Terry Butcher and the Serbia coach: An unlikely bromance

Terry Butcher and the Serbia coach: An unlikely bromance

Terry Butcher remains as patriotic as the day he was left drenched in blood representing his country in a World Cup qualifier against Sweden in 1989.

His support for England will be unwavering for Sunday’s Euro 2024 opener against Serbia. But it does come with an unusual affection for the opposition because of his little-known friendship with their manager, Dragan Stojkovic, forged when they worked together in China.

‘I’m just glad this is the first game because if things don’t go well for either team there is room for recovery,’ admits Butcher. ‘Dragan is a lovely man, but I know him well enough to understand England have to be wary.’

Butcher is one of the most iconic footballing figures of his generation. A captain colossus for Ipswich, Glasgow Rangers and England, he twice came close to World Cup glory, denied first by Diego Maradona’s Hand of God in 1986 and then Germany in a heartbreaking penalty shootout four years later.

He also managed in the top flight in both England and Scotland but one of his most enjoyable experiences went under the radar in 2019 when he spent six months at Chinese Super League club Guangzhou R&F, hired as a defensive coach to help Stojkovic, who was manager.

Terry Butcher will be supporting England against Albania – but he does have an unlikely friendship with their manager! 

Butcher (left) worked with Serbia manager Dragan Stojkovic (second left) in China

Butcher (left) worked with Serbia manager Dragan Stojkovic (second left) in China 

Direct opposites physically — Butcher was an intimidating 6ft 4ins centre half while Stojkovic was a small and technically gifted midfield player nicknamed Piksi after a cartoon mouse.

They nonetheless developed a close bromance despite Butcher’s typical bluntness at their first meeting.

‘I reminded Dragan we’d played against each other in 1987 when England won 4-1 against Yugoslavia in Belgrade,’ smiled Butcher. ‘Looking back, maybe it wasn’t the best opening way to impress your new boss, but he just nodded and said “I remember, you blew us away!”

‘We got on well from that moment and he impressed me both as football man and as a human being.

‘I was put in a hostel with all the other coaches and younger players, in a small room without a TV or a fridge. Dragan had already been there some years and had a beautiful flat with his wife in the centre of town. Going there for dinner was a real treat!

‘We’d have delicious Serbian food and watch Premier League football on the television.

‘He’d ask me about players and tactical developments in England, and after a couple of beers he’d explain what it had been like for his family to live through the Balkans conflict. You could see his passion for his country.

‘His coaching sessions were good. Even though he was in his 50s and a little portly, he’d put his boots on and ping balls about and hit volleys with unbelievable accuracy.

He is one of the most iconic footballing figures of his generation - but did you know Butcher spent six months coaching Guangzhou R&F in 2019?

He is one of the most iconic footballing figures of his generation – but did you know Butcher spent six months coaching Guangzhou R&F in 2019?

Butcher reminisced that he was a frequent guest at Stojkovic's beautiful house in Guangazhou

Butcher reminisced that he was a frequent guest at Stojkovic’s beautiful house in Guangazhou

‘I think it earned him respect from the players that he could demonstrate what he wanted from them.

‘My job was to organise the defence, but it was a problem. All the clubs spent big money on top midfielders and forwards from overseas. We got Mousa Dembele from Spurs, and all the defenders were Chinese who weren’t at the level.

‘All the games seemed to be high-scoring. I don’t think we kept a clean sheet!

‘My nickname became “Mr F***ing Hell,” because that’s what I shouted out every time we let one in. Even on that, Dragan had one over me. He’d also swear a bit but he could do it in Serbian, Chinese or English!

‘He was a very amenable guy but had a tough streak in him. He’d demand a lot from the players and have a go if they fell short.’

In addition to Stojkovic, Butcher became friendly with the club’s Japanese fitness trainer Katsuhito Kinoshi who is now the Serbian assistant manager. Butcher and ‘Kino’ were regulars at Guangzhou’s best Italian restaurant and they still exchange messages to this day.

Indeed, when Butcher watches today’s game at home in Suffolk, he’ll drink a coffee from a little espresso cup presented to him as a gift by Kino.

‘He showed me the ropes in Guangzhou. When I see Kino next to Dragan on the TV, I’ll toast their health but hope they get smashed in the game and qualify after that!’

Stojkovic will take charge of Serbia against England and Butcher sees it being a tough test

Stojkovic will take charge of Serbia against England and Butcher sees it being a tough test

'My nickname became “Mr F***ing Hell,” because that’s what I shouted out every time we let one in'

‘My nickname became “Mr F***ing Hell,” because that’s what I shouted out every time we let one in’

Stojkovic and Butcher (neither pictured) played when England beat Yugoslavia 4-1 in 1987

Stojkovic and Butcher (neither pictured) played when England beat Yugoslavia 4-1 in 1987

Though England are big favourites, Serbia carry an attacking threat from ex-Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic of Juventus.

Butcher also warns Gareth Southgate and his players that Stojkovic will have his country ready.

‘I’m not surprised at all that “Mister”, as we called him, is at the Euros. He was a fabulous player with Red Star Belgrade and Marseille and went to the World Cup twice.

‘Their players will hang on his every word. I can see it being a tough test for England.

‘Dragan will set them up in a way where he feels England are vulnerable. He won’t park the bus. He’ll have a go, for sure.

‘I’m sure the players will also be Japanese-fit thanks to Kino. They will regard England as a really good scalp.’

International tournaments have changed a lot since Butcher’s England side reached the semi-final of Italia 90.

‘We roomed in pairs. I was with Chris Woods, Gazza was with Chrissie Waddle. Nowadays the rooms are singles. I think our gaffer (Sir Bobby Robson) would have hated that,’ he recalls.

Butcher would like to see Lewis Dunk start against Serbia as a replacement for Harey Maguire

Butcher would like to see Lewis Dunk start against Serbia as a replacement for Harey Maguire

England have some 'great talent' but Butcher has France down as favourites for the Euros

England have some ‘great talent’ but Butcher has France down as favourites for the Euros 

‘Chrissie sometimes came to our room to have a break from Gazza. Within five minutes, Gazza would be knocking at the door looking for something to pinch.’

The win in Belgrade that Butcher referred to took England to Euro 88. He and Tony Adams had caused a racket in the tunnel beforehand by bashing the corrugated iron and shouting at the top of their voices. A shell-shocked Yugoslav side conceded four times in the opening 24 minutes.

Harry Kane and co will probably be a little bit more sophisticated on Sunday evening in Gelsenkirchen but England need a good start after their warm-up loss to Iceland.

‘Gareth Southgate has it in him to say a few harsh words and I’m sure he did,’ says Butcher.

‘Losing defender Harry Maguire is a huge blow because of his experience and physical presence. If Lewis Dunk is fit, I’d like to see him start because he’s the closest to a replacement.

‘The best form of defence for this England team is probably attack. Southgate has some great talent at his disposal, but I wouldn’t see them as favourites.

‘France are the most obvious pick because of their abundance of top players but, if I went for a dark horse, it would be Spain. They have a really good team and definitive way of playing.’

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