After hanging up his boots, Slaven Bilic didn’t intend to pursue a career in management, but with both Croatia and West Ham he’s shown himself to be made for the job.
After studying law and then stepping into the breach to coach his home side, Hajduk Split, the Croatian manager launched a career that would elevate him to national team coach, take him to clubs in Russia and Turkey and see him break records with Premier League side West Ham.
Tell us a little about your upbringing in Croatia and how you think it shaped you and your values.
Both my mother and father came from farming backgrounds and were the first of their families to go into higher education. My father went on to become a Doctor of Economy and my mother a teacher of geography and biology, and they both have a very strong work ethic, which has always influenced me and still does today.
Sport, though, and football in particular, was my father’s passion, and my brother and I loved the game from a young age. It was also the biggest sport in what was then the former Yugoslavia, now Croatia. Growing up in the coastal town of Split, the only football club, Hajduk Split, was a real focal point for the community and people were passionate about it. I, like most other kids back then, dreamed about playing for the club.
I started playing football properly at the age of 10, but from five years old I did a lot of swimming, and I think it’s the best first sport for children to get involved in. It can help later on with whatever sport you choose to move onto, because the training and being part of a swimming team requires commitment, and it enables you to build up your strength and muscles gently from a young age.
I studied hard at school and, even though I was training to be a footballer, my mum made sure that school was always a priority and that I maintained my work standards. I could have become a full-time professional footballer earlier than I did, but I knew how important it was to my family that I took the opportunity to go to university to study law; their career achievements inspired me.
Did studying law help later on when you moved into football management? Were there any transferable skills, such as attention to detail?
It was a big commitment to complete a degree while training to become a football player, but I’m very glad I did it. I’m not sure that studying law, in particular, has helped me in my role as a manager, but studying at university more generally has had an influence on me. For example, I’m sure it helped me to develop my good organisational skills, and it has certainly given me a broader outlook on life. I was lucky enough to spend time with professors with a range of experiences and perspectives and to mix with students of all different ages and from a variety of backgrounds, and I’ve really benefited from that.
How did your transition from player to manager come about?
To be honest, I wasn’t actively thinking about becoming a manager while I was a player, nor did I make notes on the training sessions that my managers were giving. I became involved in management more by circumstance. The first team that I played for, Hajduk Split, was struggling financially, so I and three other players at the club invested some money in it to help. As a result, we were appointed to the board, which was a valuable learning experience in itself.
The club was going through a difficult time and, when its poor form culminated in a shock defeat to a much smaller side, the manager lost his job. Nobody wanted to take the role on and, as I had retired from my playing career, I was asked if I would take over until the winter break. Given that this only involved taking charge of four matches, I agreed. But, when those games were over, I thought about it and spoke with the players, my father and my family and decided that I’d like to continue on in the role until the end of the season.
When that season ended, though, I left, because I didn’t want to continue without the relevant coaching qualifications and I thought that a break would give me time to see if management was the right career for me. I was interested to see if I’d miss it and I did. I then took my coaching qualifications and travelled abroad to observe how other coaches that I admired, like Arsène Wenger and Marcello Lippi, ran their training sessions.
And your next opportunity to manage came with the national side…
Yes, I had to wait for a chance to get back into management, but after the Euros in 2004 the Croatian FA gave me the opportunity to take over the Croatia U21 side. It was an incredible chance for me to develop as a coach and, after the World Cup in 2006, I was asked to take over as first-team manager of Croatia.
It was an honour to manage my country and in Croatia it’s an especially big job, akin to being prime minister, because the national team is so important to the people. Although the league in Croatia is not as big or as strong as those in some other countries, the national team is very good.
You went on to manage at clubs in Russia and Turkey before moving to West Ham in 2015. How prepared were you for the Premier League?
I enjoyed managing in Russia and Turkey, where Lokomotiv Moscow and Besiktas are both massive clubs. The pressure and expectation at Besiktas, in particular, was massive and each day there was a great deal of media handling to deal with and many fans at the training ground, so that helped to prepare me for the Premier League. It also helped that, during my time with Besiktas, we played really well against Premier League sides several times in the Champions League.
However, I think what helped me the most was having played in the Premier League myself with Everton and West Ham. I really enjoyed playing for my managers, Howard Kendall, Walter Smith and Harry Redknapp, at these two clubs and observing their styles of leadership. From being a player in the Premier League, I understood the intensity of this great league and the variety of tactical approaches that are implemented by its managers.
When I was appointed as West Ham manager, it was a great honour for me. I was able to settle into the role very quickly, because as a former player I was already familiar with the culture; even the training ground was the same when I returned as manager. It was almost like having déjà vu.
Having been a club captain yourself, do you think the role is an important one in assisting the manager?
Certainly, because the captain sets the tone for the whole team and can be like the manager’s right-hand man. A good captain will give you fantastic support during training and matches by setting the standard for all of the players. The captain’s armband, therefore, carries with it a big responsibility; ‘heavy lies the crown’.
It’s important, then, that a player is ready for that responsibility. I was named captain of Karlsruher in Germany after just one season and I liked it, because it was a very big honour. But, in retrospect, I’m not sure I was really ready for the role, with the likes of Thomas Hessler and Oliver Kahn in the side. I had a good bond with these great players, but I doubt they were keen on me being the captain. I also had a limited grasp of the German language at the time and didn’t have an in-depth knowledge of the players that I was captaining. So, with the potential for the captaincy to be a burden, it’s essential to pick a player that is totally ready for that level of responsibility.
What inspires you as a manager and how do you, in turn, try to inspire your staff and players?
I really enjoy the responsibility that comes with leadership and management and the adrenaline rush that you get in this industry. It’s great to be in charge of something big and important, something that means so much to so many people across the generations. I’ve always enjoyed responsibility, right back to my time at school.
With the players, I like them to share their views and how they are feeling, because it puts me in a better place to help them perform at their best and also to understand what we are trying to achieve.
In terms of inspiring my staff, I try to empower them by giving them their own responsibilities. As a leader, you shouldn’t be looking to surround yourself with ‘yes men’ who think everything that you and they are doing is brilliant; that approach just leads to stagnation. It’s about finding the right balance.
The qualities I value the most in my backroom staff are great knowledge of their respective roles and loyalty. I’m also looking for an exchange of ideas and constructive debate, and for that you need an organised system whereby staff feel free enough to share their thoughts. To work like this, you need to be very sure of your relationship with your staff and confident in your own abilities and ideas as a manager.
The job of a manager can be all-consuming and so having a great team around you is essential, as is getting your work/life balance right. It’s important to keep perspective when you’re doing your job and maintain a good overview, otherwise it’s hard to see the wood for the trees.