Judging by Slavisa Jokanovic’s words and body language at Monday night’s postmatch press conference at Bloomfield Stadium, he would have rather been anywhere else.
Anywhere but at Maccabi Tel Aviv that is.
Maccabi had just lost 2-1 to Hapoel Beersheba in a significant showdown in the Premier League title race, meaning the latter leapfrogged the yellow-and-blue into first place in the standings, opening a threepoint gap.
However, the majority of the questions leveled at Jokanovic weren’t even about the match. With mounting speculation in England connecting the Serbian with an imminent move to London club Fulham of the English Championship, what most of the journalists, and awaiting fans, wanted to know was whether Jokanovic is about to leave Maccabi.
He didn’t provide an unequivocal answer, but it was very clear from everything he said, and especially from what he didn’t say, that his mind is set on a move back to England.
“I prefer not to make a comment about the speculation,” said Jokanovic, who joined Maccabi after guiding Watford to Premier League promotion last season.
“I’m here right now in Maccabi under contract and that is it. I understand your interest but I want to respect myself, yourself and the club and the supporters. You need to speak to different people for more information about this.”
Jokanovic was asked flat-out if he can declare he will remain at Maccabi until the end of the season. He refused to answer. He was asked if he can at least say he will still be at the club for Sunday’s league match against Ironi Kiryat Shmona. Again, he wouldn’t comment on the matter.
Jokanovic kept his cool as always, but he left little doubt regarding his intentions. If it were up to him, he would already be boarding a flight to London on Tuesday morning.
Despite only joining the club this past summer, he has clearly had enough of Maccabi.
The yellow-and-blue has always insisted that it will never stand in the way of a coach that wants to leave, but since Mitch Goldhar purchased the club in the summer of 2009, never has it been guided by a man so desperate to move on with the season still in full swing.
It has been a decade since a Maccabi coach has lasted at the club more than one full season, with Nir Klinger guiding the team from 2002 to 2005.
Virtually everything has changed at Maccabi since Goldhar’s takeover, everything but stability at the head coaching position.
Avi Nimni, Yossi Mizrahi, Moti Ivanir and Nir Levine all came and went before Jordi Cruyff was brought in as sports director in 2012 and began exclusively hiring foreign coaches.
His approach has more than proved itself, with Maccabi becoming the dominant force in Israeli soccer. Tel Aviv went 10 years without a championship until Spanish coach Oscar Garcia ended the drought in the 2012/13 campaign before Paulo Sousa of Portugal came in to guide the team to a second straight league title.
Oscar returned for a short stint in the summer of 2013, but left before the league campaign even began due to the security situation at the time.
Pako Ayestaran, also of Spain, was hired in his place and led the team to an unprecedented domestic treble last season, winning the Premier League championship, State Cup and Toto Cup.
Cruyff was full of praise for Pako, but didn’t explain why his contract wasn’t extended.
“I think he left the bar very high and put a lot of pressure as we move on. Pako has absolutely fulfilled all the targets and objectives,” said Cruyff at the time.
Nevertheless, he decided to let him leave, with professional differences believed to be at the core of what both sides described as a mutual decision.
Unlike Oscar and Sousa, Pako actually wanted to remain at the club and Cruyff’s failure to overcome their differences may well go down as one of his worst decisions at Maccabi.
Maccabi was eyeing greater success in Europe ahead of this season and Jokanovic achieved it, guiding the team to the Champions League group stage for the first time in 11 years.
The yellow-and-blue became the first Israeli team to reach the group stage in five years, but the side’s remarkable run in the qualifiers, inspired by an unstoppable Eran Zahavi, has long been forgotten following Maccabi’s dejecting group campaign.
Maccabi became only the third team ever to finish a Champions League group stage campaign without a point and with just a single goal to its name, losing all six of its Group G games by a miserable combined goal difference of 1-16.
It didn’t join the 2009/10 Maccabi Haifa as the only sides to end the group stage without picking up a point or scoring a goal, but that was of little consolation considering the way it was outplayed in its matches against Chelsea, Dynamo Kiev and Porto, not even managing to enter halftime in any of the games without trailing by at least one goal.
Maccabi has also been far from impressive in league play so far this season, but it sits only three points back of Beersheba and is more than capable of going on to win a fourth consecutive title.
However, Jokanovic didn’t look on Monday like a man who was interested in the job, with the lure of a return to the English second division apparently irresistible now that Maccabi’s Champions League campaign is over.
Jokanovic could of course just quit and leave for England, but he has no plan on doing so and will only sign with Fulham should the clubs come to an agreement.
Whatever happens over the coming days, the damage has already been done. If Jokanovic leaves, Maccabi will have to bring in someone new, likely another foreigner, at a crucial stage of the season. He will have little time to learn the ropes, and Tel Aviv can’t afford to fall too far back behind Beersheba.
Should Jokanovic ultimately stay, he will have to somehow mend his relationship with the players, who spent much of the build up to Monday’s match discussing between themselves their coach’s eagerness to leave them.
One way or another, Maccabi faces one of its most testing crossroads under Goldhar’s stewardship. One which could have been avoided had it only stuck with a coach who actually wanted to merge his long-term aspirations with those of the club.