In the last five years, Alen Halilovic has played for nine clubs in six different countries. Now in Berkshire, he’s hoping to stick around for a while.

“That’s what I really wanted here in Reading before I spoke with them but we couldn’t do it because of the financial problems,” Halilovic explains from a meeting room at the club’s Bearwood training base. “But let’s see what happens. I really like the club, the way we play and I think we can build something good. Everything is going well. I really like the country, it’s not far from my country so my family and girlfriend can visit, so yeah it’s nice.”

Still just 25 years old, Halilovic rose through the Dinamo Zagreb youth system and the eyes of the world were quickly fixed on the youngster dubbed “The Croatian Messi”. At the age of 16, he became the youngest ever debutant for his country. His rapid rise was always going to attract the biggest clubs in the world and just two-and-a-half years after breaking onto the scene he joined Barcelona for a big fee and with even bigger expectations on his shoulders.

His time at the Nou Camp though never fully got going as he made just one appearance before moving to Sporting Gijon on loan and eventually to Hamburg for a nominal fee.

Reading Chronicle: Halilovic warming up ahead of last week's clash with Sheffield United. Image by: JasonPIXHalilovic warming up ahead of last week's clash with Sheffield United. Image by: JasonPIX

The attacking midfielder once again failed to establish himself in Germany and left for AC Milan after another loan in Spain, this time with Las Palmas. Halilovic spent two years on the books of Milan but played just three times for his parent club, instead being sent out on loans to Belgium and the Netherlands.

With his career at yet another crossroads, the Italian giants terminated his contract last October and Birmingham City pounced on the opportunity to bring him to England on a short-term deal. 17 appearances and one goal later, Birmingham offered Halilovic a new contract, but he chose to take his time before picking his next club - having suffered in the past from hasty decisions.

Finally, in late August, with the season already underway, Halilovic signed for Reading.

“Last year I really liked the way Reading played, they had an amazing team,” he says. “And during the summer when I spoke with Pauno he explained to me what type of players he wants, what players he wants to bring in, and I really liked that. He (Paunovic) was a big part of me coming.”

Almost immediately it seemed a perfect fit. Halilovic started five of his first six games as Reading picked up 13 points from a possible 18. One goal and two assists provided concrete signs of what Halilovic was capable of. There was, of course, room for improvement but everything seemed to be heading in the direction of the stable and uplifting environment that could help resurrect a career that had largely stuttered since its inception.

Reading Chronicle: Alen Halilovic celebrates his match-winning goal against Middlesbrough. Image by: JasonPIXAlen Halilovic celebrates his match-winning goal against Middlesbrough. Image by: JasonPIX

Then Halilovic was forced off the pitch after 63 minutes at Pride Park. Just like that, the impressive start was gone and a lengthy injury rehab was all that remained. 

“It was difficult the first few days,” Halilovic admits after a brief pause. “Because I came here, started to play really well, in six matches I think we won four. We were on fire. I felt good, I had good chemistry with my teammates, but then I got injured. The good thing was I knew the season was long. I knew that I had enough time, even if I had two or three months out I still have six more months to play. So I was focused and I feel good now.

“For me, it was a little bit difficult because I’ve never injured my hamstring. I had just one big injury four years ago when I tore my tendon close to my heel. But after that I’ve always been good, never had injuries, not even small injuries. But this one, the hamstring, was different.”

Halilovic has been through a lot in his still relatively young career and it’s helped build the impressively resilient character sitting in the chair in front of the Reading Chronicle. It’s impossible to escape the fact that much of Halilovic’s career has thus far boiled down to disappointment. But rather than any bitterness, it’s a self-assured positivity that seems to be at the centre of the midfielder’s psyche. Discussing his injury rehab is no different. The anguish that has dominated the last few moments of our conversation is quickly replaced with a cheeky grin. 

“It was easy because the two months felt like ten days,” Halilovic says before snapping his fingers to emphasise his point. “Because every three or four days there’s a match. It did pass quickly, to be honest.”

Reading Chronicle: Halilovic is forced off the pitch with a hamstring injury at Derby. Image by: JasonPIXHalilovic is forced off the pitch with a hamstring injury at Derby. Image by: JasonPIX

Finally back on the pitch after nine games out for a brief cameo against Sheffield United, Halilovic started for the first time since September last Saturday at Swansea. Brought in for his creativity and moments of magic on the ball, Halilovic was forced to adapt his game as Reading found themselves chasing for much of the match.

“I’m happy because it was a really important game for us especially because we had two games at home that we didn’t win and we expect to always win at home. Swansea is a really good team, I like the way they play, they keep the ball. To be honest it was not easy to come back after two months and play against this type of team who have 60/70% of possession but we competed with them and won.

“It was a tough match. First match after two months, playing this type of game was not easy. But also for my team, because I think we are a team with players who can play football, we want to play football. But the problem was Swansea have played together for years and they’ve built that system. This year we have a lot of new players. It was Andy’s first start, the first game I played with him, first game I played with Scott Dann. So I think we need to build up this chemistry but you can only do that through matches and training. This Saturday-Saturday-Saturday will help us to train and get to know each other more.”

Despite having to spend more of his time defending than usual, Halilovic did come up with one special moment, backheeling the ball through the legs of a Swansea player for Danny Drinkwater to hit it first time over the defence where Andy Carroll was running through to score.

“I was really happy for him because he gave everything,” Halilovic said of Reading’s new striker. “It was his first start which is not easy but I think he did an amazing job. I won’t speak about the goal because everybody knows the goal was amazing! But he’s helping us in the dressing room because he’s an experienced guy, he’s played a lot of matches in the Prem, he will help us a lot not just on the pitch but outside the pitch as well. It’s good to have him here.

Reading Chronicle: Halilovic and his teammates mob Andy Carroll after the striker's first Reading goal. Image by: JasonPIXHalilovic and his teammates mob Andy Carroll after the striker's first Reading goal. Image by: JasonPIX

“When you have this kind of player where you know at any second he can score or keep the ball, other players from other teams respect him. So it’s easier for us.”

Of course, an attritional battle is nothing new for Halilovic, having gained Championship experience at St. Andrews last season. Perhaps the Dubrovnik native would have wished to put down some roots on one of his many stops after leaving his boyhood club, but his sojourns across Europe have certainly made him wise to all types and styles of football.

“It’s helped me a lot,” Halilovic says of his time in the Championship last term. “You have some teams who try to play a lot of long balls so you have to prepare for that. It’s not like in Spain where a lot of teams, 90% of teams, play similar football. Other than maybe Real Madrid and Barcelona all the other teams play the same football, they want to have possession. Here it’s a lot different so I think it’s good for me to learn and this time next year maybe I’ll be 10-15% better.”

The victory at Swansea came as the culmination of a tough ten days in which Reading were deducted six points by the EFL before drawing with Nottingham Forest and losing to Sheffield United. 

But now, with Halilovic, Femi Azeez, and a few others returning from injury - as well as a slight decrease in the fixture congestion - the midfielder and his teammates are confident that the win in Wales can jump-start their season.

Reading Chronicle: Alen Halilovic making his return to action against Sheffield United after two months out. Image by: JasonPIXAlen Halilovic making his return to action against Sheffield United after two months out. Image by: JasonPIX

“Especially when I came here, we’ve only had so many days for training like we are doing now because we played Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday. But I think this period now is good for me and also good for some other players coming back from injury because we play Saturday-Saturday-Saturday and in the middle of the week we have enough time to work more on the problems we’ve had.

“To be honest, it’s not easy to play every few days, and the other teams, the opponents are also tough. And this season I didn’t have much of a preseason, so next year when I do a preseason and I’m 100% ready for the season I can tell you if it’s difficult or not. But 100% sure that with La Liga in Spain, the Championship is the most difficult.

“It’s good also for mentality. Because if you lose one match or two matches in a row, the next match is in two or three days so you don’t have much time to be sad or think about what you did wrong, you just have to focus on the next one.”

Mired just four points above the Championship relegation zone in 21st place, Reading’s hopeful resurgence will run through Hull City - another side near the bottom of the table - but also one of the Championship’s form teams having won their last four.

“We’ve spoken a lot about them,” Halilovic says of Saturday’s foes. “They are a really good team, especially the last three or four weeks, they’ve won like four in a row. I like the way they play, they like to have possession, they try to play football. But they are also direct, they go one against one. So it will be a tough match for us, but we’ve had a full week to prepare, we know everything about them, so we will give 100%.”