The road meanders through a succession of small neighbourhoods, intermittently featuring bleak housing projects, ramshackle industrial architecture and nondescript modern glass-and-steel business buildings; you hardly notice any of Split’s supposedly Mediterranean features until you get to the centre. But by that time, you will have seen at least a dozen of murals, all with the same theme: Hajduk, the city’s main football club, is massive here.

From the Bellevue, which hasn’t changed all that much from 1936 when it was the best hotel in town – Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson famously dined there on the eve of the abdication crisis – a walk of less that half an hour takes you to Poljud Stadium. You go through a confusing labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets to the old Hajduk ground, Stari Plac, now just a fenced meadow squeezed on a street corner and used by RK Nada, the local rugby union club; you turn left and, as the urban landscape gradually turns more contemporary, arrive at the venue. 

Built for the 1979 Mediterranean Games with a then-futuristic roof structure resembling a sea shell, the Poljud was counted among the most beautiful stadiums in Europe. Now visibly neglected and reduced to 60% of its original 55,000-capacity, it’s still by far the best in the country, but has only hosted one competitive national team match in the last 18 years. That’s the way things are in centralist Croatia, where the capital, Zagreb, gets all the good stuff.

Not far from Poljud, there’s a tavern called Kod starog mornara (The Old Mariner’s). It’s a beautiful morning in Split and Stanko ‘Špaco’ Poklepović is there on the terrace, soaking up late winter sun. Everything about him is distinctly old school: the clothes, the jokes, the way he charms the waitress when ordering a viljamovka – the local pear brandy – at 11am. But he’s keen to show he hasn’t lost touch with modern football and its ways. “I’ve always been in it, to the maximum,” he says. “I may have been out of work for four years, but interpreting football has remained my obsession. I know exactly what needs to be done, I’m familiar with every corner here and aware of the club’s orientation towards the future. I don’t find any of it difficult.”

At 77, Poklepović was the oldest professional football manager working in Europe, until he was sacked in April.

He took over when his predecessor, Igor Tudor – 40 years younger than him and previously a defender for Croatia and Juventus, who played in the 2003 Champions League final against AC Milan – suddenly resigned in February, having been in charge since 2013. The squad was in disarray, weakened by the sales of three important players in the winter transfer window, but included two of Hajduk’s most valuable assets: their pair of talented teenagers, Andrija Balić and Nikola Vlašić. Both were born 60 years after their new manager, at a time when he was already considering retirement. This is Poklepović’s fourth stint at the club, but he’s only here until the summer, when Hajduk are expected to appoint a more long-term solution. And he’s only the oldest gaffer in Europe because Ćiro Blažević, 80, who led Croatia to third place at the 1998 World Cup, abruptly left his post at NK Zadar in December.

Špaco is a showman, always making sure to provide the press with headline material. He often makes jokes – sometimes saucy – about his players, himself and his peers (“Igor Štimac is stronger than me. He’s a mature man who can do everything, even sexually – which I can’t anymore,” he said about his former player, who has taken over from Blažević at NK Zadar). They love him for it, but, as a result, he’s seldom taken seriously when he does say anything serious, so he treats journalists with suspicion. If you’re only in it for the latest anecdote or catchphrase, Špaco will oblige, but if you’d rather have a meaningful conversation, you first need to convince him you’re genuinely interested in what he has to say.

“So I suppose you want to know about spiral impostation, am I right?” he asks, taking a small sip of his brandy, and the question feels like a test. He’s referring to the unusual term he used a few days earlier to describe his side’s on-pitch shape, baffling and amusing reporters in equal measure. 

“Yes, but I’m also curious about your more general views on football as well as your playing philosophy,” I answer. He seems satisfied with that and, without much further ado, begins his exposition.

“Football is a game of balance. Throughout history, coaches have been trying to win games by inventing and applying different strategies to counter-balance the opponent’s play. That interaction, setting up your defence to oppose the other team’s attack and vice versa, is what always drove football forward. That’s also how formations evolved, because each action was followed by a reaction. First you had the W-M system, which can also be described as 3-4-3; when coaches realised that three forwards were too much for the three-man defence to handle, the system evolved into 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 and various modern formations. But the formation is not tactics. It’s only a medium you use to develop team play. In the 1950s, Hajduk had Bernard Vukas, who was one of the best players in the world at the time. However, back then players were allowed a lot of space and time on the ball. Eventually, teams started using specialists whose only job was to mark Vukas. If he knelt down to tie his shoelaces, that player would kneel down next to him; if Vukas decided to go to the toilet in the middle of the match, his marker would follow him there. Things like that took man-marking to new heights, as it was clear that even a world-class player becomes much less effective if he’s denied that space and time.

“By the 1970’s, when I first came to Hajduk as an assistant to my lifelong friend Tomislav Ivić, we had each player strictly marking his opposing number, except for the libero, who was the corrector. Then we introduced pressing, which can have three different targets: space, man and the ball. Pressing on the ball, which is also called gegen-pressing, appeared last and it’s still very prominent today. But pressing can be counter-productive if you’re also using man-marking, so zonal defence gradually became more widespread. Zonal marking, which is the foundation for all modern formations, has its specific geometry, because you have to cover the whole pitch. Today, that zone has developed some new properties, which can no longer be described as elements of play. They are, in fact, features of modern football and there are three main ones…”

He suddenly stops. Allowing the underlying suspicion he developed over time to resurface, he asks, “Is this what you wanted me to talk about? I hope I’m not going too fast for you to follow, because up until now all this was just the basics.” I assure him it’s exactly what I hoped for and he turns to Hajduk press officer, who sits there with us. The man is all ears as well. Šjor (‘Mister’ in local dialect) Špaco gives us a broad smile, takes another sip and continues.

“As a manager, I’m primarily interested in the technology of team performance. It is also my job to develop a modern football expression for my team, because you cannot expect to beat anyone if your style of play is not up to date. I’ve stayed in touch with current trends and came up with this theory on three main features of modern football, which I named rhythm, concentration and re-formation. All the good teams have a recognisable rhythm, which is essential for the way they play. You need to train your players into a state where they do everything in the team rhythm. When you achieve that automatism, you gradually accelerate it, because you need to play very fast today. Then there’s concentration, which means getting to the focus of the play. Often you see the greatest concentration of players around the ball area, but it’s not like when little kids play and they all chase the ball because their notion of space isn’t yet developed. This is organised concentration, with the intention of stifling the opponent’s passing options, which is a prerequisite for pressing. As players grow up, they develop this intuitive understanding of space with regards to the ball and other players. But concentration is asking them to do something which may feel counter-intuitive, to leave their position and descend into the epicentre of play. You can’t rely on instinct anymore, it must be put into the service of the collective; the players need to think and know what they’re doing. 

“The third feature follows concentration, and that’s re-formation. It refers to transition, both defensive and attacking, the way of quickly re-establishing shape after concentrating, which is really hard. You need to devise patterns of movement and look to break the opponent’s formation in half, because you want to leave them in a situation where they must defend with as few players behind the ball as possible. This is where you use specific elements acquired through practice, such as what I call the ‘team dribbling’ – and by that I mean confusing and deceiving the other team, getting them to where my team wants them to be.”

Poklepović has refused to categorise his team’s formation, saying it’s asymmetrical and escapes the classical definition. So, in that context, I pop the ‘spiral impostation’ question. What is it?

“Instead of using parallel lines, I position my players like this [he uses glasses, cups and various other objects on the table to demonstrate his point]: you see, it’s a curve, a spiral. One wide player is always higher than the other, or he always stays by the line while the other is more inside, not really a winger… You do this across the entire formation. If applied properly, nothing, not even a bird, can pass through the spiral! But that’s primarily a defensive tactic, aimed at closing spaces more efficiently. It’s something temporary, before you can develop your team’s proper play. Although the spiral is still more universal than the pirija, which is basically a one-time thing…”

Pirija is, of course, another tactic invented and named by Špaco himself. The aim is to block the opponent’s flanks high up and divert most of their play to the narrowing corridor through the middle of the pitch. Hence the name: pirija (“funnel” in local dialect). The idiosyncratic terms Špaco uses bring to mind the biggest Hajduk icon of all time, Luka Kaliterna. A goalkeeper in the very first Hajduk team back in 1911 (his brother, Fabjan, co-founded the club), as well as their first domestic manager twelve years later, after a dozen Czechoslovakian and Austrian1 gaffers, Kaliterna was a major influence for generations of other managers and known for his many sayings, such as, “The play, not the player, scores goals,” and “See everything, look at nothing.” 

Poklepović, who spent his entire playing career at RNK Split, was coming through the youth ranks in the 1950s, when Kaliterna led them to two promotions in four years and reached the Yugoslav top division with the city’s lesser club. He played under him again on two later occasions. How influential was Kaliterna for him, I dare to ask.

“Massively! He was ahead of his time. His coaching methods, many things he taught us, are still relevant today. I remember he always used to say that we need to act like a sponge: clench when we’re defending and release when we’re attacking. There was no one else like him.”

Among RNK Split players from those years were four men that later went on to become very successful managers. There was Ante Mladinić, who coached Yugoslavia national team and won the league with Partizan Belgrade in 1978; Mirko Jozić, world champion with Yugoslavia’s Under-20 side in 1987, a Copa Libertadores winner with Colo-Colo in 1991 and later Croatia manager. There was, of course, Poklepović, decorated with four honours in Croatia (with Hajduk and NK Osijek) and two in Iran (with Persepolis). But the one who topped them all was Tomislav Ivić, who won league and cup titles in six different countries – with Hajduk, Ajax, Anderlecht, Panathinaikos, Porto and Atlético Madrid. Poklepović first played with him, then under him at RNK. In 1973, he joined Ivić at Hajduk, as his assistant and youth coach.

“Those were the days… The papers called me the ‘Builder of White Ships’, because I worked with so many youngsters who became stars in that white Hajduk shirt,” he says, giving in to nostalgia for the first and only time during the interview. The team won two consecutive league titles, in 1974 and 1975, with Ivić in charge. “He was intense. He had this hot, peppery temper that other coaches lacked, but also possessed a unique creative fluid. Ivić knew exactly what he was doing, always! We were extremely compatible.”

But as Ivić left for Ajax to replace Rinus Michels – and immediately won them the Dutch title, their first in four years – Poklepović stayed. He was hoping to succeed his friend, but wasn’t given a chance. Ivić returned in 1978 and rehired him, they won the league again and reached the European Cup quarter-final in 1980, then he left again – this time for Anderlecht, winning the title in his first season there as well. Hajduk passed on Poklepović one more time and it was only in 1984 that they finally appointed him. And although Hajduk played attractive, attacking football, came close to winning the league and eliminated the likes of Metz, Torino and Dnipro in Europe, he was fired in March 1986 after a dispute with the club leadership over his star player, Blaž Slišković. “He was a top player, but a bohemian,” Poklepović said. “Once he did something really stupid and I wanted to throw him out of the team, but chairman intervened because the club wanted to sell him that summer. So I had to go.”

His career path took him to smaller clubs in Yugoslavia as well as to places like Cyprus, Iran and Hungary. In 1992 Poklepović won his first piece of silverware, the inaugural Croatian league, back with Hajduk Split. But Špaco never stayed anywhere for more than a year or two. Some say that was because of his restless spirit, others claim he hasn’t been able to communicate his ideas to players with authority because of his facetious nature. It may also be true that he doesn’t get along well with powers that be, never hesitating to express his opinion on just about everything. That certainly proved correct during his short-lived tenure as Croatia manager, before the nation was admitted to Fifa in 1993.

Franjo Tuđman, the country’s authoritarian first president, was a man with a keen interest in football. Upon his intervention, Dinamo Zagreb changed their ‘Soviet’ name in 1991 – first to HAŠK Građanski, combining and claiming the heritage of two most successful pre-Second World War Zagreb clubs, then to Croatia Zagreb. (The name Dinamo was brought back in early 2000, shortly after his death.) 

“I once told him he didn’t know anything about football,” Poklepović claims. “Ooh, he didn’t like that one bit. He preferred to be surrounded by people who would never contradict him, like Ćiro Blažević.” Of course, Blažević was also a Dinamo man and a member of Tuđman’s political party, HDZ, so the president saw him as more suitable for the job…

The more we talk about the past, the grumpier Poklepović becomes, revealing the internal struggle that must have troubled him for many years. Here is a man who clearly thinks his work has never been appreciated enough and yet he tries to keep critics on his side. I walk with him to the press conference, which turns out to be very different to usual. He fumes at reporters for 15 minutes about not being “positive enough” and not giving his players the “support they need”. He leaves visibly upset, mumbling outrageous curses and without so much as nodding his head as he passes by.

At 77, Špaco still feels he has something to prove but is aware of how little chance he has to do so. Even as we spoke, it has later emerged, Hajduk were interviewing candidates to replace him from next season, regardless of how he did. And it’s by no means easy to achieve anything when his two best players are 17-year-old kids, the half-built “white ships” which he would never get to steer once they’re at least close to being finished. The whole situation is a constant reminder that, after a long and meandering journey, this Old Mariner’s managerial career was running on borrowed time; a metaphor for mortality.