Sheffield United: Why events at Reading will be monitored closely at Partizan Belgrade

Their paths only briefly crossed at ‘The Temple of Football’ - the nickname it’s been given by some of the club’s most rabid supporters.

Monday, 22nd November 2021, 4:30 pm
Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic, previously of Partizan Belgrade, takes his team to Reading in the Championship next: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic, previously of Partizan Belgrade, takes his team to Reading in the Championship next: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

But when they share a glass of Prokupac, or maybe a cold Jelen, Slavisa Jokanovic and Veljko Paunovic are bound to steer the conversation towards Partizan Belgrade following tomorrow’s Championship fixture at the Select Car Leasing Stadium.

The two men, now in charge of Sheffield United and Reading respectively, both cut their footballing teeth with the eight time Serbian SuperLiga winners before venturing abroad. Jokanovic played for and managed the Balkans giants, guiding them to back to back titles during his two seasons in charge.

Paunovic made less than 40 appearances across two spells at the club. But he is assured of a place in Partizan folklore thanks to the achievements of his father; their legendary defender Blagoje.

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“Both of them are remembered very fondly and the fans are closely following them,” Nebojsa Markovic, a Belgrade based sports journalist, told The Star. “Jokanovic is especially held in high regard, not only because he was a player in the Nineties who won trophies. But also because he became the first Partizan coach ever to win the double in back-to-back seasons.

“Fans look at them with good memories, while it is also a fun fact that Paunovic briefly played under Jokanovic at Partizan, in the final stages of his time as a player.”

Despite spending the majority of their careers abroad, most notably in Spain where they both enjoyed spells with Oviedo and Tenerife, Jokanovic and Paunovic are proud sons of Partizan - named after the fighters who resisted the occupying Axis-powers during World War Two.

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Veljko Paunovic, the manager of Reading: Alex Burstow/Getty Images

After turning professional with his hometown side Novi Sad, Jokanovic moved to the capital following a brief stay with neighbouring Vojvodina. Two years later, scoring 13 goals in The Steamroller’s midfield, he helped them finish on top of the FR Yugoslavia First League. In 1994, 12 months after that memorable achievement, Paunovic made his professional debut for Jokanovic’s former club. His performances under head coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic had already captured Ovideo’s attention, who were making it their business to hoover up the region’s best talent.

“In those days, when Yugoslavia started falling apart, the Federal Republic was under an embargo and there was no reason for players to stay,” said Markovic, referring to events during the Balkans War. “The clubs could not play on the international stage and the national team was also banned from playing in UEFA and FIFA competitions for a few years.

“So the clubs from all around Europe could easily just come and get the best players from Yugoslavia.”

“Yes, there were plenty of players going to Spain and there are two reasons for that,” Markoic continued. “Yugoslavia was an undervalued market. The other reason is that the players are technically sound and that’s something Spanish clubs value.”

Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic is fondly remembered at Partizan Belgrade: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Paunovic was born in Macedonia, one of the six constituent countries of the former federal republic. But family ties meant he was inevitably drawn to Belgrade, graduating from Partizan’s youth system soon after Jokanovic’s departure before also heading to southern Europe.

“Blagoje, Paunovic’s father, is a big figure at Partizan,” Markovic said. “He joined as a boy and then stayed, working at all different levels. He was also a member of the team that reached the 1966 European Cup final.”

After joining Atletico Madrid, Paunovic was loaned to Mallorca and Ovideo before completing a permanent transfer to Tenerife in 2002. By then, having also represented Deportivo La Coruna, Jokanovic was coming to the end of a successful stint with Chelsea and busy preparing for management.

“Their views are somewhat similar as both prefer their teams to play in a modern manner, wanting results, but also paying attention style,” Markovic noted. “That might be a trait they picked up in Spain, which is very technical.

Inevitably, Jokanovic’s first posting in the dugout was at Partizan; winning the league and cup double during two campaigns there before, somewhat surprisingly, choosing to work in Thailand. He was then hired by Levski Sofia and Hercules before steering Watford to promotion. After accepting an invitation to work for Maccabi Tel Aviv, Jokanovic then repeated the feat at Fulham ahead of a switch to Qatari outfit Al Gharafa.

“Jokanovic was established when he joined Partizan, since he won the title with Vojvodina in 1989, in the big old Yugoslav League,” Markovic said. “But he and Veljko learned how high expectations are at Partizan.

“Partizan are always expected to win. Whenever they don't, it's a big deal.”

Attracted by Jokanovic’s reputation for effective and aesthetically pleasing football, United offered him a route back to England last summer following their relegation from the Premier League. Although results have not so far been to either his or their satisfaction - after Saturday’s draw with Coventry City, United sit 17th in the table - Jokanovic’s methods sometimes require time to take effect; particularly when a shift in culture, to a more possession based style, is one of the tasks on his ‘to do’ list.

Paunovic has also enjoyed, or rather endured, a baptism of fire after taking the reins at Reading. A points deduction, imposed by the EFL after his employers breached its financial regulations, means they enter the meeting with United ranked 20th. However, after offering a short term contract to former Newcastle, Liverpool and West Ham striker Andy Carroll, the Berkshire outfit have made their intentions clear. Paunovic, who oversaw Serbia’s under-18, under-19 and under-20 squads before coaching Chicago Fire, will still be expected to challenge for a place in the play-offs. With Jokanovic under pressure to do the same, the outcome of this match is of the utmost importance. The result will not only resonate in South Yorkshire and Berkshire, but also across Serbia.

“The fans follow them and the media report about them,” Markovic said. “You can always see how Reading and Sheffield United performed.”