Leonid Slutsky talks Hull City, Roman Abramovich and learning English
LONDON, England -- You can see it in Leonid Slutsky's eyes: the same intense beam you see in the eyes of children as Christmas approaches. The man who once held down two massive jobs, managing CSKA Moscow and the Russia national team simultaneously for nearly a year in 2015-16, has been out of work since December 2016. But now he's back and can't wait to get started at Hull City, recently relegated from the Premier League.
It's an odd destination for a man whose achievements in the game should warrant a more high-profile posting, but Slutsky says that he is accustomed to challenges. The former goalkeeper, whose career was famously ended at the age of 19 when he fell out of a tree rescuing a cat, has had to work his way up the managerial ladder without being able to draw on an illustrious playing career but still managed to win the Russian title (three times) and Russian Cup (twice) with CSKA.
"I had very difficult career in Russia," he told ESPN FC. "I started work with youth teams, then B teams, then second league, first league and then Premier League. But I can't start at the top level here because I need time to adapt and to understand. And there's an old Russian expression: 'When you do a big step, it can be very dangerous to your trousers.'"
Most managers choose the job first and then worry about the country later, but Slutsky has been determined to work in England for some time.
"English football is very popular in Russia, maybe more popular than Russian football," he said. "I think there's the best players and the best coaches now working in England. And I am very proud because I am the first Russian coach who has worked here. And of course, it's a serious adventure and a serious challenge in my career."
Slutsky moved to London at the start of the year barely able to speak a word of English, but he enrolled in the prestigious Riversdown live-in language school near Southampton, continued with intensive tuition and is now effectively fluent.
"In January, my level was zero, but now it's better," he said. "Of course, I can't understand everything, I can't explain everything. My teacher told me I would never see the finish line in my education because I am a foreign guy and it's true. But it's okay. I'm running a marathon and I am ready to continue running in the future. For me it's no problem."
Slutsky's education was not limited to the classroom. For the past seven months, he's been watching English football up and down the leagues, striving to understand the culture as much as familiarising himself with the players.
"It's a serious experience," he said. "I must be ready not only to speak English, but I must understand football. The level of the leagues, the level of the players, the traditional methods, the philosophy, the relationship between supporters and teams. Everything. And of course I need preparation time.
"I think if I'd started in January after I finished in Russia, it would not have been good. I didn't know English, I didn't know English football. But now I am ready. I am confident, yes, and I have serious power and a lot of energy. I am very open and I think I bring some new ideas and new methods in English football."
Key to this preparation stage has been the assistance of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. The two men have known each other for over a decade through their work in Russia and Slutsky has been staying in one of his hotels next to Stamford Bridge.
"I am very thankful to him for his help," Slutsky said. "I live in the Chelsea hotel, I watch a lot of matches because Chelsea give me tickets for each match. He has helped me adapt to life here. I always say that Mr Abramovich doesn't have a project in Russian football now, so now his Russian project is me!"
But even with the help of his friend -- and discussions have taken place over the possible loan of Chelsea players -- Slutsky faces a significant challenge at Hull. Not only is the Championship a notoriously unforgiving division, but the Tigers are a troubled club.
Efforts by the owners, the Allam family, to change the club's name to "Hull City Tigers" met with stiff resistance from supporters and last season's decision to abolish concession prices intensified the rancour. Add to this the fact that the club's best players, such as Liverpool target Andrew Robertson, are expected to leave and you have a chalice that, while perhaps not poisonous, is unlikely to sit well on the stomach. But Slutsky has dealt with worse.
"It's not the first time! And if I can help to get back the relationship between the club and the supporters I will be very happy," he said. "I never listen about other situations. I don't know the owners' plans, but I think that the family does a lot of things in Hull, really serious investment in the city, and I hope the situation with Hull City will be... (he pauses to find the right word)... stability."
Slutsky left London on Thursday and will be living in his predecessor Marco Silva's flat in nearby Beverley, approximately 10 miles from Hull. Preseason begins on July 3, but Slutsky has been working in London for weeks already, speaking to coaches and agents, cajoling existing players to stay, trying to convince new players to join.
While he watched Hull in person on only a few occasions last season, he has since gorged himself on tapes of their games and is fully aware of the capabilities of his players.
"We have made a serious preparation programme involving lots of training sessions, a lot of new methods, a lot of special things in the gym, analytic programmes," he said. "But now it's a very positive mood."
Slutsky will be working with the club's other new arrival, head of recruitment Lee Darnbrough, formerly of Norwich and Burnley. Like the Russian, Darnbrough's playing career was cut short by injury at 19, and working together, they expect to make several new signings, most critically in central defence where captain Michael Dawson is currently the only senior option. But with over two months to go before the transfer window shuts, Slutsky knows there is much work to be done.
"Yes, of course we need some players, but it's like in every club. There are players you want, who don't want to play in this city. There are players who want to play in this city, that maybe you don't want," he said. "But we have a strategy about new players, about loan players and in the last two weeks I am working hard with players and having a lot of conversations with agents. It's not a quick process, but I hope we will have some new players before our trip to Portugal on July 11."
Slutsky is in no doubt about the extent of his challenge, particularly given the vagaries of the Championship. And it's clear that in terms of preparation, he couldn't have done any more.
"It's hard because you have 46 matches, a very long season," he said. "I watched a lot of periods where one team wouldn't lose for seven matches and then for the next seven matches, they wouldn't win! I understand that it's difficult, but again, I have a very positive mood. We all together will work very hard. And we will have a good result."
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.