‘It’s literally like losing my son’ – Millwall goalkeeping coach Andy Marshall devastated by passing of Matija Sarkic

Millwall goalkeeping coach Andy Marshall has paid an emotional tribute to goalkeeper Matija Sarkic – saying the passing of the Montenegro international is “literally like losing my son”.

The Lions number one, 26, passed away on Saturday morning in Montenegro.

Marshall made the call to bring Sarkic to England when he was at Aston Villa in September 2015, the start of an unbreakable bond between the pair.

It was Marshall who received the call with the tragic news.

“I went to bed on Friday night happy – really good,” Marshall told the South London Press. “I’d had a really fantastic summer. I went away with Matija to Turkey and then to Spain, doing extra training with him and getting him ready for his international game, when he went to Belgium and played.

“I drove over there to watch him play, with a friend of mine. Then to receive that phone call from his dad. He called me, I missed the call, I texted him and when he called back immediately you know there is something seriously wrong. It was the worst phone call I had ever received in my life.

“It’s literally like losing my son.”

Marshall attended Sarkic’s funeral in Montenegro on Monday afternoon.

“In their tradition, how they work out there, they bury their deceased quite quickly so I found out Sunday afternoon (what the details were),” said Marshall. “My partner Jasmine arranged all the flights to get out there.

“It was a beautiful funeral. The family were so respectful. How they conducted themselves was absolutely phenomenal.

“Tuesday, we had a memorial at the national theatre in Podgorica. The president of the country spoke, who knew Matija and knew Matija’s family. Various members spoke and then, finally, his twin brother Oliver spoke. He put a very fitting tribute to Matija, where he spoke in Montenegrin and then spoke in English. It was very tough, put it that way. But it was very beautiful. There was a video to start with for two minutes, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.”

Marshall first met Sarkic when he was 17. He signed a three-year contract with Villa.

“He was the little, wide-eyed kid coming over from Belgium at the time, because he was at Anderlecht,” said Marshall. “Tony Coton, the scout at Manchester United, brought him over while he was working at Villa. I trained with him for one session and I was given the deciding factor whether we signed him or not. I put my name to him and, quite frankly, from that point all he has done is want to learn and want to find out how to improve himself as a goalkeeper and as a person.

“It wasn’t just a mentoring or coaching thing. It was a mentoring thing of life, rather than just of football.

“We had a very special relationship. Every single day we would either be training together, texting or talking – his personality would shine through. I’ve seen what Neil (Harris) and Jake (Cooper) have said about him, the comments everyone said, his personality shone through. That was him as a human being.

“The fundamentals of life that have been put into him by his parents and brothers, I was just given an opportunity to enhance that.”

Sarkic was signed by Millwall last summer from Wolves. He made 33 appearances in all competitions for the Lions, 32 in the league, and also kept 12 clean sheets.

The keeper had a strong finish to the Championship campaign as he kept four shutouts in the last five matches – including a penalty save from Matt Grimes at Swansea on the final day.

“As a 17-year-old we spoke at length about how to develop him,” said Marshall. “I spoke to his father all the time about how we were going to develop him as a goalkeeper and as a human being. There was an idea in place that we were going to develop him as a human being and as a footballer – he was just reaching that point.

“I’m so glad I went over to watch him play in the Belgium game, where he got man of the match. All the hard work he had put in over the years – all the hard work, professionalism and dedication – came through in that game.

“I spoke to him the following day and I know how he felt about it and how he realised why everything has to be done the way he did it and the way we had structured everything in his life to maximise his opportunity and his career.

“I don’t think it is any surprise that if the fans look at the last 12 games of the season, how he was performing, that was the work Matija was doing on the training field. It really came through in the end.”

Sarkic was normally the first Millwall player into training at Calmont Road.

“He was a consummate pro,” said Marshall. “He was a very smart young man, and he had years of learning. He is very well-educated. He spoke five languages. He would be in at 8.30 every morning – doing his breakfast properly and doing all his preparation properly. Out on the training field we would train correctly. Do his gym work after and all the type of rehab he needed to do. Everything was just absolutely professional in him.

“I can’t speak highly enough of him.”

Lions head coach Neil Harris said plans were still being mapped out for the club’s approach in terms of tributes.

“I got back on Wednesday and I went to see people at the training ground and sort out Matija’s stuff,” said Marshall. “Then I went to the stadium and signed the book of condolence, paid my respects and laid some flowers.

“Whichever game it is – whether it is the last game of pre-season or the first game of the season – all I can do is encourage people – let’s fill out the stadium for him. Let’s do it for his family and show them what he meant to Millwall and the Millwall fans.

“He was coming into his own and showing exactly what he was. I have literally had thousands of messages and that is not an exaggeration, through social media and texting. It is very, very clear how he was regarded – as a human being and a footballer.

“The way the club has conducted themselves has been phenomenal, second to none. Every single of member of staff at the club that has contacted me – and every one has done. The manager, coaching staff, the media – every single person has pulled together and done it the right way.

“Finally I want to say about the owner (James Berylson). The owner has been absolutely phenomenal. He has been in constant contact with me. The provisions the owner is putting in place for the family and for Phoebe, his partner, in particular – to ensure she has a future going forward – I literally cannot speak highly enough of them all.”

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