Humble and positive. A man who prefers hard work to cheap talk. Those were Massimo Cellino’s words and very much the first impression of Darko Milanic yesterday.
Leeds United’s new head coach is the polar opposite of the man he will work for at Elland Road: no hyperbole, no drama and no desire to be in the public eye any longer than necessary. New to England and new to Leeds, he was asked at the start of his first press conference what his unique selling points were. “It’s difficult for me to answer,” Milanic said. “It’s better that other people say ‘these are my good things, these are my bad things.’”
David Hockaday was accused of a streak of arrogance and over-confidence when Cellino presented him as United’s head coach in June but there was none of that with Milanic, the man who has replaced him four weeks after Hockaday’s sacking. By his own admission, Milanic was surprised to be chosen – unaware of interest from Leeds until the club’s sporting director, Nicola Salerno, phoned him out of the blue. In terms of his attitude, the 46-year-old set out on the right foot.
Salerno was with him yesterday but Cellino was not. There is never a quiet moment at Elland Road and by yesterday lunchtime United’s president was contemplating a legal threat to his ownership which will not go away. Milanic must be blissfully unaware of that and, left as the centre of attention by Cellino, he spoke sensibly and he spoke well.
His appointment at Leeds was not without sacrifices. He bought his way out of a three-year contract at Sturm Graz last week and left his family behind in Austria. He agreed that he would need time and help to feel his way into his new post and promised to use the advice of Neil Redfearn in the meantime. Redfearn – the club’s academy manager and, for the past four games, their first-team caretaker – will be on the bench alongside Milanic at Brentford on Saturday.
“I’m very motivated and excited about the job,” Milanic said. “I know this is a very big traditional club with great supporters and they have very good quality in the team. I’m proud to be here and I’ll try to do my best.
“Because of Leeds, because of this big, big club, it was not a difficult decision to come here. On the other side, I did a good job (at Sturm Graz) and I was a player in Austria for eight years so I have a lot of good friends there. My family is still there too. But from a professional point of view, it was not a difficult decision.”
Cellino says he became aware of Milanic during his five years as coach of Maribor in Slovenia, a trophy-laden period in which Maribor played in Britain four times in Europa League fixtures, but the two men met for the first time earlier this month. Milanic described Cellino as “very intelligent” but said he had taken a two-year contract at Leeds with no demands about timescales for promotion. Cellino’s priority, Milanic said, was to steadily prepare a young squad for life in the Premier League.
“I did a great job with Maribor but not in one month,” Milanic said. “I have no time-limit here. I just have to do a great job as soon as possible.
“When we (he and Cellino) talked last Sunday, he told me my job is to make the squad better, to get better on the field and get prepared to play in the Premier League. I’m only concentrating on the extremely important first game. I live now, in this moment. I don’t look to 2016.
“Is the quality here different? Yes. It’s two or three levels better.
“People in Europe talk about the Championship as being hard and aggressive and I think this is true. It’s very difficult in the Championship. So in the first few days I have to adapt myself as quickly as possible.”
It did not take long for the subject of Cellino’s record with hiring and firing coaches to arise. Hockaday, Milanic was reminded, survived for only 70 days – the third shortest-serving coach in United’s history behind Brian Clough and Jock Stein. Milanic did not seem tempted to point out that his track record, his qualifications and his tally of medals are superior to Hockaday’s but it is true that he gave up a secure contract at Graz, quitting a club who employed him as a player, an assistant and latterly their head coach through the 2013-14 season.
“Our job is at risk every Saturday, every game,” Milanic said.
“It doesn’t worry me. I have to do my best.
“But I have good results behind me. Everyone has pressure. It’s not new to me.
“Football is about moments. I was totally concentrated on my job at Sturm so when Nicola contacted me I was surprised, yes. For me it’s very emotional to be a coach here. For everyone, Leeds is a big name. Three weeks ago they were far away for me but now I’m here. They played once in the Champions League and the UEFA Cup and the supporters are with the club. I’ve seen that in two days.”
Milanic is multilingual, a talent which should help him in a cosmopolitan dressing room. Salerno revealed that Milanic – a native of Izola in what is now Slovenia and was formerly Yugoslavia – speaks four languages: English, Italian, Croatian and German. Cellino decided that a foreign coach was essential after his failed experiment with Hockaday but he did not want to take the easy route by sourcing one from Italy. Milanic, in his view, has a broader outlook and a more colourful background.
“We need a international coach because we have an international team,” Salerno said. “Milanic is the best for us at this moment. He speaks Italian, German, Croatian and English.” That covers most of United’s players.
Milanic took training at Thorp Arch for the first time on Tuesday, introducing himself to a squad who have won three of their last four games and taken 10 points from 12. He made adjustments defensively but gave the impression that the tactics and team used by Redfearn against Huddersfield Town last weekend would not be dismantled or changed with undue haste. That applied to the involvement of academy players, the likes of Lewis Cook and Alex Mowatt. “They told me the academy does a very good job,” Milanic said. “I had one session with the team and there are some good young players.”
Not all of the appraisals of Milanic from Austria have been entirely flattering. One journalist called him “ultra-conservative” while others say the one-time Partizan Belgrade centre-back tends to sway towards cautious tactics.
Milanic countered that suggestion, saying: “I like the fans to come and have fun. You have to have order on the pitch and be aggressive but I don’t mean we’ll play defensive. I want to play with good possession and be dangerous with the ball.
“In the first (instance), it’s important to keep the enthusiasm here. The guys have won three games and made a great job in the last four games. It’s important we do that in the next game too but I want to make some changes tactically. I’ve already had one small session to give something else in defence.”
Throughout his press conference he stuck to the here-and-now, never talking out of turn about his own potential or making too much of his past achievements. Coaches are like watermelons, Cellino often says; you only find out about them when you break them open. It appears that in Milanic he has one with an intelligent, unassuming core.