‘Once a Lion, always a Lion’ – Millwall’s players, fans and head coach show their love for Matija Sarkic after his tragic passing


“Once a Lion, always a Lion.” That was the message on nearly all of the floral tributes left at The Den this week after the shock death of Millwall goalkeeper Matija Sarkic.

The Lions have been rocked by tragedy for the second successive summer with the news that their player passed away on Saturday in his native Montenegro.

Sarkic, signed from Wolves at the start of August, was set to celebrate his 27th birthday next month.

Millwall suffered similar devastation when owner John Berylson, 70, died in a car crash in America on July 4, 2023.

Now the football club is back in mourning for Sarkic with captain Jake Cooper visibly distraught when he spoke to the club’s in-house media on Tuesday.

Ryan Leonard, Millwall’s Player of the Year, had put flowers in front of the main entrance at The Den – with others that had visited to pay their respects hanging up goalkeeping shirts with Sarkic’s name on the back along with a Montenegro flag and scarf.

“You will be deeply missed in the changing room and in life brother,” said Leonard’s handwritten note. “May you rest in perfect peace mate X”.

Lions midfielder Billy Mitchell’s bouquet said: “RIP Matija. You’ll be forever in our hearts. Devastated we’re not going to develop our budding friendship more! Great goalkeeper and even better guy. You will be sorely missed my friend.”

Sarkic has been described as incredibly diligent in terms of his professionalism to his trade. He was, pretty much without fail, the first player in at their Calmont Road training ground every day.

Because he had endured injury issues in the past, he went above and beyond with his recovery, strength work and pre-activation.

When he had time off he would often organise his own mini training camps.

In fact when I caught up with Sarkic before the final game of the Championship campaign, to reflect on his first season with Millwall, he talked about extra preparation he had sorted out before international friendlies against Belgium and Georgia.

“I’ve booked two weeks of training away,” he said. “I’ll go to Turkey for a week, I’ve got a coach coming with me. I’ll just train out there to stay fit. Then I go to Spain, to freshen up the mind. It will be one-to-one training, on the pitch and in the gym, so that I’m ready for the national team.”

While it had been what he described as a “rollercoaster” season for Millwall, it was clear that the move to SE16 – and the regular football it brought – had ticked the boxes he wanted to tick.

“I’ve really enjoyed this season – getting used to playing at Millwall and understanding what that is and what it means,” he said. “What the fans are like and how demanding they are. Because you hear about it, but until you’re actually in it, you don’t really know what it is like.

“The injury early on was a negative but it was just a bump in the road. I’m over that and you’re going to see better from me. The more games I play and run of games I have, I know I’m going to get better.”

Millwall fans can be tough to gain approval from, but Sarkic’s performances were making it a smooth transition from the hugely popular Bartosz Bialkowski, who largely acted as back-up in his final season with the South Londoners.

Sarkic made 33 appearances and kept 12 clean sheets, including four in the final five matches.

His steadying influence and confidence between the posts as a big factor in the Lions’ seismic improvement in form once Neil Harris returned in February.

Millwall goalkeeper Matija Sarkic during the Sky Bet Championship match at The Den, London. Picture date: Friday March 29, 2024.

Harris, asked about the stopper winning the respect of the club’s fanbase, said: “This is how I talk to new signings: ‘You haven’t got to be the best player – but you have to show the fans you care, play with passion and want to do well for them’.

“Whether Matija played well or not as a goalkeeper – whether one went through his hands, legs, or he kicked the ball off the pitch – nobody could ever question his mentality or his desire to want to play. He always put himself forward.

“That is what the fans saw as the goalkeeper standing in front of them. The majority of fans understand it’s not always easy to be a Millwall player, especially in difficult moments.

“They’re honest enough to understand that. Everyone appreciates Matija’s performances at the end of the season.

“He started well, had a little dip and then finished unbelievably strongly. People respect that, and that is how I’ll remember Matija – a radiant smile with a strong performance at the end of the season.

“Matija and his partner were extremely popular in the changing room with the lads.

“The fans are always subjective to a player’s performance. Is he a 10 out of 10? Was he a two out of 10? One fan will say he was a nine out of 10 and one will say he’s a two. That’s why we love football – it does that to people. Where I praise Matija even deeper than I have already is that following on from a legendary status (Bialkowski) at a football club is really difficult.

“Being a Millwall number nine is really difficult. Being a goalkeeper who follows on from someone such as Bart Bialkowski, who is still in the building also last year at the same time, is really difficult.

“We saw Matija develop his game and grow as a character – finishing the season really strongly.

“He had the support network around him. That is probably the biggest praise anyone can give him.

“When you replace a legend at a football club, then you have to make it your own. By the end of the season Matija has done that.”

Harris is proud of the way Cooper, one of his senior professionals, paid tribute to Sarkic.

“Jake spoke unbelievably well, with humility, passion and honesty,” said Harris.

“You have to remember that we’re just people doing a job. We’re fortunate enough to do it in the football industry at a brilliant football club in the fifth-best league in the world.

“We’re still just blokes. Matija was a brother, son and boyfriend. Jake is the same – a father, son and husband. I think these are the moments where people see us for who we are as people.”

Millwall will mark his passing with Harris describing those plans as in their “infancy” after the player’s funeral took place on Monday.

He said: “It’s not just what I think is right or what Jimmy (Berylson, Millwall owner) thinks is right, it’s important what the players believe – and certainly Matija’s family.”

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