The Star revealed following Saturday’s defeat by Crystal Palace that the Serb, who won promotion from the Championship in both Hertfordshire and west London, is now a serious contender for the role, which has been vacant since Chris Wilder’s departure in March.
Despite initially electing not to include Jokanovic’s name on a five man short list which includes caretaker Paul Heckingbottom and Alexander Blessin of Oostende, Bramall Lane’s hierarchy now view the 52-year-old as a serious contender following a rethink behind the scenes.
Although they remain impressed by how Heckingbottom has handled the delicate situation he inherited after accepting the position on an interim basis two months ago, United’s lacklustre performance en route to their 28th loss of a campaign which has seen them relinquish top-flight status is just one of the factors responsible for persuading United to begin considering more experienced options.
With Wilder’s exit still a source of frustration for many supporters, appointing someone of Jokanovic’s calibre would help bring a much needed sense of purpose both inside a dressing room which appears to have lost its mojo and also on the terraces, where fans are expected to return when social distancing restrictions introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic are relaxed over the coming days.
An approach from United to Jokanovic’s representatives is understood to be imminent, as owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Jan van Winckel, his chief footballing advisor who is effectively overseeing the selection process, hope to make an appointment either before or just after United’s final match of their 2020/21 fixture schedule on May 23.
Jokanovic, a former Chelsea midfielder and Yugoslavia international, is widely expected to return to Europe over the summer after spending two seasons in Qatar, where he recently led Al-Gharafa into the qualifying rounds of the AFC Champions League.
Unlike Blessin, who is unlikely to fulfil the criteria, Jokanovic does qualify for a work permit under post-Brexit legislation. Philippe Clement, currently of Club Brugge, has also been touted as a possible replacement for Wilder, who led United from the third to the first tier of English football before his relationship with members of Prince Abdullah’s inner circle deteriorated following a series of disagreements about recruitment strategy.
However, Jokanovic’s experience of the domestic game and proven track record of success would make him a compelling and low-risk choice.
Speaking before United’s meeting with Palace, Heckingbottom reminded it will be impossible to progress any lines of enquiry in the transfer market until Wilder’s successor is unveiled.
“We can all like a player, everyone here can be really keen on them,” he said, after being invited to help shape United’s recovery programme. “But if the person who really matters, the person who is going to select them, isn’t that keen then it’s been a waste of time and money.”
United were beaten 2-0 by Roy Hodgson’s side, who took the lead through Christian Benteke after only 90 seconds before Eberechi Eze, who helped create the Belgian’s strike, added a second late on.