For as long as Graham Carr has been Head Scout for Newcastle United each season started with an influx of players, usually from France, that would rarely live up to the expectations that come with a black and white shirt.
Prior to the 2015/2016 season, arguably Newcastle’s worst run under the Mike Ashley regime, the same imports came in with little effect. Take Florian Thauvin, who swiftly returned to Marseille on loan mere months later, as a prime example.
Among the usual batch of hopeless, one man shone bright: Aleksandar Mitrovic.
The common denominator
When you think of 'cult heroes', and at Newcastle specifically, strikers will be the first to come to mind. First and foremost, Alan Shearer, the man who passed up the chance to play at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson to play for his boyhood club. While he was at it he also set the Premier League scoring record.
While the predecessors of Shearer's famous number nine shirt have differed from the marvel of the man himself, they have still went on to achieve cult status. Take Obafemi Martin. He netted 17 in his first season, including an 84mph rocket against Tottenham Hotspur but a subsequent drop in goals did not matter in the coming seasons, he had already won the Geordies over with determination.
Shola Ameobi was by no means the most prolific striker in Newcastle's history, scoring just 79 in his 14-year stint at the club. However, his ability to score in the most important fixture a player will endure: Newcastle v Sunderland. Netting seven goals against the Mackems, which is four short of the great Jackie Milburn's record, earned him the endearment of the Geordies and the title of 'Mackem Slayer', despite being polarising at other times.
There is a common denominator, and it is not how many goals are scored nor is it the finesse of a player. It is all about whether they are willing to pour everything they have into the club. Mitrovic does exactly that, and at 22 the man has already firmly embedded himself into a very important and testing part of the club's 124 year history as they battle through relegation for the second time in just nine lacklustre years of Ashley ownership.
Mitrovic is not strictly hailed as the current man of the Geordie nation because of his performances. In fact, the striker is really yet to come into his own. He managed 10 goals in 40 appearances last season. This season in the Championship, Dwight Gayle is Rafa Benitez's first pick and that makes sense since he has scored 17 goals so far, Mitrovic only able to yield three. On the pitch, it is worth noting that among a large collection of yellow cards, Mitro was also given two straight red cards against Arsenal and Tottenham respectively.
The emergence of a hero
As cult status is beyond scoring goals, Mitrovic fits into that description with ease. Upon signing, many players express their 'delight' through gritted teeth, thinking about their next Premier League move once they are done with this stepping stone in their career. With Mitrovic, it is vastly different. This was confirmed as fans unearthed an old interview from his Partizan Belgrade days when he said his favourite club is "Newcastle in England". Without playing a single minute, they knew that this guy could be special.
From his wild celebrations to dancing to his own 'Mitro's on Fire' chant to begging Matt Ritchie to let him take a penalty against Preston North End in the EFL Cup, it is simply how he exists on the pitch that has won the hearts of the Geordies in a way that no other play has in recent memory.
Geordie through and through
He demonstrated once and for all that he knows what it means to represent the Geordie Nation in the most recent Tyne-Wear derby. If a player is going to turn up for a game, it has to be against Sunderland as the fierce rivalry offers more hostility and meaning than your average match. Showing lack of ambition or drive in this fixture will forever synonymize a player's name with anonyminity and other unfavourable things for a footballer. In addition, subsequent performances would be scruitnised closer than ever. Georginio Winjaldum found that out the hard way, and when he was unable to score away from home all season, suffered the wrath of an extremely dedicated fan base.
For several years now the Black Cats have dragged the Magpies through their cat-flap, smugly showing off the reminients of Newcastle to their owner. The wins sometimes emphatic in score but mostly scrappy and unpleasant to watch. However, in the home leg of the derby Mitrovic saved the day as jumped up to the far post to head home (his specialty) a late ball in at the far post. The goal alone restored a small shred of dignity to Newcastle's recent form in the clash. What came next is what has led to the man being celebrated for whatever he does.
Once that ball went into the net the Serb sprinted around the field, pulling his shirt over his head and spinning it around his head, dodging the his teammates who wished to celebrate with him before a fan jumped onto a pitch to celebrate, Mitrovic bizarrely jumped over him before dancing around and embracing the man. Ensuring that the ban that the fan in question would receive for entering the pitch would be worth it.
It got better. Aleksandar Mitrovic was on fire, as the song goes, looking more dangerous with each advance. But suddenly became concussed by a clash with Lamine Kone. Mitro was brought off the pitch by the medical team as the FA continue to clamp down on the danger of head injuries but he fought, desperate to stay on the pitch, hungry to score the winner. He did not need to claim victory as breaking the losing streak and fighting the club doctors in the process was enough for him to write his own cherished chapter in a black and white history book.
Following in the footsteps of icons
Mitrovic almost mirrors a fellow cult hero, Niko Dabzias, in the 2002 edition of this fixture, when upon heading home a to win the game, the Greek man slid out of his top and was bombarded in front of the celebrating away fans. Certainly, a derby can confirm a player's status with the fans, as it did for a topless Dabzias - now the poster boy for so many match previews between the two North East sides.
Consolidating cult status
There is more to the Young Serbian than his fight against Sunderland, as much as it can be argued that the specific game will always hold importance to his tenure at Newcastle.
As the relegation season progressed into its inevitable, doomed fate, Mitrovic was one of the only things that Newcastle fans looked forward to. When he sprung off the bench against Norwich City, a team who were also battling for survival at this point, he scored two goals. One from a famous header and another from a penalty. But it was not enough as the festering feeling of apathy among the teamallowed Norwich to go on and win that particular match. They did not not the battle though, as both teams went down with The Canaries sat underneath the Toon.
He was also a fairly important piece of the strangest final day win over Tottenham. When he, a player from an already relegated team, scored the second of five goals against a team who had just qualified for the Champions League in the same season. Newcastle became the only team in the 15/16 season to do the double over Spurs. Mitrovic scoring in both. It is a fact that still stirs some kind of upset in the stomachs of many football fans. It should not have happened, but it did.
Beyond the dreary season, the love for Mitrovic continued and even reached new heights. When Gayle was awarded the number nine instead of the Serbian striker, who has been tipped as the next Shearer, there was outrage on his behalf until he stated he was happy to continue under his 45 number.
Then it came to the international break which saw the Geordies traded in the same old tired feeling of watching England to become honorary Serbians. Taking in every Mitrovic emblazoned moment with pure glee. Relishing in his two goal glory in a crucial 3-2 victory over Austria, while simultaneously not being overly concerned with other Newcastle players on duty for their nation. Making it obvious that Mitrovic is their man.
Things are different for Mitrovic at Newcastle since Steve McClaren left the club in tatters. Under Rafa Benitez the club has found structure, rhythm and above all hope in football again. In addition to appropriate infastructure being put in place, in the second division many players have flowered, such as Yoan Gouffran. Originally bought as a striker has become a winger with an exceptional work rate and ability to follow the plan, which has led to a multitude of chances created and the Frenchman finishing some spectacular ones of his own. But the Serbian does not play enough to reap the benefits from the 'Rafalution', despite the adoration from the rest of the city.
He still has the attention and the hearts of the supporters. Take the recent home game against Birmingham City for example, Gayle bagged a perfect hat trick and on his final goal, Mitrovic was warming up to pick up 10 minutes of playing time. As the third goal went in, sure the crowd erupted at the mere sight of a ball hitting the back of the net, but it was not the scorer's name they were chanting. A chorus of 'mitro' rang anytime the Serbian warmed up, he himself acknowledged it, pointing towards the Leazes stand with that charming, almost clumsy smile of his. It is that kind of relationship with fans that is rarely seen in the modern day Toon, but one that is so treasured to the point of cultdom.
However, the chants and love for the club can only carry the young striker so far. He needs game time, and if he does not feature in Benitez's plans for Newcastle there is no doubt he will look elsewhere. There are claims that Premier League clubs such as Crystal Palace and West Ham that are seeking to add his dedication and fearless goal hunting nature to their striking force. Why would they not? He is not afraid to embed himself into a backline with some of the most lavish names in football, he can hold up play like no other and his ability to score from a header is second to none. Plus, he is extremely young - a simple fact that is constantly overlooked.
But if Newcastle do lose their Serbian Prince it will wreak havoc for the rest of the team and the manager. His absence would most likely even spark a different kind of atmosphere in St James' Park for a while, as he is an integral part of this modern culture. That would be a big blow with the fans working so hard to restore and cultivate that environment that so many visiting teams have been afraid to step into, with projects such as The Gallowgate Flags.
At this rate with only 12 appearances this season, 66% of those coming off the bench he is not going to become the player that his fans so desperately want him to be. Benitez himself has made a plea for the striker to stay but there are reports of the man himself being unhappy with the lack of game time.
Perhaps Geordies may have to invest in an inspirational quote plaque for their homes that reads something along the lines of "If you love something, let it go", to sit nicely next to the "love, laugh, live" one.
Jokes aside, if there is one thing that is certain at this time, wherever he goes from here; Mitrovic's legacy will live on well beyond his time at the club.