Raddy Antic: From Pleat's memorable jig to showdown with Capello

One of only two men to have managed Real Madrid and Barcelona, Raddy Antic hopes to guide Serbia to a second-round meeting with his old adversary
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The Independent Football

The blue half of Manchester may remember him well, if not fondly, and on the evening of Saturday 26 June, here in Rustenburg, Radomir Antic may have another opportunity to burn his name into the annals of our football history if Serbia can defeat England to claim a place in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

First, however, he and his old adversary from club management in Spain, Fabio Capello, need results to conspire in their favour in their opening group games, which began last night when England met the United States and continue this afternoon with Serbia meeting Ghana in their opening game in Group D.

Antic, who arrived in Johannesburg on Tuesday to lead Serbia into their first World Cup as an independent nation, is already looking forward with a smile. He has great memories of his time in England as a midfielder with Luton Town and still enjoys a look, thanks to YouTube, at his former Hatters manager David Pleat's dancing rush on to the pitch at Maine Road after Antic had scored a famous 86th-minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw that sent City down from the First Division instead of the visitors.

He had come on as a 34-year-old substitute in that fixture in May 1983, but said here in South Africa on Friday that he remembers the goal, the game and his four-year spell at Kenilworth Road as vividly as if it happened yesterday. "I never forget those days and I think back often, very fondly, of my time there," he said. "They were my special times in England.

"Sometimes I look on YouTube just to see that goal and to see David Pleat running on the pitch. It was a fantastic day for us and Luton. They don't forget me. I have had nice messages and calls from a lot of my friends from that time, wishing me luck for the World Cup. I have had calls from David Pleat, from Brian Horton."

Those who remember Pleat's jig may also recall the stylish passing game his Luton team practised in those seasons after gaining promotion from the old Second Division with players such as Antic, Horton, Mal Donaghy, Ricky Hill, Paul Walsh and Brian Stein. Antic does. "A lot of very good players," he said. "We played a good style of passing football and when I became a coach it was Pleat's methods that were important for me."

Now 61, he is widely respected as one of the top European coaches after a club management career that saw him take charge of Real Zaragoza, Real Madrid, Real Oviedo (twice), Atletico Madrid (three times in all), Barcelona and Celta Vigo. He is one of only two men to have coached both of Spain's greatest clubs, and bitter rivals, Real Madrid and Barcelona (the other is Enrique Fernandez Viola). He guided Atletico Madrid to the Spanish Double in 1986, beating Johan Cruyff's Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey.

His name is revered at the Vicente Calderon, and with similar affection across the city after his spell at the Bernabeu where he succeeded the legendary Alfredo di Stefano in March 1991. He lifted Madrid, including Gheorghe Hagi, Emilio Butragueno and Fernando Hierro, from seventh to first, eight points clear, before being sacked in January 1992. (Leo Beenhakker took over and squandered the lead, losing the title to Barcelona on the last day of the season.)

"I loved those days," he said. "But it is hard to manage those big clubs. Now I enjoy this job. It gives me great pleasure and it is a chance to do something very special for my country and for the image Serbia has." In his career, he has worked with a variety of names including Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Stan Collymore, whom he mistakenly recruited for Oviedo in 2001 on a free transfer. The former England striker lasted barely a month, left in silence and then retired.

"I have a lot of experience, so I know and understand players, teams and tactics. I feel well-prepared for this World Cup. My squad is in good condition, we are a big family. That is very important for this kind of tournament and especially for us because in the past there have been difficulties in keeping everyone together. This time, I have made sure all the details are sorted out and that includes the problems with bonuses. It is all done now."

Antic, who has faced Capello many times, including Madrid derbies when Capello was at Real and European games when the England coach was back in Italy with Roma and Milan, holds the English game in high regard. "England always has great pride, a lot of traditions and strengths," he said. "And this time they will be very well prepared. They are always strong for the World Cup, but it is a setback to lose Ferdinand. I have a great respect for Capello. He is a great coach."

Like Luton Town, Antic has Serbia playing attacking football built on a passing game, but with a solid defence that includes not only Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic and Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic, but also the fiery hard-shooting left-back Aleksander Kolarov, of Lazio, and Aleksander Lukovic of Udinese, a silky partner for Vidic. He has a fine captain in midfield in European Cup-winning Internazionale man Dejan Stankovic, a good right-winger in Milos Krasic of CSKA Moscow and, like England, a lanky, awkward front man in Nikola Zigic of Valencia who, at 6ft 8in, makes Peter Crouch look normal. Alongside him is the technically superb Marko Pantelic of Ajax.

"We are a team and we are here to do our best. We have a difficult group, but not an impossible one," he said. "I never start a game in any negative way, we always play to defeat our rivals, but with respect. We only want to do our best as a group, to help as sportsmen to change the perceptions of our country. That, for Serbia, is what is important." And, whatever happens for Antic, it is a long way from that emotional day in Manchester.