Radomir Antic made a lot of people very happy, and David Pleat was just one of them. The son of Bosnian partisans who was born in 1948 and died on Monday aged 71, he scored the late goal that rescued Luton from relegation in May 1983, just as he had taken them up the summer before. “An amazing act of escapology,” the commentator called it and that shot from the edge of the area by a substitute who had been on for 10 minutes sent his manager skipping and leaping and bounding across the pitch like a kangaroo in a beige suit.
That image stayed with them; it stayed with him, too. Antic enjoyed replaying it, for those who hadn’t seen it – and in Spain, where he managed for 16 years, the place he made his home, mostly they hadn’t. As a player, he had won the league in Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, and played at Zaragoza, but he kept returning to Maine Road. When Javier Cáceres, from Süddeutsche Zeitung, asked him for his most important, most fondly remembered goal, Antic recalled a header for Fenerbahce scored with a fractured skull but took the pen and started sketching Brian Stein instead.
Antic learned a lot at Luton, he liked to say. A lot from Pleat too, the “discoverer” he recalled saying never to ignore the crowd, the culture: it was the people who mattered. While he didn’t follow at first, not least because it deprived him of the chance to play as a libero, Antic came to agree. A born talker, conversation usually took him to England fast and to football even faster. There was nothing he liked more, he said, and it showed. A weekend where he didn’t watch 20 games was a weekend wasted, he reckoned. He died when there was none.
When he became a coach at Zaragoza four years after leaving Luton, there was much that Antic brought from England, but it went back further. “In Yugoslavia, sport was always a symbol of personality, identity,” he said, opening one of those long discussions in his Aravaca home with that Balkan accent so recognisably his, the article absent from every sentence. Soon he was saying: “The way you play has to fit the culture of the people you represent; you have to get into the heart of them.”
Storytelling inevitably took him downstairs, where you couldn’t see the wall for photographs, cuttings and memorabilia and couldn’t leave without a bottle of wine. The way he told it, the day Real Madrid approached him, at a restaurant called Jockey where the president Ramón Mendoza liked to hold court, he was warned: “At this table, no one rejects my offers.” To which Antic replied: “You’ve never had a Serbian sitting in front of you.” In truth, they had wanted him to be sporting director, but he was determined to coach instead and he did, still only 43.
His upbringing had been austere but proud and he identified as a socialist. He played chess, basketball and table tennis and boxed, but it was football he did best. The first time he appeared in the paper, he brought it home. “You’ve come a long way: now everyone can wipe their arse with you,” his mother said, or so the story goes. He would be in other reports, many of which he kept. A lifetime in football eventually led him to manage Serbia, a photo of his grandchildren in their kit carried with him, and work at eight clubs in five countries.
It wasn’t all good. As a manager he won only two trophies, although they arrived in one unforgettable year, and he was relegated twice in a row. Famously, he was sacked 19 games into the season with Madrid seven points clear at the top. Mendoza claimed they weren’t exciting enough, but Antic saw politics at play. “I was young, I thought people were more honourable,” he said. Without him, Madrid blew the league. At Barcelona, he arrived to steady a club in crisis in 2003 but elections followed and he was soon gone. “I was there for six months; it was like six years,” he said.
And between them was Atlético Madrid – he is the only manager ever to have coached all three of La Liga’s biggest clubs.
“I chose Atlético because it was the hardest club in the world and I wanted to prove myself,” he claimed. “My success there was precisely that they were arrogant,” he said; it was a quality he saw as his and theirs. “Atlético represents people who struggle to get to the end of the month but who won’t admit they’re inferior to anyone. So that’s what we did: we went out for more and more, we were the rebellion of the humble.”
Antic had wanted to take Michael Robinson as his assistant. He didn’t get that wish; he did get his wish to sign Milinko Pantic, but only after he promised president Jesús Gil he would pay half himself if it failed, which it didn’t: even now flowers are laid by the corner before every game in honour of the deliveries that did so much to take them to the title. Atlético had gone 19 years without winning the league; in 1996, under him, they claimed their only double.
Pantic called Antic a father on Monday and many felt the same way, especially at Atlético. It is impossible to do justice to how big that season was or how unexpected. In the eight years before Antic arrived, Atlético had changed coach 30 times. He alone lasted three years, a desperately unlucky Champions League exit in 1997 hard to take before eventually departing in 1998. He would be back for two more brief spells, in 1999 and 2000, his CV reading Atlético, Atlético, Atlético, but those failures were forgotten fast beneath the joy of 96. Nothing was ever the same and would ever compare to that. Luton apart, how could it?
“I’m crying on the inside,” Antic said when he departed for the first time. On Monday he departed for the last time. Atlético’s old home – his home – stands in ruins, its demolition almost complete, while football stadiums everywhere stand silent, but that day in May 1998 the Calderón was noisy and packed, ready to say goodbye. “I fought to make these people happy and seeing them like this makes it all worthwhile,” he said. As he walked away, they sang: “Radomir, I love you.”