(Photo: Action Images via Reuters)
By Chris Dunlavy
LEONID Slutsky clumped out of the Hillsborough media room, dodging the assorted cameras and cables as deftly as questions about his future.
“So,” quipped a colleague after the Russian had gone, his final briefing as Hull manager complete, “anybody reckon he wants a big striker?”
Cue guffaws of laughter. City had just come back from 2-1 down against Wednesday to snatch a dramatic 95th-minute leveller, which – we wrongly assumed – would save Slutsky’s skin. Yet, for seven solid minutes, all the 46-year-old had done was lament the Tigers’ lack of a totem.
A draw that feels like a win? “Yes, but we need a big striker”. Impressive first-half display? “Yes, but after that we dropped deep and we cannot play like that because we do not have any big strikers”. And so on.
So repetitive did this mantra become that the exasperated guy from local radio specifically asked Slutsky to park the issue.
At the time, it seemed bizarre. In hindsight, not so much. Because it is now apparent that Slutsky was all but begging to be sacked for the last month.
His wish was granted a fortnight ago, terminating a miserable six-month reign that yielded just four wins from 20 games.
In truth, however, the beginning of the end came at Bramall Lane in early November. Smashed 4-1 by Sheffield United, Slutsky openly admitted he had “no answers” to Hull’s ugly capitulation.
“It is very bad. Terrible,” said Slutsky. “We were completely broken after the first goal. We changed system, we changed formation. But, really, we don’t have a strong mentality and we don’t have a strong team spirit. Right now, I have a lot of questions in my head but I don’t have answers.”
On that occasion, his exit prompted bafflement rather than laughter. We all know Slutsky is a uniquely honest and emotional character, but was he really so careless as to leave Hull’s owners such an open goal?
Had he, we wondered, deliberately left the net gaping, painfully aware that the job was not what the brochure advertised?
That, having failed to secure a sale, disillusioned owner Assem Allam was cutting his losses. That January would bring no reinforcements, despite a damaging summer exodus when 13 players fled the KC.
That a handsome pay-off (Slutsky signed a two-year deal in June) would be preferable to scrapping for survival with a skeletal squad.
Those suspicions only intensified a few days later. Beaten 3-1 by Middlesbrough, Slutsky – by now a morose, monotone shell of the beaming jester who had bounced into town – announced it would be normal if the axe fell.
Viewed in this bleak light, the “big striker” diatribe makes far more sense. It was, in effect, a ‘back me or sack me’ ultimatum, almost certainly delivered in the knowledge that the Allams would plump for the latter.
So will Slutsky be happy pocketing his pay-off? Of course not. It wasn’t like he always plotted to fail. The sadness, the despair, the naked emotion he exhibited at Bramall Lane and Hillsborough – that was all real.
That’s why the players all raced to his side to celebrate goals. Why fans sang his name even as the Owls led 2-1. For all the tactical missteps and chronic disorganisation, Slutsky was a popular figure who cared for the club.
But, by the end, he’d become so dispirited by Hull’s lack of finance or ambition that he simply lost interest in self-preservation.
Maybe he should have walked and let someone with more enthusiasm step in. But how many people would shun a six-figure payout on principle? Not me, that’s for sure.
For a former international coach, Slutsky has made many mistakes. He was certainly caught out by the intensity of the Championship. Watching in-form Fulham destroy all-comers last spring was, given the players he inherited, useless as preparation.
Nevertheless, watching this genuine, likeable man slump like a sad clown was painful and it is hard to begrudge the part of him that wanted out. In the final reckoning, Slutsky was a good man ground down by a bad club.