When it comes to being able to call in a favour, Leonid Slutsky pretty much owns the bat phone. But there is far more preparation going into his bid to become the first Russian football manager in England than dialling A for Abramovich.
Former Russia and CSKA Moscow manager Slutsky has been in England since January, during which time he has learned the language and found his way around the London Underground system to get to games and make frequent trips to the theatre.
The 45-year-old has been close friends with Roman Abramovich for more than a decade and Chelsea’s billionaire owner has provided Slutsky with a bed, access to his club’s Cobham training ground and tickets for matches.
But, otherwise, Slutsky, who won three Russian titles with CSKA and managed to guide the national team to four straight victories to qualify for Euro 2016, is starting from scratch on his own.
“I have known Mr Abramovich for 12 years because he had many football projects in Russia – a special academy, he funded the national team, he built many artificial pitches, about 300, and we spoke with him about football and development,” said Slutsky.
“Mr Abramovich has helped me. I live in the Chelsea hotel, they help me with tickets for games, I watched the Chelsea academy, first-team, under-23s and under-18s.
“After matches I talk to Mr Abramovich and sometimes he asks my opinion on teams or players. We talk as friends, he believes in me and is like my supporter and coach. He’s a good supporter to have, I think the best in the world!”
As with all of Abramovich’s close allies, Slutsky is careful not to give too much away about the famously private 50-year-old, but does offer an insight into how his approach has changed over the past decade.
“Maybe 10 years ago he changed the system in England, it was like ‘boom’,” said Slutsky. “But now he has another way, it’s a very successful way and it’s possible only for people who are very intelligent.
“The first way, for me, is easier with the money and buy, buy, buy. Now it’s more difficult, but he is being successful in another way. He’s not any more the richest guy, number one, like Man City or Man United, but he continues to be the number one owner and Chelsea are the number one. It’s excellent.”
Abramovich learned the hard way how difficult life can become for a manager in England if they do not speak the language, when Luiz Felipe Scolari failed to master the language or the English game.
Slutsky is determined that he will not fail for a lack of preparation and has been taking intensive English lessons for the past three months.
“Coming to England, I have two big questions,” he said. “First about my English. Possible or not possible? I am 45 years old and it’s not easy to start an education. I think everything is ok with this question. Sometimes I think I am reaching the finish line and then my teacher says ‘ok, today about passive form grammar’. It’s impossible! Now I try to use different tenses like present perfect, future perfect, it’s a big challenge.
“Another question is can I become the first Russian coach in history to work in England? There hasn’t been one before. Not only in England either, Russian coaches don’t work in another country in Europe. Spain, Italy. I don’t know if I can be the first or not. Is it interesting for English clubs or not? This is a more difficult question.”
Slutsky guided CSKA to the knockout stage of the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history in 2009, before being eliminated by Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the quarter-finals.
But, despite his top-level pedigree in his home country, Slutsky is realistic about where he might have to start his managerial career in England and has travelled to Huddersfield, Brighton and Ipswich to make sure he is ready.
“I am ready to start in the Premier League or the Championship,” said Slutsky. “This is a long-term project for me. I want to work for a long time here – the same as in the Russian Premier League. I understand for English people and English football, it’s more important to have inside experience than outside.
“For example, maybe one successful season in the Championship is more important than my old titles in Russia and 50 matches in the Champions League because inside experience is vital. I understand and I’m ready to play by the English rules.”
A convivial character who has danced on Russian television and took the Russia squad on to a popular game show, Slutsky is enthusiastic when he talks about his life in England so far.
“I am like an Englishman now, I travel on the Underground every day and to games,” said Slutsky. “I don’t have an Oyster card, I use contactless ‘beep’ in ‘beep’ out. It’s very comfortable, very easy. It’s a good system. The train is good too. Manchester two hours, Liverpool one hour, 40 minutes, it’s very quick. I have got lost on the Underground, yes.
“I have been to five or six musicals since I have been here. Thriller was easier for me to understand, but Book of Mormon is the top level. I probably understood 60 per cent of it – a lot of swearing! You can laugh at religion, which is a big surprise for me. In Russia, we have the famous musicals like Mamma Mia, but it would be impossible to have the Book of Mormon. It’s a good choice.”
One musical you would not find Slutsky at is Cats, given how his playing career was cut short as a teenager.
“I played in the second division league in the Soviet Union,” said Slutsky. “It’s a good level. I was a goalkeeper. My neighbour one day came to me and said ‘please my cat is stuck’. I was 18. I climbed the tree, but fell maybe six metres and my left knee exploded.
“I stayed in hospital one year. I finished my career, but maybe it was good. I finish my career as a nothing special player and maybe the start of a career as a good coach. I’ve never had a pet cat since. I don’t like cats, only dogs – you can see why.”
Slutsky realises that his surname could become a headline writer’s dream if he does achieve his aim of landing a job in England.
“I know why my family name could be funny,” he said, laughing. “But there have been worse. Yuri Zhirkov was one.”