With an omnipotent and impatient president imposing a strict transfer policy, will the former Vetreni coach be able to stamp his authority in the Russian capital?
By Marcus Haydon
The widespread reaction to the announcement that Slaven Bilic was to take the reins at Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow following Euro 2012 was one of surprise. Surprise because he has been linked with so many jobs in the last five years - many of which were at higher profile clubs in higher profile leagues - but surprise, also, because of the complexity of the task that he faces in the Russian capital.
Some have suggested that his decision was driven by financial gains rather than aspiration, a claim Bilic has been quick to rebuff. "Do not think that I came to Lokomotiv for the sake of money," he said after arriving in Moscow. "This is a great club with serious ambitions. I can tell you that I have had offers from Germany and England, where I would receive comparable money - somewhere a little less, but somewhere a bit more."
Lokomotiv are a side with undoubted potential. In some senses they are one of the success stories of modern-era Russia. They won only a single league title and two domestic cups during Soviet times, but developed rapidly under the leadership of coach Yuri Semin during the 1990s and early 2000s, winning two domestic crowns and four Russian Cups, as well as redeveloping the Lokomotiv Stadium into what is now regarded as the best football arena in the country. On-field success and off-field rejuvenation resulted in a sharp increase in support, projecting Loko into the footballing mainstream alongside the country's more established names.
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Since Semin's departure in 2005, the club have struggled with the idea of stability. Despite the continuing financial support of Russian Railways (RZD), coaches have changed with alarming regularity (10 in seven years) and only one Russian Cup has followed. For the last two years, the club's presidency has been held by Olga Smorodskaya, the only woman president in the Premier League. With a background in banking and sports administration (ironically, for an organisation run by rivals CSKA Moscow), she has proven herself to be a forthright operator. Her appointment and continued involvement is deeply unpopular with the club's supporters, a resentment partly derived from her gender, but also with the hard-line nature with which she runs the club.
Within months of her appointment, Smorodskaya had dispensed of fan favourite Semin, who had returned to the club for a third spell in charge. Next in the dugout was Yuri Krasnozhan, who had established Spartak Nalchik in the Premier League despite having only modest resources at his disposal. He was to last only six months at Loko, though, dismissed by Smorodskaya amid accusations that he had been involved in selling a match against Anzhi Makhachkala. Krasnozhan's successor, the Portuguese coach Jose Couceiro, lasted less than a year before being replaced by Bilic.
Aside from sackings, one of the main themes of Smorodskaya's presidency has been the dissolution of power from the coach in terms of player recruitment – a move that has proven extremely controversial. The club have been operating with a 'head of the selection department', Cyril Kotov, and a vice-president, former Russia international, Alexei Smertin. The two were widely regarded as being the architects behind the club's transfer activities.
|"Personally, I contributed to the transfer of only one player. As for the other acquisitions, I have no idea who was doing it"
- Jose Couceiro
Bilic's predecessor Couceiro certainly had his issues with the approach: "Personally, I contributed to the transfer of only one player – [Alberto] Zapater," he admitted to Sport Expressin in an interview following his release. "As for the other acquisitions, I have no idea who was doing it. Maybe Kotov, Smertin, or maybe even Smorodskaya herself. When I arrived, they had already signed [Victor] Obinna, [Manuel] Da Costa, [Felipe] Caicedo. Lokomotiv operate this policy: the main thing is to buy players, and then the coach has to understand how to make these players perform."
Couceiro's comments hint at a divide between the boardroom and the dugout, which, it cannot be ruled out, may have been due to the coach's capabilities at the time. However, that dislocation is unlikely to have been aided by the departure of Alexei Smertin, who quit in June, again, without any official explanation. It is reported that his involvement reduced greatly as the season progressed, perhaps as Smorodskaya’s opinion of him diminished courtesy of the team's dismal end of season form.
The question now is whether the club's recruitment structure is set to change under their new coach. Kotov remains, but with Smertin gone, football expertise on the recruitment selection team is tangibly reduced. It is perhaps telling that one of Lokomotiv's first acquisitions this summer has been that of Vedran Corluka, a player who appeared more times for Croatia under Bilic than any other.
A sign of change, perhaps?
Given Smorodskaya's firm response to Couceiro’s accusations ("Selection activities are the prerogative of the club: the club suggests transfer targets and the head coach agrees them") it still seems unlikely Bilic will be given complete autonomy.