About this time last week, Slaven Bilic was back home in Croatia mulling over his next career move when the phone rang. Now installed as Watford’s 10th permanent manager in the past five years after Rob Edwards was relieved of his duties after 11 matches in charge, the former defender who was part of the historic side that reached the 1998 World Cup semi-finals is certainly not one to shirk a challenge.
“If I wasn’t confident then I wouldn’t be here,” Bilic responded when asked whether he expected to last longer at Vicarage Road than predecessors such as Roy Hodgson, Claudio Ranieri, Xisco Muñoz or Vladimir Ivic. “This job is not about securing a pension or a good payout or whatever. This job is about the opportunity to do something good for me and for the club. That is the only reason I’m here. The pitch is my opportunity now.”
This is Bilic’s third management spell in England after stints at West Ham and West Brom, where he was sacked the day after a 1-1 draw at Manchester City in December 2020 having led them to promotion months earlier. Rather than approaching his task of steering Watford back to the top flight with fear, the 54-year-old – who has not worked since leaving the Chinese Super League club Beijing Guoan in January – insisted that he could thrive under the pressure of working for the trigger-happy owner Gino Pozzo.
“You should be on your toes,” Bilic said. “There’s nothing wrong – on the contrary it’s ideal; what I want from my players is to keep them on their toes. It’s a good way. That’s a good thing about Watford. This club is very well-run. I’ve been around here and around Europe and around the world and this club is a very good club.”
He added: “Every owner and board care about their club but they are here, they are present. If you are weak it can get on your nerves but if you are strong then it is an advantage. Sometimes it is down to the manager and his staff to control everything. But here, they are there. If you are a strong character that can only help you and that’s how I see it. It’s something that can help me and I can count on, not something that is a threat to me. They don’t want to sack me, they want me to do good.”
It is understood that Pozzo and his father, Giampaolo, who owns Udinese in Italy, are looking for investors and could be willing to sell minority stakes in either club. Bilic denied that they had been in touch with him before appointing Edwards in May, although he did hint that there had been some interest from Watford earlier in his career.
Looking refreshed after nearly nine months during which he travelled before spending the majority of his time in Croatia, Bilic faces a test of his ability to win promotion with a squad shorn of confidence after their disastrous Premier League campaign. With Watford only a point off the playoffs and so much of the season to play, Bilic – who acknowledged he has had only a “few days” to prepare for his return – feels ready to hit the ground running at Stoke on Sunday after his break.
“That helped me a lot because I was at home and those clubs that are on your list you are following them,” he added. “So when they called me I didn’t have to go to Transfermarkt to see who is playing for Watford or how many points they have. I already knew that, so I didn’t start from zero. Look, I wasn’t desperate to come to Watford or to go back to England or to start working straight away but I wanted to come here.”