Until October last year, mention the name of Slavisa Jokanovic to any English football fan, and you’ll probably have received a fairly blank expression in return. Mention it to a Chelsea fan of any vintage at all, and you’ll probably get a wry smile, and a nod of fairly unqualified contempt.
Jokanovic had been a fairly mediocre holding midfield player, mainly pottering around the lower reaches of the Jugoslav and Spanish leagues until, in October 2000, ‘Tinkerman’ himself, Claudio Ranieiri, signed him for Chelsea. These were the pre-Abramovich days when a £1.5million fee was a fairly big deal, and Blues’ fans were probably expecting some quality to come along. For many aficionados however, such an attribute was in very short supply. Allow me to illustrate the point. Before arriving at Stamford Bridge, Jokanovic had made around 350 appearances for various clubs, scoring 66 times. In 39 games for the west London club however, he never troubled the scorers once. Being old enough to remember the times myself, the only surprise is that he managed to get on the field 39 times, and lasted 18 months. A little unfair? Perhaps, but it never felt so at the time.
Unconfirmed rumours at the time, suggested that Ranieri and Jokanovic shared the same agent, and that this was somehow a catalyst for the move. It’s difficult to confirm or deny such speculation, but if the purchase was solely based on Ranieri’s assessment of the quality of the player, and what he would add to the Chelsea squad, the Italian’s judgement was well wide of the mark. After an dispiriting 18 months at the club, Chelsea moved the Serb on to Ciudad Murcia in the backwaters of the Spanish second tier, from where English football surely never expected to hear from him again. Until, that is, October 2014.
When Watford owner Gino Pozzo dismissed Billy McKinlay, after a mere two games in charge, and appointed Jokanovic as manager, only the most optimistic of Hornets’ fans would surely have foreseen the success he would have. With the season only into its third month, the Serb became, no less than the fourth man to take control at Vicarage Road since the start of the season. Watford had kicked off in August with Beppe Saninno at the helm. The Italian had been in charge since December 2013, and as that season drew to a close, he guided the club to a record sixth successive home win without conceding a single goal. Things looked well set for a good season ahead. Such harmony was to be short-lived however.
With Watford winning four of their first five games of the season, and sitting second in the championship, amazingly rumours began to emerge about discontent in the dressing-room with regard to Sannino’s training methods. Before the end of August, he had resigned, and moved to manage Serie B side, Catania.
Oscar Garcia took up the reins, but ill health compelled him to resign less than a month into his tenure, and the club turned to McKinlay to steady the ship. The Scot had been a coach under Garcia and was well-liked and respected by the squad, and clearly thought he had a chance at holding down the job long-term. He even resigned from his position as Northern Ireland’s assistant manager, to devote more time to the Vicarage Road club. Nevertheless, eight days later, he was replaced by Jokanovic.
Pozzo faced a fan backlash for dismissing the popular McKinlay and replacing him with a ‘no name’ manager. The decision however has clearly been vindicated as Jokanovic has guided the club to glory and a return to the Premier League. Although all of the building blocks were clearly at the club when Jokanovic arrived, it still needed a diplomat’s hand as well as a coach’s manual to put them all together in the right order. Deploying a fairly laid-back style as well as an impressive eye for detail, he quickly endeared himself to the players, and with the results flowing, to the fans as well. That doyen of Watford Graham Taylor praised the Serb saying, “He has done excellently. The current owners have had four managers but this fella has delivered the goods, along with the team.”
It’s often said that mediocre players make the best managers. Ferguson, Wenger and Mourinho certainly fit that bill, although there are always others that test such a truism. Watford fans will however be hoping that in Jokanovic’s case it may hold true. For their part, Chelsea fans will readily attest to the first part of the equation being valid.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘offsiderulepodcast’ website).