By Chris Dunlavy
IT was FK Moscow’s flamboyant general manager Yuri Belous who dubbed Leonid Slutsky ‘The Russian Mourinho’.
Aged 33, the rookie coach from the industrial city of Volgograd had just beaten city rivals Spartak in his first game.
That was in 2005 and, from those vaunted beginnings to title glory with CSKA and ten tumultuous months in charge of Russia, the moniker stuck.
In reality, however, Hull City’s affable new manager couldn’t be more different from the dour, divisive, win-at-all costs mentality of the grudge-bearing Portuguese.
“It’s true,” said Russian journalist Igor Rabiner, author of Leonid Slutsky: the Coach from Next Door.
“He is meticulous and successful but, in terms of personality, Slutsky is much more like Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti.”
Trusting. Laid back. Jovial. From his self-deprecating humour to his philosophy on man-management, Slutsky is a man who prizes respect and friendship above medals.
“I want to win,” he once said. “But, if winning these titles means hard relations with players, then I wouldn’t make a choice in favour of titles. This relationship is the biggest factor for me.”
Early on, many in the ultra-conservative, macho world of Russian football felt Slutsky was too soft, too unorthodox, to succeed.
They scoffed at his dedication to academic study, the use of sports psychologists to profile his players.
In 2007, Slutsky was even sacked by FK Moscow after owner Mikhail Prokhorov demanded a coach “with more balls”.
Yet over the years this intelligent and progressive approach – allied to a natural affinity with the media – has garnered both success and respect.
He prefers jokes to jibes. He quotes poetry, theatre and movies in his press conferences.
He is a regular on Russian comedy programmes and went viral after he was filmed performing a self-penned rap at an ex-player’s wedding.
Last year’s Russian rescue act offers the perfect illustration of how his ebullient personality can charm a dressing room.
The team was four points adrift of qualification for Euro 2016 when the joyless, autocratic Fabio Capello was dismissed. But Slutsky won four matches out of four to book a berth in France.
“Slutsky turned the atmosphere 180 degrees,” said Zenit St Petersburg’s mercurial striker Artem Dzyuba.
“He radiates positive energy: he’s not just a winner but a very decent man. And all that is supported by the fact that he is a professional and super-strong coach. The team fell in love with him and started respecting him at lightning speed.”
Equally telling, however, was Slutsky’s conciliatory approach to Cappello. The pair spoke regularly and even went for dinner together. Cappello, in turn, lauded Slutsky’s great potential.
Despite an opening draw with England, Russia crashed out of the competition in the group stages. In yet another departure from the Mourinho mould, there were no excuses.
“After losing to Wales, me and some players gathered in my room,” he told the media. “We talked until 9am and then concluded ‘We’re s***’ in unison.”
Slutsky’s levity and sense of perspective is perhaps unsurprising when you consider he lost his father, Viktor, to cancer at seven and his playing career to a famous freak incident.
Aged 19, he fell six metres from a poplar tree attempting to rescue a young neighbour’s cat, shattering his knee and suffering multiple fractures.
A year in a Soviet-era hospital allowed him to walk again, but his goalkeeping days were over.
At that stage, Slutsky toyed with following his mother’s desire for him to become a lawyer or a doctor.
A graduate in linguistics, Lyudmila Nikolaevna was forced to forgo her own academic ambitions when Viktor died. She built a kindergarten and became a teacher to provide for her son, then watched in delight as he finished high school with top grades.
Yet football always held sway and, aged 22, Slutsky started training the academy at Olimpia Volgograd, a local side. His first pupils were gathered via hand-written adverts that Lyudmila posted in the lobbies of nearby apartment blocks.
Olimpia’s youth team won everything in sight and included two players, Denis Kolodin and Roman Adamov, who reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008. So grateful was Adamov that he bought Slutsky and his mother an apartment when he signed his first professional contract.
“He kept me off the street and gave me a career in football,” said Adamov. “No apartment or amount of money can repay that.”
Along the way, Slutsky was sacked and shafted, often by people he trusted. Typically, however, he remains cordial with most.
Next came FC Moscow, then seven years across town at CSKA that yielded three league titles, one double and a run to the Champions League quarter- finals.
“I always regarded myself rather critically,” said Slutsky. “So that first Champions League game gave me the feeling of unbelievable inner comfort. I am not in this profession without reason.”
Unlike the majority of his peers, Slutsky has long harboured a desire to coach abroad. A friend of Roman Abramovich – the Chelsea owner consults him about transfer targets – he moved to the UK after Euro 2016 and has spent the last six months travelling to watch games by train.
He has also immersed himself in politics and culture, learning about Brexit, going to plays in London and studying English.
Savvy enough to recognise the Premier League was out of range, he targeted a job in the Championship. In June, aided by the support of Abramovich, Hull took a punt.
“For me, he is a world class manager,” said German Tkachenko, the Russian manager who first introduced Slutsky to Abramovich.
“Very detailed, very systematic. To prove his level, Leo just has to overcome the language barrier because his style depends on communication, on explanations. Succeed in that and he will succeed full stop.”