Six reasons Slaviša Jokanović is the ideal candidate for the Sheffield United job after board U-turn
The search for Sheffield United’s new manager could be about to take a dramatic turn after it emerged that the Blades are preparing an approach for a man whose name didn’t figure on their shortlist of five when the club themselves announced it existed less than a fortnight ago.
Slaviša Jokanović, the Serbian manager formerly of Watford and Fulham on these shores, was not initially under consideration for the Bramall Lane role as Alexander Blessin, of KV Oostende in Belgium, emerged as the top target to replace Chris Wilder in the hotseat at Bramall Lane.
But the realisation that Blessin would not qualify for the necessary permission to allow him to work in England, coupled with United’s fortunes in recent weeks, has persuaded them to explore whether Jokanović would be interested in succeeding Wilder.
He would be, on the face of it, a popular choice and probably the man most suited to leading the Blades’ promotion charge. But why?
It didn’t do Bryan Robson much good during his short-lived and not-so-fondly remembered spell as Blades boss, but Jokanović also has the experience of an extensive playing career behind him at the highest levels.
He won La Liga and the Spanish Super Cup with Deportivo La Coruna and earned 65 caps for his country, with experience at the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships.
His first managerial job was at Partizan Belgrade, one of Serbia’s biggest clubs, and he led them to the league and cup double in his first two seasons there. Winning the Thai Premier League with Muangthong United won’t have made many international headlines, but his body of work in England certainly did.
Crucially for United, Jokanović has experience of managing in the Championship – and, more importantly, how to get out of it. United are approaching something of a crossroads in their recent history as they prepare to make their next move after a period of almost constant success under Wilder, and it is vital that they get this right.
Going for someone unproven at this level would be a big risk, and Jokanović is probably the nearest to a guarantee of a promotion challenge that there is (apart from possibly Neil Warnock, another serial winner in the second tier).
He arrived at Watford in October 2014, signing a short-term contract to become their fourth manager in five weeks. (And some Blades fans think their club is a basket case at the moment). Six months later, Watford were promoted to the Premier League.
Jokanović, though, never got to manage the Hornets in the top flight. He was unable to agree a new contract at Vicarage Road and left that summer.
That same month he was appointed at Maccabi Tel Aviv, leading them to the group stage of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in over a decade, before returning to England with Fulham.
The Fulham years
Any Blade wondering about Jokanović’s credentials as their potential new boss need only to cast their mind back to November 21, 2017 and one of the most remarkable nights of football seen at Bramall Lane for many a year.
Sheffield United 4, Fulham 5. A night that Leon Clarke scored a hat-trick and still finished on the losing side, and Fulham players – including a certain Ollie Norwood - sank to the turf in exhaustion. Again, months later, they were promoted through the play-offs with victory over Aston Villa.
Warnock described Jokanović’s Fulham side as the Manchester City of the Championship and they finished top of the division for completed passes percentage, the most accurate short passes and total passes. In short, they liked to play football. But they made it count.
The kids are all right
The hero for Fulham on that crazy evening at Bramall Lane was 17-year-old Ryan Sessegnon, who scored a hat-trick for the visitors.
One aspect of Jokanović’s Fulham legacy was his work with Sessegnon, now on loan at Hoffenheim in Germany from Tottenham Hotspur. He was introduced to the Fulham first-team squad at 15 years old – Harvey Elliott, now of Liverpool, was promoted by Jokanović at 16, and both have made Fulham tens of millions of pounds.
One of the most important tasks of the new United manager will be to work closely with the club’s academy and promote from within. The current crop of U23s have just won their league title, while promising youngsters such as Antwoine Hackford, Daniel Jebbison and Iliman Ndiaye have all had fleeting tastes of first-team action this season.
“Academies are always important but even more so now considering Covid as we have no clear idea what will happen in the future and whether clubs will have opportunity to spend a lot of money,” Jokanović said in a recent interview with the Daily Mail.
“Right now, a lot of teams need to look in the academies as these players exist there.
“Sometimes you can pay a price for these players but in the long term it is of benefit. You don't have to just look out for £100m signings, huge value exists in academies coming from zero.”
The man in the middle
Hailed as the man who made United tick as they were promoted from the Championship and then shocked the Premier League as they challenged for Europe, Norwood’s reputation has taken a hit this season with some fans as his side have struggled.
He’s far from alone in that respect, but the clamour in some quarters of the club’s support to ditch a man who won three promotions in three seasons from the very division United are about to return to is as remarkable as it is short-sighted.
Should Jokanović become the new Blades boss, then the smart money would be on him revitalising Norwood’s fortunes in the middle of midfield.
The two worked together closely at Fulham, Jokanović describing Norwood as an “important” and “very good player” who has a “high level of professionalism” and “does his job well”.
Norwood in turn enjoyed playing in Jokanović’s side, and with the aforementioned stats regarding passing it’s easy to see why.
Blessin in disguise?
Crucially, given the red tape that appears to have strangled any United bid to appoint Blessin at Bramall Lane, Jokanović does not fall foul of the same post-Brexit legislation that would see Blessin fail to receive the Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) he needs to work as a manager in the Championship.
As well as fulfilling criteria including the possession of a UEFA pro licence or equivalent, managers seeking to be granted a GBE must have managed in ‘a top league the prescribed time’.
Despite the Serb managing Qatari side Al-Gharafa since 2019, he would qualify for a GBE based on his 34-month spell at Fulham.
In English, managers must have had overall responsibility of a club in a ‘top league’ for either 36 months in total, or 24 months consecutively, within the last five years.
News that United are finally considering an approach for Jokanović has been greeted positively amongst the United fanbase, mainly for a combination of the above reasons.
His appointment is far from a formality – he will not come cheaply, and has before wrestled with a club’s owners over control over transfers – but, on the face of it, surely represents United’s best bet of bouncing back to the Premier League at the first attempt.