The inside track on Sheffield United's talks with Slavisa Jokanovic - how Blades appointed their new boss
It took them a while to get there. Certainly longer than most people would have liked.
It speaks volumes, about the Serb’s standing both on and off the pitch, that his was the name on the shortlist of candidates compiled by Bramall Lane’s board of directors deemed credible not only among supporters but also a squad of players many of whom are still reeling from relegation and Chris Wilder’s departure in March.
There are no guarantees. But there is a recognition, in South Yorkshire and beyond, that by hiring Jokanovic United have got themselves the real deal. Someone capable of ushering in a new era of success following Wilder’s remarkable achievements at the helm.
“Over the past two months, the club has undertaken a rigorous recruitment process in our search for the right person to take Sheffield United forward,” HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, United’s owner, told its official website yesterday. “After exhaustive evaluation, it was evident that Slavisa was the man we needed at the helm.”
Despite being the obvious choice and stand-out option, United’s path towards Jokanovic’s signature was far from smooth. When The Star first broke the news of their interest in the former Chelsea and Partizan Belgrade midfielder, sources at United began privately briefing what were deemed to be friendly contacts in the media that they had first investigating the possibility of appointing him before Christmas; when it became apparent Wilder’s relationship with members of Prince Abdullah’s inner circle was deteriorating beyond repair. However, it is thought an agent not linked to Jokanovic but nevertheless keen to shoehorn his way into any future deal muddied the waters to such an extent United’s hierarchy called a halt to their information gathering exercise.
That possibly explains why, when Wilder’s exit was announced nearly 11 weeks ago, Jokanovic was not initially viewed as a contender to replace the man who delivered two promotions and a ninth placed top-flight finish before the rot set in last term. Indeed, it took around another eight for United to rekindle their interest. After, of course, publicly flirting with KV Oostende’s Alexander Blessin, only to discover the German would not qualify for a work permit. It was then, having also floated the idea of handing caretaker Paul Heckingbottom the job on a permanent basis, they accepted the inevitable - Jokanovic’s stature, presence and CV were impossible to ignore.
“In Slavisa, we have appointed a manager who would have been on the radar of many clubs across the world,” United’s chief executive Steve Bettis noted. “And we believe his decision to come to Bramall Lane shows the continued global reach of the football club.”
Contact between the two parties was first made, via Zoom, on the morning after United’s defeat to Crystal Palace on March 8. Although Heckingbottom eventually turned results around, winning three of his last six matches at the helm having been unable to delay the inevitable, the performance against the visitors from south London was abject.
Having studied footage of the game, and assessed some of those who might later be at his disposal, Jokanovic confirmed he was still enthused by the idea of succeeding Wilder having decided not to renew his contract with Al-Gharafa - the Qatari outfit he joined in 2019, after previously leading Watford and Fulham out of the Championship.
A second round of talks took place around 72 hours later, again on the video conferencing platform, designed to discuss salary demands and recruitment budgets. Although there were differences of opinion, neither Jokanovic’s people nor United’s thought they were insurmountable. And so it proved when, late on Monday night as this newspaper has since discovered, the 52-year-old delivered a message to Prince Abdullah that he would accept the owner’s terms. He then spent Tuesday arranging his exit from Doha - dotting the ‘i’s’ and crossing the ‘t’s’ with lawyers - before lunching with Prince Abdullah and Abdullah Alghamdi, who fronts the United World project, in Geneva.
“After a trying season, this is a good day for all Blades fans,” acting chairman Yusef Giansiracusa said. “Stephen, my fellow director Jan van Winckel and our technical team have conducted an excellent and thorough search process and we think the result speaks for itself.”
“I should also like to take this opportunity on behalf of everyone at the football club to express gratitude to Paul for the fne job he has done through a difficult period,” Giansiracusa added, praising Heckingbottom’s “professionalism”, dedication and commitment.
Jokanovic will have a number of issues to address when he officially arrives at United. They include identifying transfer targets, with Sander Berge and John Lundstram expected to move on, and restoring the confidence of a squad which was mathematically demoted in mid-April after some of its most influential members were struck down by injury.
Jokanovic will also assess the recovery strategy Heckingbottom, who will now resume his work with the under-23’s, has helped devise over the past month; making the necessary adjustments to ensure it is compatible with his own strategy. In broad terms, it clearly is, although folk who have worked with Jokanovic in the past report he is obsessed by detail.
Importantly, with the personnel he will inherit designed to play a very specific way, Jokanovic is tactically flexible too; employing a variety of different systems when he delivered top-flight football to Vicarage Road and Craven Cottage in 2015 and 2018 respectively.
With several of those groomed by Heckingbottom making their senior debuts of late, including Femi Seriki and Daniel Jebbison, Jokanovic’s track record of working with young players also proved attractive to United, who rose from the third to the first tier of English football after appointing Wilder in May 2016.