Leader of the pack

Slavisa Jokanovic was hesitant to sign on with SCG Muangthong United but now after a dominant year he's thrilled he did and ready for more

Slavisa Jokanovic arrived in Thailand only three weeks before the start of the Thai Premier League season. The Serbian coach, who during his career played for Deportivo La Coruna the season the club won its only La Liga championship and who spent two seasons at Chelsea, had only a short time to learn about his squad, but within a couple of months the team was stronger and playing better.

''We had a good year thanks to our coach,'' said team captain Datsakorn Thonglao. General manager Ronnarij Suewacha is pleased with what Jokanovic has brought to the team.

''With his leadership during the competition and in training, we believe he will lead the team to something special and overcome the obstacles. He was a player before. He's still young and looks likely to stay with the club for quite a while,'' said Ronnarij of the 44-year-old coach.

As a former player with two top European teams, and as a successful coach at Partizan Belgrade winning the double in your first season with the team, and retaining both titles the following season, why did you choose to come to a Thai club?

At the very beginning I thought working in Thailand sounded like a joke, right? Because it's very far from Europe. I didn't know much about Thai football. Then I thought it'd be a good opportunity for me, and I wanted to try. Then I learned more about the team and football in Thailand, and the Thai premiership is very important here. It's become my ambition. After eight or nine games, I think I made a good decision. We've had a good season. And like Muangthong, I'm ambitious.

What did you know about Thailand before you came?

Not much, especially about the football.

Did it take you long to make the decision to come?

Three or four days. It was a big decision for me because my family lives in Madrid and I didn't know anyone here. I didn't know my players. Ten days after arriving here, things were getting better and better. I worked step by step, but at the end of season I think we all did a great job.

When you first saw the team, were you confident of leading them to the championship?

Yes, definitely. My ambition is very similar to the team's. However, I must say the standard of football is different from my experience in Europe. It's impossible to turn Muangthong into Barcelona in a few months, but we're going in the right direction. It takes time. You need to give players time to try and improve. But I believe we can play better football next season.

How did you feel coaching a team when the owners and fans have such a high expectation of success?

There's pressure of course, but this is normal. It happens to every coach. It's impossible to guarantee success, because this is the game. I just do my best and this season I did it right.

At the beginning of the season, Muangthong seemed to have problems in defence. How did you solve them?

We had all kinds of problems when I arrived. In the first three weeks, I studied my players and worked out how to help them adjust to my system of playing. What I meant is we can never stop improving our game. I think that's why we played consistently for the whole season.

What about the players' fitness? There was criticism that they could only run for 70 minutes and that's one of the reasons they had a slow start to the season.

I worked with my fitness coach so we would be better prepared. He did a good job. Players passed fitness tests and played more consistently for an entire game. And we didn't have any major injuries this season.

When was the first time you felt like the team was in contention for the title?

After the first couple of months. I made some changes in certain positions, especially the midfield. It wasn't easy arriving only three weeks before the championship started.

What do you think when people call Muangthong a team of superstars?

My team has no superstars. I don't believe in superstardom either. To be honest, superstars are of the calibre of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. We're far from that. However, my team is very professional. They work as a team.

How are you preparing for next season, especially the Asian Champions League?

We have only four months preparation before the season starts. We're waiting for the draw. Who are we going to play in the first match? What's the schedule going to be like? Now we're on a one-and-a-half month break, so after that we will return to camp and need to work really hard for a tough competition. How will I prepare? I can't tell you yet. We'll make some changes to the squad _ some players will be let go and we'll definitely buy new players.

What is Muangthong for you?

One of the best clubs in Asia. I believe in the club.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kritini Upayokin
Position: Brunch Editor