AS one of dozens of hopefuls chasing a professional contract, Josip Juranovic was once starstruck when Croatian international stars Mario Mandzukic and Mateo Kovacic came to watch one of his trial matches.

Little did he know that some years later, he would have the chance to line up alongside such world stars as he reached his goal of representing his country on the international stage himself.

Juranovic, like Celtic teammate Tom Rogic, once tried out in Nike’s ‘The Chance’, a scheme the sportswear firm run to find players who may have the potential to win a professional contract, but do not yet possess one.

Juranovic shone, and though he may not have done enough to ultimately come out on top of the Croatian version of the programme, he did more than enough to ensure that he didn’t slip through the cracks of the professional game.

The full-back sometimes pinches himself when he thinks of how far he has come since those days, and his humble beginnings make him all the more determined to make the most of where he is now for both club and country.

“That was maybe eight years ago,” Juranovic said.

“There was a tournament run by Nike for players who didn’t have a professional contract with a club.

“There was like 46 boys who were competing by playing three games a day. The games were 45 minutes long and then we had speed tests and passing tests and at the end of it one guy would go and represent Croatia in London.

“I came close. Only three people went to stay at the Nike Academy and I was like the fourth or fifth in line. Because of that experience I am here at Celtic. After that my career started to go up the way.

“There was a video of me receiving a presentation from Mandzukic and Mateo Kovacic was there also. Now I am playing with Kovacic in the Croatia national team.

“And after that people started noticing me on You Tube!”

Juranovic showed that he still has the knack of catching the eye, just as he did with those Nike scouts, as he dinked home a Panenka penalty in ice-cool fashion in Celtic’s eventual defeat to Bayer Leverkusen last week.

Though, he is typically humble about pulling it off.

“That’s just a penalty, it’s nothing special,” he said.

“I decided before the whistle of the referee what I would do. I decided in my head that I would take a Panenka penalty.

“I was speaking with Joe Hart maybe two weeks over dinner and told him I would do it next time I had the chance. The chance came up in Germany and I took it.

“Joe was like, ‘ah, you came up with a big performance!’”

What has perhaps stifled Juranovic’s chances of truly shining as he would like in his short Celtic career to date though is the fact he is still playing out of position at left-back, and not on the right as he would prefer.

That is more of a reflection on both Anthony Ralston’s form in the position and Celtic’s problems in the left-back area due to the injury to Greg Taylor than a judgment of Juranovic, but he admits he does still see his long-term future in the team on the other side of the field.

“Yeah, my position is right-back,” he said.

“But now the coach has asked me if I can play left-back and I say ‘yes’ because I am a team player and I want to play each game and help. That’s it.’”

That adjustment has been made a little easier by the way his manager utilises his full-backs in more central areas, a tactic that plays to one of Juranovic’s strong suits, with the Croatian comfortable taking the ball in tight situations.

“That’s because I started in midfield, not left-back,” he revealed.

“I started as a number six or a number eight. And then I started playing for Hadjuk Split.

“Damir Buric was my coach and he said to me ‘you could make a good career as a right full-back.’

“At first I was like, ‘no, no way.’ But then I came around and said, ‘okay I will accept that.’ And because of him I am here now. He was 100 percent right.”

Juranovic is looking forward to kicking off the hectic December schedule tonight against Hearts, though the last few weeks haven’t exactly allowed for much respite either.

That’s exactly how the 26-year-old likes it, and he is under no illusions about the importance of keeping the foot firmly to the floor from now until the winter break if Celtic are to achieve what they set out to this season.

“[It’s] a big game, a big opportunity for us to show ourselves in a good light,” he said.

“We need to get these three points and from the first minute we will show that.

“For me it’s perfect. If I could choose I would play a game every day. We know that we have three games every week and that’s another 10 games until the end of the half season.

“But you know, if we take care of ourselves by going to bed at the right time, resting and eating properly then I think that we can achieve our goals and improve as team.”