Velimir Zajec: 'You can't run away. You can't say you were told different'

He arrived to do one job - then Harry walked out and he had to do two. Jason Burt meets the unknown who is soldiering on for Portsmouth
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The Independent Online

When Velimir Zajec emerges from the narrow corridor of dressing rooms at Portsmouth's training ground it is as if he should be dressed all in black, rather than a rather dapper brown, such is his shadowy image. The warmest of smiles is also disarming from the man blamed in some quarters for wrecking the Harry 'n' Jim project at Fratton Park. As is the instant, self-deprecating humour. "Their minds are out," he says of trying to motivate players during international weeks, "so you have to be careful not to make the training sessions completely shit."

When Velimir Zajec emerges from the narrow corridor of dressing rooms at Portsmouth's training ground it is as if he should be dressed all in black, rather than a rather dapper brown, such is his shadowy image. The warmest of smiles is also disarming from the man blamed in some quarters for wrecking the Harry 'n' Jim project at Fratton Park. As is the instant, self-deprecating humour. "Their minds are out," he says of trying to motivate players during international weeks, "so you have to be careful not to make the training sessions completely shit."

Zajec could be forgiven for believing he has been cast up to his neck in the ordure ever since he was appointed as executive director at Portsmouth last autumn. Not that he has been allowed to do his job - "I'm trying to do two jobs and that is impossible, completely impossible," he shrugs. In truth, he is consumed by his duties as the club's reluctant manager following what he refers to as "the commotion".

That started before the 49-year-old arrived in England, and it is with a sense of shocked bemusement that, as he stirs his coffee, he talks about it now. "We didn't even start," he says of his relationship with the then manager, Harry Redknapp, now plotting a Premiership survival - possibly at Portsmouth's expense - down the road at Southampton. There was, he contends, no "misunderstanding" over each other's roles because it did not even get that far. "I think that Harry was ready to leave and needed to find some excuse to go," Zajec explains. "Maybe he found that in me." The Croat finds the fractious nature of Redknapp's departure hard to accept. "It's not nice what he said because I can't speak of anyone in that way. But everyone is different."

And Zajec and Redknapp are chalk and cheese. If ever anyone summed up the archetypal, hands-on, larger-than-life, charismatic English manager then it is Harry. If ever anyone summed up the cooller, courteous, analytical European director of football then it is Velimir. No one can blame the Portsmouth chairman, Milan Mandaric, for trying to bring the two cultures together. But quite how he expected it to work - and to work partway through a season - is another matter. Little wonder Portsmouth's next manager will almost certainly come from the Continent. "It's easier for people from Europe," Zajec says. There are, however, a couple of English coaches on the short list.

Zajec has a clear idea of how the system can work, and is unequivocal in what he believes is better. "The normal situation is that you build the house from the foundations up," he says. "But I think that a lot of teams in England started with the roof. This is the thing that has to change."

What he means is that Portsmouth need a director of football who establishes and runs the academy, nurtures players, builds a training ground and uses what Zajec calls his "network" to bring in talent. He provides the continuity, lays those foundations and, crucially, holds the chequebook. The coach-manager looks after the first team.

Zajec, who discovered Davor Suker and Mark Viduka, is "surprised" such a system does not already exist, with the Premiership out of kilter with Europe. "OK, I know English clubs are richer and they can take players who are known," Zajec says. "That's much easier. But the money you spend could go to a better purpose. England is a traditional country and it's difficult to change things. But I think it needs to. In the future, clubs will be pushed into adopting this system."

Zajec, who signed a three-year deal, admits he was shocked by the lack of infrastructure he found, even if he agrees that Portsmouth have come a long way quickly. But he also adds, in a pointed reference to the Redknapp regime: "It's very easy to spend money. It's very difficult to make money and bring in players who are not very expensive. That is not easy, but it's the part of the job that I need to do."

Not for now. Even though he watched three internationals in the last week, scouting for players, his task is the present, which includes today's vital League meeting with the equally perilously perched Fulham. "For now I go home and look out of the window and I'm thinking of today," Zajec says. "So I don't have the chance."

When Redknapp walked out last November, Zajec was called in by Mandaric to take over. "It was very hard and is still very hard," he admits. "I came to do one job and suddenly the manager left at the worst moment. Because of the interests of the club I've tried to help. I don't care about me. I try to work and do good things. You know every situation in your life is different. Suddenly you come into a situation and you need to decide. You can't run away and say you were told something different. You are in. That's it."

It's compelling stuff. But there is also a curiosity. When Zajec was appointed he decided not to speak to the media, not to attend press conferences, not to raise his profile and to send out the coach Joe Jordan instead. Why? "I'm that kind of person," he says. "When I was a player I had all the shine on me so I don't need that any more. I don't like it. I think that in football the players are the most important and they need to be the stars. So I want to keep my face out of the lights. I see here that managers like to be, every day, on the TV. I'm not that kind of person. Maybe I'm not so beautiful. I'm old and bald. But I think the players are stars and need to be exposed. They are on the pitch, in that arena, and they need to respond. We are all there to service that." His mantra is clear: "Individually you cannot make anything," he says. Apart from the aversion to publicity, it could be Jose Mourinho talking.

It's also a comment that dispels any myth of Zajec as some kind of agent provocateur. Instead, he is the ultimate team player. And a loyal one at that, having, it should be recalled, spent a remarkable 30 years shuttling between two clubs - Dynamo Zagreb, his hometown team, and Panathinaikos in Greece - first as player then as either director of football or general manager. Zajec, an elegant, cool sweeper- cum-midfielder, also led Yugoslavia to the 1982 World Cup and the European Championship two years later.

It was then that Brian Clough tried to take him to Nottingham Forest. Zajec believes he would have done well - "they were a European team" - but had already pledged his services to Panathinaikos. It's another sign of that loyalty, and although Zajec has no regrets he does admit to a pang at the thought of having missed out on playing on "English grounds", where he praises the "unbelievable atmosphere. The culture. The people. English fans are the best in Europe. They understand football, they like it, and here it is a competition. They give you that push."

It doesn't stop him being critical. "It's much faster. Just a few teams - Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United - try to play short passes. All the rest play with fight, spirit, faster, long balls," Zajec says. "My philosophy is that it's better that you have the ball than your opponents. But there are no rules. You play with the players you have."

And they are undoubtedly changing at Portsmouth. The revolution will accelerate this summer. Out with the old, in with the new. Players such as Gary O'Neil, Matthew Taylor and Richard Hughes will be given their head. One of Mandaric's complaints about Redknapp was his perceived mistrust of youth. Rebuilding could be funded by the sale of Aiyegbini Yakubu.

Zajec, who rejects suggestions that he has marginalised Redknapp's players ("The players belong to Portsmouth Football Club. They're paid by the club," he says), expects offers. "Yakubu is one who has a big name," he says. But, ultimately, the squad size will increase. "If someone is not happy and pushes us, like [Nigel] Quashie and [Amdy] Faye, you can't keep them," Zajec says. "You will lose them from your team anyway. For players, atmosphere is very important. Spirit is the most important thing."

His spirits are bearing up - even if he admits it is hard living in a club flat while his young family, his Greek-American wife Angela and three children aged seven, four and two, are back in Athens. "It's hard but OK," Zajec shrugs. "For now I'm on my own. I work a lot. I travel a lot. Our target is very high, and right now I don't have time for family."

A decision will be made in the summer by Zajec, who also has two daughters aged 26 and 22 in Croatia (his first wife died), whether to bring his family over. "The summer is very important!" he laughs. Then he hopes he can slip back into the shadows and get on with the job he wants to do. "My philosophy is to work behind the scenes," he says. "And to work in peace." After Portsmouth's travails, he will have earned it.

Biography

Velimir Zajec

Born: 12 February 1956 in Zagreb.

Family: married to Angela, three children; plus two from previous marriage.

Managerial career: Portsmouth (20 matches, won five, lost 11, drawn four).

Other administration: director of football and general manager at both Panathinaikos and Dynamo Zagreb.

As a player: Dynamo Zagreb, 1974-84. Won Yugoslav First Division title (1982) and two national cups (1980 and 1983). Joined Panathinaikos in 1984, winning Greek Cup in 1986 and 1988. Yugoslav player of the year in 1979. Captained Yugoslavia at the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain and at Euro 84 in France. Totalled 36 caps for Yugoslavia, scoring one goal.

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