Slavisa Jokanovic is a purveyor of the finer details. When it comes to football management the 49-year-old has utilised years of experience managing in countries as far flung as Thailand to Israel, but it is Fulham where he’s now made a name for himself as one of Europe’s most talented managers.
Jokanovic, an ex-Deportivo and Chelsea player renowned for his elegant displays in midfield, joined Fulham in December 2015 and managed to avoid relegation by eleven points. The following season saw him achieve his target of a top-six position while the current campaign could culminate in achieving the ultimate goal of promotion to the Premier League.
The Serbian’s side saw off Derby in their Championship play-off semi-final and will now face either Aston Villa or Middlesbrough at Wembley on May 26.
Despite automatic promotion slipping out of their hands, Jokanovic guided his team to a 23-game unbeaten run which has drawn plaudits from afar due to the attractive football philosophy now taking centre stage at Craven Cottage.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Goal, the experienced manager revealed the different aspects he needed to change when he first arrived at Fulham, while also talking about reports linking him with a move to Chelsea.
“I’m a very good observer and I had to check everything around myself,” Jokanovic told Goal.
“In this short time we tried to push the club in a different direction and tried looking for improvements in different parts of the club. I started to push the board and they supported my ideas to improve the club.
“All the styles have a final destination - to try and win the games. I want to win the games. We are in a good moment right now and from another side I believe our supporters are enjoying the way this was the team have changed.”
Jokanovic oversaw vast changes off the pitch when he joined three years ago, including modernisation of player nutrition and recovery methods, while persuading the club’s billionaire U.S-based owner Shahid Khan to invest in the pitches in order to improve the quality of the training sessions.
“If you want to play the football on the floor then I need better tools for my work. They [Fulham] interpreted me well, they understand my position and really quick after a few months we started this kind of new improvements.
“The pitches weren’t in condition to try and find enough quality with what we wanted to do. The last two years we’ve been in perfect condition for our work. I believe we’re seeing the benefits of these improvements but can always do better.”
Behind the scenes Jokanovic sings the praises of his support staff which features Marco Cesaraini, Jose Sambade, Stuart Gray, Alberto Escobar and Javier Pereira, the latter he describes as the “engineer of many things”. The group work closely together and the Serb uses his knowledge from a breadth of experiences abroad to focus on cultivating and signing domestic talent who already have a flavour of English football.
“My life is connected with football. I was a player, now a manager. I try to use all my experience in my job," he added.
“Because I’m working in England, this is the only reason [why I favour domestic-based players]. If I’m working with Serbia, Israel or Thailand it’s about following the natural way. We are not on the level for bringing best players in the world.
“We want to bring people in with a similar level whether they are English or foreign. If they are a similar level I prefer domestic players as they know what life is like here and they don’t need so much time for adaption.
“This competition is really long with many games so you don’t have so much time to prepare and adapt. They must be ready for the challenge.”
One player courting the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs is Ryan Sessegnon. The 17-year-old has scored 15 goals this season and won five EFL awards, prompting many to suggest the left-wing back warrants a call-up to the England squad for this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
“He’s the best young player I’ve managed in my life,” beamed Jokanovic.
“I’ve managed important players like [Stevan] Jovetic and [Adem] Ljajic in Partizan Belgrade but this man is really different. To play at this age he’s competing really hard at Championship level and shown fantastic quality.
“He’s one of the best football ‘projects’ in England and the world. He has huge potential ahead of him and a healthy mentality. I believe he can arrive and become a top player.”
Fulham scored 85 times last season - the second-highest tally achieved by the team in the last 58 years. Players including Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic have lauded Jokanovic’s training methods and ability to get the best out of his players, an aspect of his managerial style that he remains deeply proud of.
“I want to make people around me better and I must be satisfied if they feel improvement in themselves. I try to make improvements for people all around me. Sometimes we need patience, sometimes we need the time to trust each other and this is natural but the intention for both sides is always positive. I try to make them better and they make me better too.”
Unsurprisingly, Jokanovic is quick to dismiss reports linking him with a move down the road to Chelsea. An unbeaten run inspired by the manager’s attack-minded philosophy has seen several clubs linked, but Fulham remains the only team in his mind right now.
“This is nice for my wife to read the news and ask me about these kind of reports,” he joked.
“I try to be focused on my job and try to do a good job and if I’m successful with Fulham in the future then some positive things can happen.”
The ultimate goal of Premier League promotion is in Jovanovic’s sights and he portrays the same studious focus which has seen the Cottagers impress with their free-flowing football this season, but now it's time to deliver the end product that he and his team have been working towards throughout a gruelling campaign.
“The Championship is an exciting and quality competition, we know it exists at that level. We are strong and believe we can be successful. We’re going to push until the end."