Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Joke Is on England as Bilic Turns Hammers Talk to His Advantage; Happy in His Work: Slaven Bilic during the Euro 2008 Qualifying Campaign (Far Left); with Luka Modric (above) and Playing His Guitar (Left)

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Joke Is on England as Bilic Turns Hammers Talk to His Advantage; Happy in His Work: Slaven Bilic during the Euro 2008 Qualifying Campaign (Far Left); with Luka Modric (above) and Playing His Guitar (Left)

Article excerpt

Byline: IAN CHADBAND

IT IS typical of Slaven Bilic that, while uncertainty has been gripping Zagreb about his career intentions following tomorrow's World Cup qualifier against England, he has been able to use all the fevered speculation which accompanies his reputation as Europe's most wanted coach to help inspire the Croatian team.

A nation could at least stop fretting today that its favourite son might soon be off to an old stamping ground at West Ham, with Gianfranco Zola now apparently poised for the Upton Park job.

However, it has not stopped plenty of dark mutterings from Croatia FA officials about these supposed English dirty tricks having been designed to destabilise their coach and his boys before the key game.

To which the coolest dude in world football would doubtless take a drag on his ciggie, strum a few chords and tell everyone in any of the four languages he is fluent in: "Hey, just relax." Destabilisation? Bilic has simply been deflecting all the sound and fury here by turning the whole saga of his future into a running training ground gag with his lads..

"We always make jokes about it. Players have been teasing me to take them to England as well," Bilic said at their training headquarters just across the border in Slovenia.

So, at a stroke, a potential distraction is turned into a communal in-joke; an aid to team bonding.

This is just a snapshot of Bilic's art of relaxed man-management; an art which, allied to a sharp and streetwise footballing brain, has made him such an attractive target way beyond east London. To see the Croatian players all enjoying a laid-back team lunch today with the odd glass of wine was to see a team built in their leader's image, not exactly quaking about the prospect of running into Emile Heskey.

"All I can say is I'm staying as Croatia manager for these two years; that's my wish and that's it. I'd like to finish the job with the guys," he told us today and it is not meant to be disrespectful to Zola to suggest that West Ham may be ending up with second best.

First choice Bilic, whose hopes of doing the job in tandem with his national team duties had effectively ruled him out, was the right man because everything he has so far achieved in coaching has spoken of a very gifted communicator with a thoroughly modern take on how to get the best out of his players.

His revelation about how he'll go to the rooms of his players and lie in bed with them to talk over their problems conjured up a glorious and completely unlikely vision of a sympathetic Don Fabio doing the same.

"Now, about this goalscoring drought, Wayne," you can almost hear Capello saying.

"Budge over, there's a good lad." At a press conference today, his captain Niko Kovac, only three years younger than

Bilic, could be seen smacking him on the back as if they were best mates. …

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