Slavisa Jokanovic has won promotion from the Championship with Watford and Fulham, with whom he went up via the play-offs in 2018.
After starting the season as manager of Sheffield United, he watched on from afar as his former side fell agonisingly at the last hurdle against Sunday’s finalists Nottingham Forest.
Here, Jokanovic tells Sportsmail what Forest and opponents Huddersfield Town can expect in the build-up to the biggest game of their season and the richest game in football.
Jokanovic tells Sportsmail what Forest and opponents Huddersfield Town can expect
Can you describe how tough the Championship is and how difficult it is to make the final?
It’s the 49th game of the season for both teams and it is never easy. Neither team was favourite at the beginning of the campaign. Forest improved with the arrival of their new manager, Steve Cooper.
I did not see Huddersfield as favourite to reach the play-off final but they have worked hard, little by little, with regularity, and reached deservedly the final. It’s always like running a marathon for everyone but they both deserved to cross the final line.
Nottingham Forest improved with the arrival of their new manager, Steve Cooper (middle)
What is the key mindset for a manager approaching a championship play off final?
There is always a long period of 10 days between the semi-finals and the final. And that time gives you enough margin to study all details, even the smallest ones. You can afford to prepare the team to perfection to avoid any surprises. So that period can be influential.
Both managers have got enough quality and time to analyse their rival. Sometimes the wait is too long but, on the other side, it gives you time to prepare and study the game.
Many times those kind of games are levelled, that exhaustive analysis puts both teams under some extra pressure, because they know each other to detail. And that level of preparation can neutralise each other.
What did you do to keep the players calm and focused?
You have got plenty of time to prepare the game, something unusual in the Championship, just as when you have an international break, but you normally lose some players on international duty.
So before the final, you use every day to brief the players with important details of the game. That way the team keeps their focus and get prepared, knowing this is an ‘all or nothing’ game. There is time to be relaxed, without losing the focus.
We used that extra time to refresh the players’ minds about everything: set pieces, how to control the throw-in, about what would happen in the game, about our possession of the ball.
He says it’s vital to brief the players with important details of the game before big fixtures
As part of our preparation at Fulham, the club provided something that was not usual. They made motivational clips for the team with former Fulham players sending us messages. We used all this material as part of our preparation.
The FA always offers the teams the chance to train the day before in the stadium but we preferred to use our training ground.
However, we sent staff to check Wembley. It was a different stage for us, for the players, and we did not want surprises. So they checked everything: the dressing room, the pitch, even the number of steps to the pitch. We felt attention to every single detail was important.
How would you describe the contrast in styles between Steve Cooper and Carlos Corberan? What has impressed you about them?
Steve Cooper changed the formation with three at the back and that had an important impact on the team. It brought good results and transformed Forest in to a very competitive side.
Caros Corberan is a Spanish coach that prefers to play with a 4-3-3 formation or sometimes three at the back. But I think we will see two different systems in the final.
I am sure Forest will stick to their formation but Huddersfield might adapt. Both managers have done a great job, there is no doubt about it. I did not see either of them reaching the final, but with persistence and hard work they will be at Wembley deservedly.
Caros Corberan (left) is a Spanish manager that prefers to play with a 4-3-3 formation
What are the strengths and weaknesses of Forest and Huddersfield ?
Each team has its own weaknesses, but the generous time for preparation will help them to analyse all those details.
It’s a game with a great sense of responsibility and any little mistake can be crucial. But, overall, usual strengths and weaknesses don’t count on a game like this one.
Who would you say is the most influential player from each side?
Forest have players such as James Garner, Brennan Johnson and Djed Spence while you can possibly pick out Sorba Thomas, Levi Colwill or Lewis O’Brien from Huddersfield but the strength of these sides is that I don’t see either team with a special individuality.
Both rivals are solid sides collectively, they work as a team and I would not single out any specific players. They are compact teams more than anything else.
Forest have star players such as James Garner (left), Brennan Johnson and Djed Spence
Which are the key duels around the pitch?
Again, this is a game with a collective approach.
How do you see it unfolding and what is your prediction?
These kind of games are normally quite levelled. Based on our experience with Fulham, this final will be played again in front of the fans with a full house at Wembley after the pandemic.
That gives them an extra pressure and motivation, the players will have even more determination to win. I don’t expect a game especially pretty to see, I predict a tight score, not many goals, and all those details analysed by both managers during ten days can decide the game. It’s not going to be a beautiful game, but a very exciting one for what it takes to win the Championship playoff final.
It’s an amazing feeling. I am not a person that shows emotions on the touchline, but that day was different, I loved seeing the fans and the joy of people around me. It was a very special day.