Slaven Bilic is rowing back to the early days of his West Ham United reign and the time he felt compelled to alter the pre-match playlist in his fourth league game in charge, a fruitful trip to Liverpool – their first win at Anfield for 52 years – following successive defeats. “Roy Keane said it can’t be Abba [playing] before a game and I agree with that. Before the game, we are all in the dressing room and before they go out Red Red Wine [is playing] from UB40,” Bilic says, placing his hands on his temples in exasperation. “And I’m like, Red Red Wine? That’s for a romantic dinner – not for Anfield. It is not like a war song. I said ‘sorry lads’ and put on something ‘medium’, like Whiskey in the Jar, the Metallica version. Three-nil. After that I didn’t interrupt.”
Bilic’s final game in charge of West Ham was against Liverpool more than two years later but in June he returned to England after being appointed West Bromwich Albion’s head coach following a short spell in Saudi Arabia. A charismatic character with a bushy beard and an infectious smile, Bilic makes captivating company over more than an hour at the club’s training ground, a base he says “smells of football”.
He touches on everything from life as a pundit and the lure of the Championship – “46 games minimum, unbelievable” – to Beethoven and how Croatia, a country of four million people and World Cup finalists last year, continue to make waves, 12 years on from Bilic’s side humbling Steve McClaren’s England at Wembley.
“We are good at collective sports,” Bilic says, fresh from reeling off a list of former NBA stars, including Toni Kukoc and Zan Tabak. “When you are a kid you have to find your way, you have to think more than you have to think as a kid here. It is not everything on a plate here – it’s not – but in Croatia still when you want to cross the road, you still have to watch out [for] the cars coming no matter that you have a pedestrian crossing,” he says, animatedly throwing his head towards either side of the room. “In western Europe, you don’t care, you walk! All of those little situations, you have to think.
“In school, if you are a good student, they were trying to make you more empathetic. I was good in school, but I had to help somebody who wasn’t good in my class. I had to spend time with her; I had to teach her how to write if she was struggling. Here in western philosophy, which is also good and competing with the best, they isolate the best ones to be together. That is making you more individual. In these kinds of sport, 11 against 11, everything is about clicking together and feeling for each other.”
Everything seems to be clicking for West Brom, too. With a third of the season gone, Bilic’s side sit top of the Championship before welcoming Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday. “When I came here, I didn’t need to wake them up. They are motivated. They are good sportsmen. The guys who were here were not big-time Charlies. We started well, and when you bring your new ideas of course the first week, pre-season, they all believe you but deep in their minds they need the proof, and there is no better proof than in results.”
Bilic tells a story of how in April, while kicking his heels on a flight to Manchester to do some television work, he scribbled down eight clubs who he would – in an ideal world – like to manage. “Of course I didn’t put Man City! And I didn’t put West Ham. It was maybe three teams from England and definitely the first one was West Brom. And then Turkey, Germany, China, Spain, whatever, bla bla bla and then I came home and when I signed for West Brom I was cleaning my backpack and I found that [piece of] paper.”
Being back in work and starting a new chapter after managing in Moscow, Istanbul and, more recently, Jeddah, suits Bilic – and his wife, Ivana. “First of all you say I’m going to enjoy it and take a break. But then your brain, your body, you are like a junkie. Your body needs it, and you are bored. I asked my wife a few weeks ago: ‘Where do you think is the best place we have lived?’ We have had the privilege to be in some great places. But she said: ‘With you the place is not important.’ I said: ‘What do you mean?’ She said: ‘London was no good for you when you were free [in the city for five months] without a job, with so much time. So the thing is you need a job to enjoy your life.’ She was basically saying: ‘When you don’t have a job, you’re a pain in the arse.’”
The intonation in Bilic’s voice drifts from one end of the spectrum to the other, sometimes when you least expect it. West Ham, Bilic says, is “a very difficult club to manage” because of the volume of distractions in London. “Unless you are a massive club and you have that pressure from within – I’m talking Arsenal, Chelsea – for [the] younger generation of players it is much easier to stay focused if they play in, let’s say Burnley, or here.”
Last week Bilic spent three days in Split, his hometown on the Dalmatian coast, visiting his 78-year-old mother, who has dementia – “she sometimes forgets my brother’s name or my name and she goes to me: ‘He called me’ but it’s OK. My brother is there, it’s OK” – but is enjoying life in Birmingham. His family is settled in Sutton Coldfield and he has made light work of understanding the Black Country accent. “I lived in Liverpool and played for Everton,” Bilic says. “This is easier. In our dressing room when Walter Smith was manager, there were eight to 10 Scots, so this is a piece of cake.”
The Guardian Sport