For Slavisa Jokanovic, the adventurer with an enduring appetite for English football, it was a tantalising first meeting.
There were more than three thousand on a midweek Doncaster night, Sheffield United fans reunited and reprising their reverence for red and white and greasy chip butties. Senses dimmed by enforced absence, by the drain of relegation, by the jolt of separation from a manager for generations, finally stirring again.
“It was impossible not to hear them,” he smiles. “It was beautiful, impressive, exciting.”
Jokanovic will meet closer to 30,000 on Saturday evening at Bramall Lane when his challenge to return the Blades to the top flight at the first attempt – and secure his third promotion from the Championship – begins.
He has delivered top-flight football to Watford and Fulham but embraced opportunity further afield too during an intriguing career: in Thailand, in Israel and most recently, in Qatar.
It has meant his family in Madrid and his nights – like those right now in south Yorkshire – spent in a hotel room but amid the game’s trappings he would “always rather be working than just staying at home,” and he feels forever like a student of a universal language.
“My attitude is: today I’m this coach but tomorrow I’ll be better, the next day, better,” he says. “I’ve still got a huge gap ahead of me in terms of my knowledge.”
Qatar brought sunshine, comfort, a chance to pit his possession-based style against that of Xavi Hernandez in a fledgling sporting territory.
Yet the man who watched Kenny Dalglish and Kevin Keegan growing up in the former Yugoslavia and can picture Dusan Savic scoring a dramatic UEFA Cup goal at Arsenal’s “magic” old Highbury had long wanted to return to England and is relishing taking the reins at a club with “history and tradition” in a footballing heartland.
Jokanovic knows what it takes to compete in “one of the toughest leagues in the world” and is hungry to get back to the “best league in the world.” He never got the chance after leading Watford there in 2015 and he was sacked after just 12 Premier League games with Fulham despite a summer of upheaval but there is no time and no desire to dwell.
“I’ve made some business, I’ve finished some, I’ve started new, but I don’t look back at what happened [at other clubs]. I just look ahead. It’s time to open another page.
“I know what the expectations are here. Ok, some of the fans at first might want to see if the new coach is tall, fat, thin but after, they want to see if Sheffield United can play good football and win the games. Let’s start.”
As we speak at the club’s Shirecliffe training base the week before the new campaign gets underway, there is a scramble in vain to rearrange a final pre-season friendly, Norwich scuppered by a string of positive coronavirus tests. Jokanovic and his squad were themselves last month forced to suspend training as a precaution.
But if there is a sense among supporters that his new side might be undercooked, that patience might be required on this new path, Jokanovic – commanding with his 6ft frame and unflinching eye contact – is seeking no sympathy.
Slavisa Jokanovic factfile
- Represented Yugoslavia at 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000
- Made 39 appearances for Chelsea between 2000 and 2002
- Started managerial career at Partizan Belgrade, winning league and cup double in 2007/08
- Won Thailand’s Premier League with Muangthong United in 2012/13 and later took Maccabi Tel Aviv to Champions League
- Led Watford to Premier League in 2015 and won Championship play-off final with Fulham in 2017/18
- Took Al Gharafa to Asian Champions League qualifying
“It’s not just us, it’s happening around the world. I don’t come here for crying, I don’t come here asking for patience.
“It’s a famous thing to say, ‘We need time’. OK, me and the coaching staff need time but I don’t ask it of the supporters. They pay the tickets to enjoy the team and the victories. I know what the supporters want. Our job is to make them happy. That’s part of the deal.”
His response is telling, his determination tangible, his story after all one of a search for self-improvement that stretches back to 1993 when he left Serbia after the political and social upheaval of war in the Balkans.
Sheffield United beat off interest from promotion rivals and were attracted by his presence as well as his pedigree.
Chief executive Stephen Bettis told Sky Sports in June that he had impressed with clarity of ideas and steadfast self-belief. The search for Chris Wilder’s successor was a protracted one but such was the club’s transformation under their magnetic former manager, they needed the sort of imposing figure who could refocus minds and bodies.
Jokanovic, Sheffield United’s first foreign manager, had seen the club stun the Premier League in their first season back, before the impact of injuries, empty stadia and crises of confidence prompted a different kind of spiral. But he felt they possessed enough tools to plot a swift return; familiar faces like Oliver Norwood, strikers with Championship pedigree in Rhian Brewster and Oli McBurnie, veterans like David McGoldrick and a “hungrier than ever” Billy Sharp with valuable experience, internationals like Aaron Ramsdale and Sander Berge.
He has previously spoken of finding a Fulham side “depressed” following their relegation but in the Steel City, he has found his new crop out to prove their mettle.
“Some of the things I knew already about this side, I was just looking for confirmation. I knew I would have in my hands a quality group of players.
“They are good players with good personalities, they are healthy. They are really professional, focused, concentrating. I trust them. They know what is ahead of us.”
What is it like to play for Jokanovic? How does he see the challenge of keeping his squad – a little top-heavy in attack right now – content? “No, I didn’t come here to make players happy,” he says, eyes narrowing with focus. “I came here to demand, to push.
He breaks into a low chuckle: “To be a football player, a sportsman at the highest level, it’s not a question about making them completely happy. Sometimes they will have to do what they might not especially be happy doing that day! But it’s about creating one group with confidence and trust. They need to trust in themselves, in their team-mates and, if I do my work, they can trust me.”
They have trusted for so long in a system that brought unrivalled success, Wilder’s innovative 3-5-2 formation propelling them from League One to the Premier League in four seasons, bewitching the likes of Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola on the way.
Jokanovic is full of admiration for his predecessor but the tactical evolution of Sheffield United under his watch is a fascinating prospect.
He was moulded as a player by the traditions of his former Yugoslavia to dominate with the ball on the floor, schooled in Spain where his fellow technical midfielders helped Deportivo La Coruna to the La Liga title in 2000, helped at Chelsea to “get out of trouble when there was nothing on” by Ray Wilkins advocating speed of thought and feet with what he described as a “half touch”.
Jokanovic the manager has presided over sides who usually seek to play from the back, boss the ball, press high. On his unveiling at Bramall Lane, he spoke of harnessing spirit and “aggressivity”. At a training camp in Spain – he had pushed for the warm-weather trip for team bonding – positional possession drills dominated as he and right-hand man Chema Sanz – a former colleague of Guardiola’s assistant Juanma Lillo – set the tone: Rule one: gain the ball. Movement. Don’t stay. Look for a diagonal pass. Don’t go backwards.
But pragmatism has always reigned for Jokanovic.
His new side has lined up in 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 formations during warm-up games and while the transition is likely to be a gradual one, there have been pre-season hints: like Norwood dropping even deeper onto the defensive line to start attacks, or John Fleck directing a vigorous press from the front that yielded a goal.
“The players have been playing in the famous, successful shape of Chris with the overlapping centre-backs. I’m completely open to using these kinds of tactics because the players have that knowledge.
“But you can overlap with full-backs too. It all depends on how you want to arrive in the final third. You can play more directly, quicker, finding La Pausa – stop-start,” he says, referring to the deft disguise of an unexpected change of tempo; the sort that Xavi, Sergio Busquets or David Silva have mastered.
“In the training I like to play quick but sometimes it’s necessary [in games] to change the speed to find the space.
“This is a strong, quick team and an intelligent one. They understand they can play in different ways. It’s not just about aesthetics or one shape over another. It’s about the relationships between players and spaces. This is the famous ‘Plan A, B and C’.
“A lot of the work here is ahead of us. I can’t finish this type of work in a few weeks but in terms of what I am demanding, in terms of pre-season where we are, I’m happy.”
A key challenge will be finding the right blend in attack, with his squad currently boasting six senior strikers, as well as several academy youngsters including the promising Daniel Jebbison. He has deployed a false nine in the past – certainly before Aleksandar Mitrovic’s arrival at Fulham – but prizes pace in wide areas and Lys Mousset’s physical and technical attributes have caught the eye, even if the true test will be in his application.
“In my squad there are a lot of strikers and I need to find the best way to use them,” he says. “Strikers score, make assists but can be important when we defend too. It’s a question of how we can surprise, how we can attack from different parts of the pitch and dominate.
“Yes, it can be a case of rotating. There’s a huge number of games and it’s a tough league. If I have more options, it’s good news for me.”
Sheffield United supporters will hope to see some of the swaggering football that Fulham played on the way to the Premier League; no side scored more goals in the Championship that 2017/18 season – or more goals in open play. They played enough of it themselves in the division before the Premier League prompted a shift to solidity and then a defence left vulnerable through long-term injury to Jack O’Connell increased scrutiny on an impotent attack.
But they will not forget Jokanovic’s last trip to Bramall Lane in a hurry – an exhausting 5-4 Fulham win that left players from both sides slumped on the turf – and might brace themselves again if a previous interview Sanz gave to Valencia newspaper Levante is anything to go by: “I like games where there is a lot of attack, where the scores are 5-3, 6-4 and not 1-0; I feel more passion for that type of scenario.”
“We are in a different division so we want to create a team fighting for different targets at the top of the table,” Jokanovic says. “We don’t want to be in a shape for a lot of time to defend.
“It’s about taking risks and pushing forwards, pushing opponent towards their box and playing in the last third.”
We always hoped we’d have the opportunity to work together one day. He knows how I work, I believe he can be the guy who helps me a lot. I’m not looking for people who always say yes to me. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t. I’ve always tried to work with people with personality, who are not scared of me, who can open my eyes.
Jokanovic wants to push off the pitch too. There has been a drive towards set, shared mealtimes, a periodised model when it comes to fitness training and more widely, a determination to carry on Wilder’s work in seeking improvements to the club’s training facilities.
“If I am contracted as Sheffield United manager, I have to care about the other things around me, too.
“I’m ready to collaborate with the board to make some other steps forward. This is a serious business. We need to make improvements [to the facilities]. The people around me know what I am talking about and they are ready for all of us to push the club forward to bring us to the highest level.
“We are talking about 3,000 fans coming to our friendly games. I’m here to push to give them more. They deserve it.”
A collaborative recruitment approach is yet to bear fruit in a market still sluggish from the pandemic and the summer’s Euro 2020 schedule. A leaning on Premier League loans is likely to mean the search for reinforcements runs to the end of the month.
But Jokanovic, who felt sidelined over transfers at Fulham and went public over the matter, says he is content with his involvement at Bramall Lane. “The way right now, I can make it alone on some decisions, I can recommend things, we are working together. I know the supporters are waiting for something to happen. We want to show ambition and hopefully we’ll make the first step soon to bring in some fresh blood.”
He has spoken repeatedly about his desire to keep hold of Ramsdale – Arsenal remain in touch with intermediaries over a fee for the goalkeeper – as well as club-record signing Berge. “Where can I use him best? Just on the field. It will depend on the people around him too but he’s a very good player. He’s happy and focused. I hope he won’t be listening to another guy soon.”
There are questions and variables, even if a notoriously competitive Championship might appear again weighted towards the relegated sides as coronavirus has continued to ravage finances.
The Blades, under their promotion specialist, are among the favourites to emulate Norwich and Watford by bouncing straight back. “People tell us you will be promoted but the expectation is clear for me so I prefer not to talk about final targets all the time; the target is just the next training session, the next game.”
But he is steeled for the challenge, hungry for more success, determined to fill up their senses again here.
“Miracles don’t exist. Just the work, the trust, the push. But I feel the people around me, the players, believe they can achieve this job.
“My desire is to make the supporters satisfied. If I can’t do it, I won’t be happy, they won’t be happy. If I can make them happy, I will be satisfied with myself, with life. There are a lot of nights and days ahead of us but all of us are hoping for a happy end.”