Timing: Only time will tell if Leeds United have found their very own ‘special one’ in Slovenian coach Darko Milanic. Leon Wobschall reports.
ACCORDING to Darko Milanic’s good friend Zlatko Zahovic, even Jose Mourinho would not have been successful at the club that the new Leeds United head coach has just left in Sturm Graz.
As for the 46-year-old Slovenian becoming the special one at Elland Road, few will be brazen enough to go anywhere near making such a statement as that. Time will indeed tell.
What is clear is that the raw materials that Milanic will work with at Leeds will be far more plentiful than those he had at his disposal in Graz.
In a recent interview, Zahovic, sporting director at Slovenian big guns Maribor – where Milanic won trophies galore before trying his luck on a bigger stage at fallen Austrian Bundesliga outfit Graz in June 2013 – put it bluntly.
He stated: “Even Jose Mourinho wouldn’t be successful with Sturm Graz. The players are not good enough.”
Milanic rode into Graz, Austria’s second largest city behind Vienna, amid plenty of euphoria, but with pressure on his shoulders to deliver.
Ultimately, the former Slovenia and Yugoslavia international centre-half could not rekindle the glory of his playing days at Graz, where he lifted eight trophies during the nineties and his trophy-laden time in charge at Maribor.
But now he has a second far grander shot at the big time, albeit in a far, foreign land. But akin to what he experienced at the UPC-Arena, expectation – and plenty of it – will come with the territory.
Milanic, who won nine managerial honours at Maribor – four league titles, three Slovenian Cup triumphs and two Super Cup wins – couldn’t recreate the magic in his spell at Graz, where his side finished a disappointing fifth place in 2013-14.
They were also knocked out of Europe in embarrassing fashion in a Europa League second qualifying-round exit to Icelandic minnows Kopavogur, who won their first-ever European game away from their homeland.
Milanic leaves Graz with the side in sixth place in the current Bundesliga table with his overall league record of 15 wins, 11 draws and 18 defeats nothing to write home about. Austrian football journalist Matthias Reif, who chronicles the fortunes of Graz for the Graz-based Kleine Zeitung newspaper, admits that his record and impact was far from what many envisaged when he returned to the Styrian capital.
A paucity of playing talent, in his opinion, did not help his cause.
Reif told the YEP: “Milanic is quite iconic (at Graz) and is so well known here and well respected.
“He’s also a very gentle and nice person and had a father role with some players.
“He is a good coach, but maybe some of the players were just not good enough to get it on the pitch in terms of what he wanted.
“There were some difficulties between Milanic and the players. I guess he did not really get them 100 per cent to do what he wanted them to.
“Most people were happy to see him come to Graz and had high hopes. But he could not bring the club back on track.”
Milanic’s prefered 4-4-2 system at Maribor was switched to a 4-2-3-1 at Graz, akin to the current successful formula which has brought United rewards since the end of August under caretaker head coach Neil Redfearn in the shape of 10 points from 12 in the Championship.
While it never really happened for him at Graz that did not stop an outpouring of emotion from club officials on Sunday, when he announced his exit after managing the club for the last time in the 1-0 win over SK Ried.
Tears abounded, while Graz general manager Gerhard Goldbrich, by way of a parting gift to him and outgoing assistant Novica Nikcevic, who also joins him at Leeds, gave them two tickets from Leeds to Graz to return to officially say farewell to supporters.
Massively liked he may still be, but equally many Graz supporters are pragmatic at his departure, according to Reif.
He said: “The general manager gave them two one-day tickets from Leeds to Graz if ever they want to come back. He said that any time they come back, they will have a warm welcome.
“Milanic is very big in Graz as he played here and won championship titles and was part of it. Everyone liked him, but on the other hand, lots of fans expected more of him (as manager) because he was so successful at Maribor.
“When he arrived here, we all had high hopes he would be successful here as well. But to be honest, it did not really work out.
“The club still considers themselves one of the top four clubs at least. Anything other than qualifying for the European Leagues is a fail.
“Honestly, I think it is a good solution for Milanic and Sturm Graz. The club will also get some money from Leeds from Milanic and his coach.
“It is pretty much the best option everyone could have. It is a sad day, but it is the best possible outcome.”
And on his surprise switch to Leeds, which took many associated with Graz by surprise, he added: “At first of course, nobody expected it. Leeds United is a huge club with a big tradition, even though they are playing in the second league and were also in the third league some years ago.
“But everybody still knows Leeds United, here as well. Everyone wishes Milanic well.”
Fluent in several languages including English, Milanic may be an unknown quantity over here, but did step out at Birmingham City and Spurs during Maribor’s Europa League campaigns of 2011-12 and 2012-13.
On both occasions, Maribor lost and finished bottom of their group, but 2011-12 was noteworthy for Milanic’s side knocking out Glasgow Rangers in the play-off round, 3-2 on aggregate.
Despite propping up the table in 2012-13, Maribor did beat Panathinaikos 3-0 and drew 1-1 at home to Spurs, just the second time a Slovenian side had drawn with an English rival in Europe.