Back in February Arsenal supporters were somewhat taken aback when Serbian newspaper Vecernje Novosti reported quotes from Arsene Wenger in which the Frenchman spoke openly about his preferred successor as manager at the Emirates.
It was a topic that the Alsatian had not touched upon with the media in his homeland, let alone England, and yet in lucid black and white terms he laid out his support for one of his former players… just not one who’d ever worn the red and white in N5.
Sidestepping the likes of Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, Wenger unambiguously outlined the reasons why Dragan Stojkovic would be a suitable heir. Unsurprisingly, “Dragan who?” was the common reaction from most Gooners.
Regarded as one of Europe’s greatest attacking midfielders in the late eighties and early nineties, the Serb’s stellar reputation, which still garners interest on the continent, appears not to have penetrated these shores in the same manner, peaking as it did during UEFA’s ban on English clubs during the period. A legend at Red Star Belgrade and with the Yugoslavian national team, ‘Piksi’ made a high-profile move to Marseille in 1990, before eventually joining forces in Japan with Wenger at Nagoya Grampus Eight.
While his confidante moved to Arsenal in 1996, Stojkovic spent seven seasons in the J-League before returning as a coach, via spells as president of the Yugoslav FA and Red Star Belgrade, in 2008. He has since led Nagoya to the J-League title, a feat which Arsene Wenger admitted not even he had achieved.
Speaking warmly about his close friend earlier this year, Wenger said: “I would love Stojkovic to be my successor, there are a hundred reasons for that.
“Our ideas are the same and we both strive for perfect football. I knew he was going to have teams playing attacking football with many passes.
”He has done that, showing he will be a great coach. I told him that if he could transmit his football imagination to his players he would fly high. It’s a great achievement for him to have won a championship.”
Success appears to be very much on Stojkovic’s agenda, although like his mentor, it is success achieved playing beautiful football that concerns the Serb.
Speaking to journalist Andrew McKirdy, in a fascinating interview for football journal The Blizzard (also available via In Bed with Maradona), the 46-year-old spoke candidly about his long-standing relationship with the Gunners manager.
“It’s perfect. I was very lucky to be under his control in 1995-96 when he was manager of Nagoya, and this experience for me was really good because for the first time I started to work with great pleasure and confidence.
“I started to understand tactical behaviour. I started to understand modern football. As a result of that, in 1995 he became J. League manager of the year even though we were only second, and I was player of the year.
“We stay in contact and even today our relationship is really great. I go to London to see games and meet him and talk.”
Arsenal fans are akin to hearing new recruits at London Colney speaking fondly of the technical nature of training sessions, with players lauding the amount of time spent practicing with a ball at their feet. It is a state of affairs which Le Professeur has been honing for nearly three decades and one which has obviously heavily influenced Stojkovic during his own managerial career.
“You can find many coaches who work without the ball and this is absolutely unacceptable to me. The ball is the main thing for the players.
“From the physical point of view, you can also do it with the ball. It’s not all about running and trying to kill the players. I don’t like that. I don’t like to see my player after training saying that he is dead tired. This is not my target.”
So struck by one particularly impressive training camp under Wenger, Stojkovic recalled the beauty of achieving high levels of conditioning without resorting to exhaustive fitness work.
“I remember we had a training camp, and on the last day I asked him, “When do we start the camp?” Of course I was joking, but that camp from the physical point of view was very good for me.
“I worked hard, but at the same time I was very light. I was not tired. I was really ready to play, and that 1995 season was amazing. I liked his philosophy of football, I liked the exercises. All training was with the ball. I never had any training without the ball.”
While the similarity in philosophy between Wenger and Stojkovic has been played up by both parties in recent interviews, the latter appears not to have been blinkered by the rapport.
Having been a close observer of the current malaise at the Emirates, the Serb also admitted that at times he would have operated differently to the Frenchman, particularly regarding personnel both in goal and up front.
“I don’t know his situation with goalkeepers. But he continues to believe. I told him last time [presumably before Szczesny’s rise to prominence] that the problem for Arsenal was goalkeepers. He could find a good goalkeeper. It’s a big problem for Arsenal, but he still believes that he is right.
“He also needs a real striker, who is expensive of course. Van Persie is not a real striker, Arshavin is not a real striker. Adebayor was a real striker but they decided to sell him for a lot of money. Arsenal get a lot of benefits from his coaching from a financial point of view.”
It remains to be seen whether Dragan Stojkovic does ever succeed Wenger in the managerial hot seat at Arsenal or indeed if another club snaps up a coach on an upwards trajectory. One thing, however, appears clear; if he were ever to take over it appears the free-flowing football which a generation of Gooners have come to accept as the norm would remain a steadfastly protected feature of life in North London. That can only be a good thing.
Andrew McKirdy’s full (and really quite brilliant) interview with Stojkovic appears in Issue Two of The Blizzard, which is out now. All issues of The Blizzard are available to download for PC/Mac, Kindle and iPad on a pay-what-you-like basis from as little as 1p per issue, and are also available in hard-copy. The Blizzard is a 190-page quarterly publication that allows writers the opportunity to write about the football stories that matter to them, with no limits and no editorial bias. Find out more at www.theblizzard.co.uk, or follow on Twitter @blzzrd.