a child in the Serbian town of Smederevo, 30 miles down the Danube from Belgrade, he was still small at the age of 15.
He was a ball boy at a Partizan Belgrade game where Jokanovic was manager, but a life in football seemed a long time away. ‘As a kid I was never really in the teams,’ he recalls.
Briefly, the wrong kind of life beckoned. He tried karate and kickboxing but could not focus and though his father, Ivica, was joking when he once said his son ‘could have become a criminal’ there was an incident when he was caught throwing rocks at a passing train.
Jokanovic was Partizan Belgrade boss (pictured in 2009) when Mitrovic was a ball boy
‘I don’t know why it happened but I was not alone,’ he recalled. ‘There were 100 kids who threw the rocks before us but mine went through the window and hit the driver. I was the wrong guy. My father was always nice to me but there were a few times when he kicked my ass and this was one of them. I remember it well.
‘I was actually a happy kid as my parents were always behind me. They gave everything to me to keep me out of the streets, to put me on the path to sport.
‘I didn’t play at all at my first club, Partizan [Belgrade] youth. I passed all my school work there but I didn’t play. I was small for my age so my father told me that I had to work harder than the others. Then I grew very suddenly so I played about six months in the Under 18s and then went to the first team.
‘The hard work thing is still in my head. I want to be the hardest working in the room as I need to know that I did everything right in the week so that when I play the game my head is clear. I don’t want to cheat myself. I have routines. This is not a dream, it’s real.’
In Jokanovic, he may now have the perfect coach – they have more than nationality in common
In Jokanovic, Mitrovic may now have the perfect coach. They have more than nationality in common. Both are intense and not prone to wasted words. Both are trying to make a go of a second time in the Premier League.
The Fulham striker is merely glad to be at Fulham. After Rafael Benitez decided to move him out of Newcastle last January, Mitrovic was in Belgium on deadline day coming to terms with the sudden collapse of a proposed return to his former club Anderlecht.
A move to Middlesbrough was on the table when his phone buzzed with a text from Jokanovic. ‘How are you?’ it asked. The next day Mitrovic was unveiled at Fulham.
‘I was a bit lucky wasn’t I?’ he smiles. ‘Now I try to pay Slavisa back because he did everything to bring me here. Sometimes I will score and sometimes I won’t, but I give 100 per cent for him.’
Mitrovic scored 12 times in 15 starts as Fulham won promotion through the play-offs. Ahead of Saturday’s game at Brighton, he is three from three in the Premier League. That feels like repayment in kind but Mitrovic knows he will have to wait a while for a cuddle from his manager.
‘No, he is still cold like ice,’ he laughs. ‘He doesn’t show emotions but I know he is happy with me. He tries to stay cold but we know when he is happy and when he is angry. When I was a ball boy I didn’t think I would ever work with him. But that’s football, I’m just happy that I am here now.’
When he was growing up, Mitrovic wanted to be a No 9, a Newcastle No 9. Shearer was a hero and still is. It must have been disheartening, then, when Shearer was critical of him during his time in the North East. ‘No, not really,’ says Mitrovic. ‘He was probably right.’
Mitrovic always wanted to be a No 9, a Newcastle No 9. Alan Shearer was a hero and still is
One of Mitrovic’s problems in Newcastle was discipline and this, in part, was Shearer’s issue. Signed by Steve McClaren for £13million in 2015, Mitrovic was booked in the first minute of his debut and sent off against Arsenal four games later.
He was carded seven times in his first 14 games of Newcastle’s relegation season and sent off again on the final day.
Benitez was in charge by then and as the Spaniard plotted a return to the Premier League it was clear the big Serbian was not for him. By the time Mitrovic eventually left St James’ Park eight months ago, it felt like a transfer well overdue.
Benitez’s team were criticised for playing defensively at home to Chelsea last weekend and Mitrovic says: ‘Benitez plays defence and counter-attack. I tried to give my best but it wasn’t me.
‘I was just running and getting in the team shape. He told me what he wanted and I tried but I am 90 kilos and if I run so much defensively I have no power left when I am in the box. He knew I couldn’t play in that style and I felt it too.
‘Defensively he was one of the best and you can see that when they play, but personally I like to be close to the opponents’ box. I need crosses and service. But Benitez is a great person and in the end I shook his hand.
‘Newcastle is a big club but they have problems with the owner. Everyone knows Mike Ashley. They have taken large steps forward but also to go back. I do wish them success.’
If Mitrovic continues this season the way he has started, the quiet will not last long
Mitrovic has the No 9 shirt at Fulham now and still studies Shearer’s goals on YouTube. The two men lived on the same road in the North East but didn’t meet. When Newcastle fans turned up seeking autographs, it tended to be the younger man’s door they knocked on.
‘Shearer is still my hero and it’s his job to do analysis,’ he says. ‘He was most of the time right, of course. My father says the same. I know myself when I play bad anyway. He is still a legend and I don’t think England will ever have a striker like him again.’
In London, he and partner Kristina are living in a flat by the Thames with young Luka and baby daughter Nada. It is a quieter life.
‘It’s different to Newcastle as when I go out I don’t need a hat for disguise,’ he says. ‘Here I have my own peace and I can go with my kids on the street. Nobody cares about me or stops me. It’s nice.’
For the big, quiet Serbian such welcome anonymity should maybe be treasured. If Mitrovic continues this season the way he has started, the quiet will not last long.