Hull City? Leonid Slutsky chuckles. He’s wearing a checkered Armani shirt and tilts his head a little before responding. “A lot of memories…a lot of memories,” he says cryptically. Slutsky coached the Tigers for six months in 2017, his first adventure on foreign soil – still a rarity for Russian coaches. He immersed himself in the local football culture, studied English and lived next to Stamford Bridge. He didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
Still, Slutsky’s appointment was seen as a risk. He had sufficient pedigree, arriving in England with three Russian titles at CSKA Moscow and a Champions League quarter-final appearance under his belt. He’d also coached the Russia national team at Euro 2016; in a disappointing campaign, his side were knocked out after collecting just one point in the group stage, but his reputation in his homeland remained high.
Adulation at home became failure abroad, however. Under Slutsky’s leadership Hull scored 34 goals in the Championship but conceded 37, the third-highest total in the division. He won just four of his 20 games in charge, experiencing the competitiveness of England’s second tier first-hand. When he departed in December, Hull – who had been in the Premier League just a few months previously – were stuck in 20th place, just three points above the relegation zone.
“The Championship is a mix between classical English football and European football,” says Slutsky. “Each country has something specific, it has a tradition. It’s not only about culture; it’s about behaviour, players, supporters, the relationship between owner and coach, the position of the coach at the table, inside the club. A lot of moments were new for me.”
“It was a very serious experience in terms of football education,” he continues. “Not the tactics or the methodologies, but in terms of communication. Even now I am a much, much better coach than one year ago.”
The novelty of a different environment and Hull’s enduring struggles complicated Slutsky’s work. His trailblazing mission faltered and he left by mutual consent before the midway point of the campaign. “I wasn’t a good pioneer,” admits Slutsky. “My target is to analyse all my mistakes and to continue to work very hard and prove my level not only in Russia, but also in another country.”
Slutsky is the face of Russian football in England, but the game in the world’s largest country remains an enigma to outsiders. There are fleeting moments of exposure – CSKA’s Champions League run in 2009, the national team at Euro 2016 – but not even globalisation has demystified Russian football, which is broadcast to small domestic audiences on backwater cable channels. Russian players don’t want to move abroad because they earn good salaries in their comfort zone at home. Slutsky, though, views the isolation of Russian football differently.
“English football is a very domestic affair,” says Slutsky. “The whole focus is local. It’s like a tradition. If you ask supporters which competition is more interesting for them, the Premier League or the Champions league, 99% will answer ‘Premier League’. When I speak with some agents or scouts and I ask them about this or that Russian player the usual answer is ‘I don’t have a lot of information about that player.'”
“The globalisation of football is a very important part of the development of football,” continues Slutsky. “And of course, for our players [and] for our national team it would be better if some players would play in England, Germany or Spain. Then you understand the principles of each country, the culture, other strengths and another mentality. For Russian players, there’s now only one chance to go to England: you have to perform well in the Champions League or the World Cup. Only that information is a serious evaluation for an English club.”
A handful of Russian players have graced English fields in the past: Andrey Arshavin at Arsenal, Pavel Pogrebnyak at Fulham, Roman Pavlyuchenko at Tottenham and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov at Everton. Yet the Russian presence in the Premier League has completely disappeared.
In the national team’s most recent squad, Fenerbahce defender Petrovich Neustädter, Villarreal midfielder Denis Cheryshev and Vladimir Gabulov, Club Brugge’s third-choice goalkeeper, were the only players who plied their trade overseas. Stanislav Cherchesov’s team disappointed at last year’s Confederations Cup with insipid performances against Portugal and Mexico. This summer the Sbornaya face an uphill battle to even get out of a group containing Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay.
“Each host of the World Cup has strength, because you play at home,” says Slutsky. “It’s more emotional. We can compensate our level of quality with the emotional level. Russia has a serious chance of progressing from the group stage. Our strength is that we have a team with players of the same level. Egypt [for example] has players of a different level. We have more stability, more consistency.”
After the World Cup, Slutsky will turn his attention to Vitesse Arnhem. The Dutch club is owned by Russian oligarch Alexander Chigirinsky, who wants Slutsky to bring his philosophy, tactical acumen and detailed blueprints to the Eredivisie. A successful stint at Vitesse may re-open the door to England. “If you ask me if I would like to return to English football, I say yes because England has the two best leagues in the world.”
“The relationship between me and the Hull City supporters was unbelievable,” he exclaims. “Everybody supported me. Everybody had the best words for me and tried to help me. That feeling was unbelievable.”