Watford Could Present Leonid Slutskiy With His Long Awaited Chance In England

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When reports emerged confirming Walter Mazzarri’s departure from Watford at the end of the season, few fans will have expected Roman Abramovich to be particularly interested. Chelsea’s owner, celebrating another Premier League title, doesn’t really need to concern himself with the managerial situation at a mid-table club. But Abramovich has other reasons for taking note of Watford. He wants to help Russian managers develop careers abroad and he wants Leonid Slutskiy to be the first Russian to coach in the Premier League.
Now odds on favourite for the job, Slutkskiy moved to England a few months ago. He has spent most of this year in London, undergoing intensive English language training from an almost non-existent base. He’s given interviews to Sky Sports and a number of English newspapers, each conducted in his developing English, and he’s appeared on Russian television, laughing along with the domestic audience about the quirks of English football lexicon. Calls to “switch it” to the other side of the field seemed to attract the most puzzlement.

Slutskiy’s adaption to England – the language, the use of Oyster cards and the regular appearances at football stadiums – has been aided by a long relationship with Abramovich. The two met many years ago and always remained in contact. The Chelsea owner would regularly approach Slutskiy for his opinion on players, especially those that had crossed his path. German Tkachenko, who has had directorial roles at both Anzhi and Krylia Sovetov Samara, even suggested that Abramovich attempted to hire Slutskiy to work at Chelsea. The plan was for Slutskiy to work under Guus Hiddink, learn the language and get used to English football before getting a managers’ job in the Premier League.

Years later, though the route has not quite panned out as originally planned, Slutskiy looks set to achieve his long-held ambition. His departure from CSKA Moscow in the winter was not as triumphant as it might have been. Slutskiy is the most talented Russian coach of his generation, taking over CSKA at the age of 38 in 2009 and winning the league in 2013, 2014 and 2016. He also took the club to the Champions League quarter finals in 2009, becoming only the second Russian team to ever reach that stage, after Spartak Moscow in 1995-96.

But, at CSKA, the departure was right for everyone by the end. The gruelling pressure of managing the Russian national team part-time at Euro 2016 seemed to sap Slutskiy of some of his nervous energy. Russia went into the tournament with their two best players injured and never really recovered. Then, with Spartak Moscow pulling away in the 2016-17 Russian Premier League and CSKA missing out on third spot in their Champions League group, Slutskiy decided to leave, to freshen up and take stock. His assistant, Viktor Goncharenko, then took over.

Slutskiy’s career path has never been usual. His life story is brilliantly detailed in Igor Rabiner’s book The Coach Next Door, which, as yet, has only been printed in Russian. Slutskiy never played professional football, with a semi-pro career curtailed at 19 when he infamously climbed a tree to help rescue a neighbours cat. He fell, shattering his patella and breaking his nose, only regaining the ability to walk after a painful six months. He then dedicated his talents to youth coaching, taking over Olimpia, a local Volgograd football school, and moulding them into a side capable of competing in the fully-professional Russian third tier in 2003.

After betrayal and a change of circumstances, Slutskiy moved to the Uralan Elista B team, then FK Moscow’s B team before being given a chance to manage the seniors. Now defunct, FK Moscow enjoyed their greatest years under Slutskiy, finishing 4th in the Russian Premier League – their highest ever – and making it to the cup final. A two year interim at Krylia Sovetov followed before he was given the CSKA job.

Now, after becoming the best coach in Russia, he wants to bring his talents to the Premier League. If his chance comes at Watford, they will be getting an impressive tactician with a perceptive mind and a list of references from almost every player, director and chairman that he has ever worked with. If he is to become the first Russian coach in the Premier League, he, more than any of his compatriots, stands the best chance of succeeding.

Eliot is a freelance football writer who has covered football from England, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine for the Daily Mirror, ESPN FC, Roads & Kingdoms, BBC Radio 5 Live, talkSPORT, and others.

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