Pep Clotet: ‘We can keep fine tuning to see if Oxford can reach the next level’

Dion Kelly-Evans of Coventry City battles with Rob Hall of Oxford United at Wembley Stadium on April 2, 2017 in London, England.

Pep Clotet admits to being a keen history student and it was with some pleasure that, a fortnight into his tenure as Oxford United manager, he accepted an invitation to dinner at the 462-year-old St John’s College. “I had the luxury of a talk about the college’s traditions afterwards, and a walk around town where they explained a few more things to me,” he says. “It’s a fantastic city. So much has happened here.”

The Kassam Stadium does not provoke quite as much feeling but, if Clotet has his way, it could become a necessary add-on to circuits of the dreaming spires. His appointment at the start of July marked a considerable change for both parties but made a degree of sense. Oxford had just lost Michael Appleton, who led the League One club to eighth place – their highest finish in 17 years – last season but opted to become Craig Shakespeare’s assistant at Leicester City; the 40-year-old Clotet, his stock high after spells as Garry Monk’s No2 at Swansea City and Leeds United, was looking to strike out on his own and came with excellent reviews.

“I thought it would suit the way I understand the game,” the Spaniard says of a club whose prospects at last appear bright under Darryl Eales’s chairmanship. “The conditions were here already. The previous manager had left to do a different kind of job and not because of any traumatic situation. The set-up here looked good for me to implement what I want to do and it was only a matter of sharing that with the club, seeing that our visions were the same and saying: ‘Let’s do it together.’”

It marks the biggest step yet in an itinerant career that changed unrecognisably when, having worked in various roles across Spain and Scandinavia, Clotet picked up the telephone to Michael Laudrup in the spring of 2013. Laudrup, who was then in charge at Swansea, had been his idol while growing up in Barcelona and Clotet was taken aback to hear that he had been soliciting opinions about his suitability to take on a position as academy consultant at the Premier League club. Six months later he started work and then, after Laudrup was sacked the following February, he was pulled into the chairman’s office with Monk, a colleague he barely knew.

“I’d never met Garry but [the Swansea chairman] Huw Jenkins sat us in the room and said: ‘You two are going to be working together, taking over the team, starting against Cardiff next weekend.’” He breathes out to emphasise the gravity of that short-term task. “We were a good team from the beginning. Garry was the former captain, knew the British game and how the players worked while I had a lot of experience in coaching. It was a symbiotic relationship and we worked for each other very well.”

Swansea won that derby 3-0 and their coaching team’s bond developed to the extent that, when dark clouds gathered over Monk’s position in 2015-16, Clotet rejected an attractive role in charge of the Championship side Brentford in order to help him weather the storm. Such is the brittleness of life in football that Monk was sacked within a fortnight but Clotet has no regrets. “We both felt we could sort it out – Garry was very committed that we would do it and I saw he was very strong in that moment,” he says, and six months later they reunited at Elland Road.

Clotet prefaces his discussion of last season by explaining that it would be impossible to describe in mere minutes. He and Monk knew they would have to shut out the external distractions provided by what proved to be Massimo Cellino’s final few months of ownership and they more or less managed: Leeds fell short of the play-offs after a late-season tail-off but Clotet believes they brought back a feeling that had long since disappeared.

“When you look at the club we went into, it was a little bit broken and the team was not attached to the fanbase,” he says. “There had been too many changes and the club had lost that sense of competitiveness Leeds were famous for. The end product is that the fans got their team back, they saw that we had a real sense of stability among the staff and players and I think we gave back a better club than the one we took in the beginning.

“I remember being at Garry’s place watching a Champions League game on television midway through the season. We said [Leeds] is exactly the kind of club people could go and watch on that stage one day. They’d done it already and it would be fantastic to do it in a sustainable way. It has all the foundations to become such a powerful club. I don’t know how long that will take, but obviously it’s something we thought about a lot.”

Another regular topic of conversation between the two was Clotet’s desire to go it alone. “I know it’s against myself but I think you have to do it,” were Monk’s final words to him on the matter. So, when Monk left Leeds and pitched up at Middlesbrough shortly afterwards, it was understood that Clotet would not rejoin him in the short term. They still speak two or three times a week; Clotet remains happy to bounce opinions off his friend as he seeks to recreate the approach that pulled Swansea, arguably a club of similar size and potential, out of the lower divisions.

“What put Swansea on the path to winning and going higher was the idea, which mainly started from Roberto Martínez, that they could do it by playing a different kind of football,” he says. “The thought that we can do things our way. We cannot compete in the transfer market with teams based on a certain idea of football but, if we tweak our vision of the game, we can lead the market for the players others might not be that interested in. Swansea did that and that’s how their way of playing developed into a philosophy. Garry told me many times that at the beginning their fans didn’t quite understand, because it takes time. Oxford have been at that point too. It takes time but it eventually clicked. They came back to League One [in 2015-16] and now we can keep fine tuning to see if we can reach the next level.”

Clotet is, with Fleetwood’s Uwe Rosler, one of only two non-British managers below the Championship and says the work of his fellow Catalan, Martínez, is his template for ensuring that is no problem. “He was able to make a good mix between how the English game is and what he could import from outside,” he says.

Martínez was among those with whom he discussed the move to Oxford but he is not short of influences; Clotet worked with Mauricio Pochettino while coaching Espanyol’s B team, helped develop players for Manuel Pellegrini when occupying a similar role at Málaga and was assistant to Roland Nilsson when Malmo won the Swedish title in 2010. He worked in Norway with Viking, the quality of life there meaning it would be “difficult to be as happy as I was in that place”, and learned how to manage a team on limited resources at Halmstad, where he lived in a property – “probably even slept in the same bed” – Roy Hodgson had rented years previously.

It has all added up to make Clotet feel equipped for the challenge at Oxford, which began agreeably with a 2-0 opening-day win at Oldham. “We know we have the chance to put a good plan in place and get to a decent position in English football,” he says. Three decades ago that would have meant winning the League Cup at Wembley, which Oxford managed under Maurice Evans in 1985-86; it is a slice of history Clotet will be hard pushed to repeat but a continuation of their current trajectory should keep the dinner invites coming for now.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nick Ames, for The Guardian on Wednesday 9th August 2017 11.00 Europe/London

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