Now perhaps one of the most sought-after managers in European football, back in February 2012 current Fulham boss Slavisa Jokanovic was at a rather different point in his career.
Having inspired Partizan Belgrade to the domestic double double in his first two campaigns as a manager, he had spent two and a half years out of the dugout following his unceremonious sacking for failing to qualify for the Champions League proper.
In the unlikeliest of gambles, the famously taciturn Serb moved thousands of miles away from his family and comfort zone to the Land of Smiles and a culture – footballing or otherwise – he knew nothing about, succeeding Robbie Fowler, whose time at Muangthong United was an unmitigated failure. Some thought he would last until June.
But it turned out to be an inspired decision, his year at the helm of his Thai Premier League “invincibles” kickstarting his managerial career on an upward trajectory that subsequently led him onto notable success in England with Watford, who he guided to the Premier League, and now Fulham. He’s recently been heavily linked with a move to Crystal Palace.
“Jorka”, as he’s known by Thais, was loved and respected by players, staff and fans alike. There was a tinge of disappointment on all sides when he was fired in early 2013 after a disappointing Asian Champions League campaign, and was therefore unable to defend his domestic crown.
“Jorka was a good leader,” Muangthong Director of Football Ronnarit Suewaja told ThaiGoals. “He showed respect to his players and staff, and was a real gentleman. At times he would berate players, but this was only when they deserved it, for not working hard enough, for example. Because the players admired him, the dressing-down was very effective.
“At the time, however, Jorka did not have much managerial experience. Muangthong was only the second team he had ever managed, and we were not sure how successful he would be. But we knew his playing style. We’d watched him when he was with Chelsea, and before that with Deportivo. Jorka was a midfielder who read the field well and had a good understanding of the game. He was a tactician, and we expected that this is what he would bring to us. We were not disappointed.”
It was not plain sailing at the beginning for Jokanovic, who was capped 64 times by Serbia in a stellar playing career that took in a World Cup and European Championships. Apart from adapting himself to a new country and culture, he had to get a grip on his team – and fast. He had inherited a mess from Fowler and others at the helm the previous season, when the team finished third, a full 20 points behind bitter rivals and champions Buriram United.
Jokanovic was expected to do nothing less than win the title, and in a certain style. But the two-time champions got off to a slow start, giving up goals in every early game and getting kicked out of the League Cup, while the title holders got off to a winning start, leading the table easily.
It was clear Jokanovic, known as an intense personality not adverse to giving the hairdryer treatment, would also need to adapt himself to the Thai way in a culture where saving face is everything and open criticism in front of others is frowned upon. But he gradually earnt respect from players due to his honesty – and his tactical prowess began to show through.
He addressed what he saw as the club’s main flaws – players’ fitness and holes in their defensive line, and from that point on the side never looked back.
That season they went unbeaten in the league, including an 8-1 thumping of BBCU. Muangthong won the Thai Premier League by 14 points from second placed Chonburi and a huge 30 points ahead of bitter rivals Buriram in fourth. Jokanovic, unsurprisingly, won coach of the year in Thailand.
Celebrating the title with Muangthong fans
Jokanovic nurtured the talents of striker Teerasil Dangda – now a Muangthong and Thailand national team legend – who scored 24 goals that season. Teerasil formed a sparkling partnership with Macedonian playmaker Mario Durovski, who had previously played futsal with the “fiercely competitive” Jokanovic in Serbia.
“The players gave more than 100% while Jorka was at Muangthong,” said Durovski. “He was easy going and relaxed in the dressing room. He always believed in himself and this feeling went out to us on the field. Players love that.
“But he was the same if we won, lost or drew. This was his power – he shared confidence with the group.
“He wanted the team to go out and play, to keep possession, but we worked on set pieces too. As for me personally, he gave me a free role. Not many coaches in his era are prepared to give a player that freedom.”
Jokanovic was not just interested in his star players. He took pains to develop the young Thai talent in his squad, including then 22-year-old winger Sarawut Masuk, who is now an established international.
Sarawut did not feature much in the season Jokanovic was at the helm, but his game developed quickly, even though at times he was scared stiff of his boss.
“He’s a quiet, taciturn kind of person which can be intimidating. We were in awe of him but he had a great personality,” he said. “He was interested in everyone at the club.
“I would be shaking when I had to go into a meeting with him alone. But I always listened to what he said – he could be fierce if you didn’t, but it was because he wanted us to do well.
“There was a lot of planning and practice in training with Jorka in getting things right. The rules under him were very clear. But he was the kind of coach that would give everyone a chance. He showed confidence in his players and made us confident of our ability on the pitch.
“Muangthong were a great team in 2012, with a great system. He made us difficult to beat. My own game developed a lot under him in terms of teamwork, anticipating a pass and knowing what options to take on the pitch.”
In the dugout for Fulham
Despite the success of 2012, Jokanovic and Muangthong parted ways ahead of the 2013 domestic campaign after a poor Asian Champions League. Muangthong were drawn in a “Group of Death” which included eventual winners Guangzhou Evergrande, and failed to win a game.
After his time in Thailand, Jokanovic had brief and undistinguished spells in Bulgaria and Spain, before taking over Watford in October 2014, becoming the club’s fourth coach in five weeks. He led them into the Premier League – but failed to agree a new deal with the club – and enjoyed a fine time in Israel with Maccabi Tel Aviv before arriving at Fulham in 2015.
Rescuing the West London club from near certain relegation in his first season, he just missed out on the promised land of the Premier League last season, as his side were defeated by Reading in the play-off semi-finals.
Jokanovic is remembered fondly in Thailand, with Muangthong taking pride in helping develop him as a coach.
“It’s no surprise to see Jorka doing so well in England with Watford and Fulham. We wish him all the best,” added Ronnarit.
For Jokanovic’s part, he has described his time in Thailand as a “fantastic experience”, where he had to be flexible with his tactics and man management methods, moulding him into the coach he is today.