Darko Milanic should be familiar with the old adage that managers should choose jobs depending on the suitability of working with owners rather than the lure of specific clubs, but he doesn’t seem to learn.
I found out about Milanic being sacked as Leeds United manager by opening the door to my student house in Nottingham and finding some drunk Wolves fans, friends of my housemate, crowing about their victory at Elland Road earlier that day causing the sacking of our manager after only 32 days. I just shrugged. Massimo Cellino had owned Leeds for less than a year, but it was already apparent this was how things were going to work, and the football under Milanic made it difficult to feel anything more than indifferent. Apart from a pang of guilt that he was sacked on the day his family flew to Leeds to watch his new team for the first time.
We recently covered Milanic’s 32 days as Leeds boss on an episode of The Extra Ball and found that, while it’s often hard to know what to say about Milanic the person due to the sheer mundanity of the little he said and the football he produced, he has a magnetism that attracts strange events to his vicinity. The guilt I felt all those years ago was eased by discovering it wasn’t even the harshest sacking of his career.
Maribor is Milanic’s safe space. Either side of a season with Sturm Graz and six weeks with Leeds, Milanic coached Maribor to great success, taking just two seasons to become the first manager to win all three domestic trophies in Slovenia. His first spell ended with four league titles, three cups and two Supercups, as well as consecutive qualifications for the Europa League group stages. He returned to Maribor after eighteen months of jokes about being on gardening leave from Leeds to win two more titles and another Slovenian Cup, leading the club in the 2017/18 Champions League, where they drew three of their six group matches (and were beaten 7-0 at home by Liverpool).
But Milanic eventually gets itchy feet at Maribor. He resigned in March 2020 and joined Slovan Bratislava six months later. The warning signs should have been there for Milanic. He was replacing Jan Kozak, who was sacked just a few months after winning a Slovakian league and cup double. Kozak had replaced Martin Sevela, who also lost his job with a league title and cup to his name. Slovan Bratislava are owned by oligarch Ivan Kmotrik, who employs his son, Ivan Kmotrik Jr, as the club’s general manager. When I use Google Translate to read about Kmotrik, he is often referred to in Slovakian media as ‘The Godfather’. An owner renowned for sacking managers, who also employs his sons, you say? That sounds familiar! Milanic signed a one-year deal with an option for a further two. A month after taking over, Milanic was replaced on the bench by Kmotrik Jr while he was quarantining amid an outbreak of Covid at the club.
To his credit, Milanic lasted longer than 32 days at Slovan, but he didn’t quite see out that initial year. He even got to win a few games, 22 in all competitions, taking Slovan top of the table with a four point lead and only two games left to play, plus a cup final against Zilina, who were trailing way behind in the league and had just been beaten 3-2 by Slovan. Slovan had finished the first stage of the Slovakian season top of the league by ten points, before the top six split off and continued the league in a ‘Championship round’. But in their first eight fixtures after the split, Slovan won just three times. Three days before a derby with Dunajska Streda, Slovan general manager Kmotrik Jr revealed the club were in talks with former boss Vladimir Weiss about taking over at the end of the season. Weiss’ son, former Manchester City winger Vladimir Jr, had joined Slovan the previous year. “Nowhere is it written that [Milanic] will eventually remain in office and will continue,” Kmotrik Jr said. “There must be a total change. We need to significantly change the settings and thinking of players.”
Milanic’s task was not being helped by the soap opera involving star goalkeeper and fan of nominative determinism Dominik Greif, whose commitment was being questioned by fans after he became upset over not being allowed to leave in the previous two transfer windows. After losing the derby 1-0, Slovan’s third defeat in four league games, Milanic was sacked on the cusp of that league and cup double, with Weiss Sr appointed as his immediate successor. Under Weiss, Slovan won their two remaining league fixtures to win the title by six points, and triumphed 2-1 in the cup final courtesy of an extra-time penalty converted by Weiss Jr, who was sent off minutes later. Weiss was previously manager of Slovan when they shared a Europa League group with Marcelo Bielsa’s eventual finalists Athletic Bilbao in 2011/12, but has been unable to guide them back into Europe, losing in this season’s play-off round.
Milanic was out of work for just over a month before joining Cypriot side Pafos this summer. His vice-captain is former Crystal Palace midfielder and good friend of Neil Warnock, Jason Puncheon. Pafos have won just once in the league this season, a 4-0 victory on the opening day that was followed by a 4-0 defeat and three consecutive 1-1 draws, which is much more in keeping with Milanic’s vibe. I’d love to tell you Darko has learned his lesson and is now choosing jobs more wisely, but Pafos have gone through three managers in each of the last two seasons while finishing 7th, the position they currently hold. Dare I say it, we all know how this ends.
Back in Maribor, meanwhile, Milanic’s former club are a distant 4th with one win in seven, and have replaced Simon Rožman with interim coach Radovan Karanović. Maribor haven’t won a title since Milanic left in 2019, and inexperienced new sporting director Marko Šuler has indefinitely suspended midfielder Andrej Kotnik for gesturing at fans angry about his rumoured move to their biggest rivals Olimpija Ljubljana (who just sacked head coach Savo Milosevic, which serves him right for scoring against Leeds in the 1996 League Cup final). They’re a club in crisis with fans longing for their glory days to return. Darko, dare I say it, you know what to do. ⬢(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)