A little under 40 years ago, one of the pioneers of modern football set off in his car from Belgrade in the then Yugoslavia on a very long drive, bound for a provincial town in England. Radomir Antic was 31 years old. He had already taken his talent as an elegant, ball-playing central defender - a true sweeper - across Europe, from his native Yugoslavia, to clubs in Turkey and Spain. But this, the last chapter of his playing career was truly intrepid.
Antic, who died on Monday aged 71, had been signed by Luton Town, then of the second tier of English football, territory which, back in 1980, welcomed few footballers from outside Britain. But Antic had something about him. “He was so smooth on the ball”, David Pleat, the Luton manager at the time recalls.
Three years later, Pleat and Antic would share in a moment of vividly expressed joy that has become iconic in English football. It featured excitable commentary and an exuberant Pleat, dressed in his suit, dancing across the pitch at Manchester City’s old stadium, Maine Road. Antic had, with four minutes remaining of the last match of the season, scored the only goal of the game. The consequences were huge: the 1-0 loss relegated City from the top division. Antic’s goal kept Luton in that division, to which the intrepid Serbian had helped them get promoted 12 months earlier.
Pleat and ‘Raddy’, as Antic was known in England, remained close ever after. “I remember how well he integrated, how his neighbours stayed his friends long after he left,” said Pleat. “He was ambitious, intelligent, and always tolerant.” And Antic seemed to have all the tools for a future career as a coach.
In management Antic would achieve something unique. He served as head coach of every one of Spain’s so-called ‘Big Three’ clubs: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
The impact he had on first being appointed at each of them was positive. Real Madrid took on Antic in March 1991, after his impressive two years in charge of Real Zaragoza, where he had also played with distinction. He succeeded the Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano, and was presented with the formidable challenge of making Real into a team that could compete with Johan Cruyff’s brilliant Barcelona. Ten months in, he had, with Real top of La Liga, three points clear of Barcelona and progressing well in Europe and the Copa del Rey.
And he was abruptly sacked, the Madrid president calling the team’s football ‘boring’. Madrid went on to finish the season without Antic - and without a trophy.
After the first of two spells at Real Oviedo, Antic then joined Atletico, where nobody would ever tag his football ‘boring’. “Back in that time, he was a real innovator,” said the former Atletico striker, Kiko Narvaez, a key member of the Atletico who, under Antic, transformed from candidates for relegation into the self-confident, thrilling Liga and Copa Double winners of 1995/96.
Atletico’s success then bears comparison to their renaissance under Diego Simeone now, though the style of the 1996 side was perhaps easier on the eye. Under Antic, Atletico won their first Liga title for 19 years; under Simeone in 2014, they won their first Liga title for 18 seasons. At Atletico, where Antic also had two later spells, the song ‘Radomir, we love you,’ became a crowd anthem.
His reputation for gaining the trust of players, rebuilding self-belief made him a go-to coach. Barcelona called on Antic in 2003, with the club in deep trouble, and, having come in mid-season, Antic averted a crisis and qualified Barca for Europe, his prospects of staying beyond his short-term deal thwarted only by a change of president. He was taken on by Celta Vigo within months, charged with another rescue mission.
A patriotic Serb, who spoke out publicly against the Nato bombing of parts of his country during the Balkan conflict of the late 1990s, Antic had several offers to coach Serbia. He finally accepted in 2008. Under him, qualification for the 2010 World Cup was achieved, and at the tournament, Serbia beat Germany. But defeats to Ghana and Australia meant they went home at the group phase.
Ever intrepid, he travelled in his 60s to China, for what would be his last coaching adventures, guiding Shandong Luneng Taishan to a runners-up spot in the Chinese Super League in 2013. His sharp analyses of the game remained sought after in the media, particularly in Spain, to the end of his life.
“He was a man who dignified the profession,” said the striker Fernando Torres, who was climbing the ladder through Atletico’s youth ranks when Antic was there. “Radomir will always be in Atletico hearts.”