Dan Petrescu’s managerial limbo – The story of a dream bitterly postponed

We look at the cruel managerial career of Dan Petrescu, harboring many hopes of working with the best, only to have all pegged back by fate and bureaucracy.

Dan Petrescu’s managerial limbo - The story of a dream bitterly postponed

Do you remember Dan Petrescu, the blonde attacking right back that scared the Premier League defenders of the 90s to death with his sweet, short dribbling and a boyish smile on his face? If you are too young, you can check the YouTube footage. A decade before Roman Abramovich  landed in London, “Dan The Man” – as he was known to the Blues fans – was always happy to score a goal or two for himself in a Chelsea cult team assembled mostly from continental luxury imports like Gullit, Vialli or Zola.

Two decades later, Petrescu – now a 50-year-old grumpy coach with little liking of the media – is leading the pack in the Romanian first league (Liga 1) with his team CFR Cluj, but it’s only mid-season. In more than a decade, his managerial career has had its ups and downs with short spells in China and the Middle East. Petrescu also tasted the Russian league with mixed results, leaving Dinamo Moscow fans bemused by his almost psychotic touchline antics.

The defender who won the FA Cup and Cup Winners Cup with Chelsea is still invited to Stamford Bridge and could be seen doing a lap of honour to a standing ovation from time to time. But he now hates this attention. “In the beginning I felt good but now it hurts me. I miss my Chelsea time so much and then I rather avoid to attend their games. I went there three times but I can’t do it no more. I feel awkward. The main actors are the current players. My time has passed but I still feel proud the people recognise me on the streets in London,” he told Romanian media on his 50th birthday on December 21st.

Hurt as he may be of going to Stamford Bridge, Dan Petrescu is still waiting for his chance to manage a Premier League team.This is an ardent dream born during his playing days in England and 15 years later he’s still waiting for a call. His preferred club is Chelsea, but he will even accept a dog-fight in the relegation zone. “If someone in England would give me a chance I will surely not disappoint him,” Petrescu once advertised himself.

Despite his burning desire, probably his greatest chance to stand in the English Premier League dugouts already came but strangely evaded him. The following story based on Football Leaks secret documents may look like a movie plot, but for Petrescu it certainly has the taste of a bitter pill.

It happened in late April 2015 with the coach unemployed for five months after an unhappy but financial rewarding spell with the Qatari team Al-Arabi. His superficially-made CV entered  the mailbox of Doyen Sports, a famous but highly controversial sports agency which develops David Beckham, Neymar and Usain Bolt image and commercial rights.

The email expeditor was Toni Curea, a mysterious Romanian agent based in Dubai who came to the spotlight thanks to the transfers of a former Real Madrid player and coach to the Romanian first league. A friend of Petrescu, Curea unofficially collaborated with Doyen Sports as he signalled them various business opportunities from football transfers to – for an instance – a 1.5  million barrels of Russian jet fuel offered for sale by a Philippine company.

Five days after Curea sent the coach’s CV, Doyen Sports agent Amadeu Paixao asked his boss Nelio Lucas what he thought about proposing Petrescu’s name for a job at an English club. “Tell me what do you think. They want more names for analyse,” writes Paixao.  

“They” were a Thai group that just completed the 37.5 million pounds purchase of a 100% stake in the Championship club Sheffield Wednesday. The investor Djephon Chansiri, the king of canned tuna commerce in Asia, wanted his newly acquired club to get promoted to the Premier League by 2017 at the latest but he seemingly lacked football expertise. So he decided to negotiate a consultancy contract with “football specialists” Doyen Sports.

The proposed contract terms are a glimpse into behind-the-scenes of today’s world football. On the condition that Sheffield would get promoted, agents at Doyen were entitled to a maximum payout of 10 million pounds a season from the TV rights plus a monthly 25.000 pounds “consultancy commission” from the day one of the contract. At Chansiri suggestion, the deal was planned to be done using a less-known and mysterious front-company created by Nelio Lucas to serve his shady interests at Doyen.

In return, Doyen agents committed to help the Owls bring the most suitable manager and the right players that could achieve the Thai investor’s ambitious short-term objective.  

While still negotiating the contract’s financial and legal aspects, Wednesday’s new owner asked Doyen for a list of managerial candidates. On May 3rd, Amadeu Paixao sent Thai investor an email containing Petrescu’s CV and a short line:

“Hi all this is our first choice as a manager.”

Later, Doyen proposed four more names: Portuguese coaches Jorge Costa, Sergio Conceicao, Paulo Fonseca and English Mark Cooper, Swindon’s manager at that time. Each candidate had a “book of instructions” with a short description and a wages estimate.

Petrescu was the clear favourite to get the job, a mouth-watering chance to achieve his Premier League dream even if it was thanks to a small Championship detour. Doyen didn’t miss the opportunity to highlight his desire in the introduction sent to Thai billionaire Chansiri:

“Petrescu is out of work and in his last job he was earning around € 2.5 million per year. The reason he will accept a lower salary is because he would like to come to the English League, so it will be a good challenge for him and the club. I suggest the offer should be around £ 500 thousand per year with a good bonus for Sheffield to reach the Premiership”.

Petrescu had one more strong point. He once played for Sheffield Wednesday in the Premier League following his exploits at 1994 World Cup before signing for Chelsea in the summer of 1995.

It was early May. However, the negotiations for the consultancy contract would go on for another torturous month with the delay being caused by constant divergences and also by repeated Thai-English and vice-versa translations of the contract drafts. The result was Sheffield Wednesday still needed a manager to get them to the Premier League.

On the afternoon of June 8th, more than a month after the investor received his list of candidates, Amadeu Paixao tried to force a decision. He issued a hasty remainder informing Chansiri about Doyen’s negotiations with Manchester City regarding potential loan of players to Sheffield. Anyway – Paixao claimed – City didn’t want to send anybody down to the Yorkshire club without knowing the Owls new manager’s name and what his style of play would be.

Paixao also informed the Thai investor that he and his boss Nelio Lucas still considered Petrescu or Slavisa Jokanovic (n.red. – the Serb incredibly left Watford only three days earlier after he got the club promoted to the Premier League) to be the perfect match for Sheffield’s ambitions.

However, that same evening but a few thousand kilometres to the East, the Romanian media announced that Dan Petrescu would  take over the ASA Targu Mures (n.red. – a minnow club in Liga 1 with a generous public financing at that time, now bankrupt) managerial seat the very next day. Nobody in the media knew about Sheffield talks. Contacted by journalists, Petrescu mysteriously said: “If no offer from abroad appear this evening, tomorrow at noon I will be in Targu Mures to sign the contract.”

No single word about Sheffield talks, only a conditional promise to the Romanian club. After a month long wait, he was clearly hoping for a late phone call from Doyen while the company was still involved in the protracted talks over a consultancy agreement with the Championship club.

A few hours later and long after midnight, Doyen Sports sent Djephon Chansiri an email informing him about the company’s “difficult decision” to break the negotiations. The call was caused by the “constant difference of opinions and judgements” between the London-based Portuguese agents and the Thai investor.

The talks crashed and apparently so did Petrescu’s biggest chance to get a job in England.

Now comes the strange part.

The next morning, a close friend of Petrescu and ASA Targu Mures’s president Bogdan Mara told the Romanian media that the manager was in fact the one who refused an offer from an English club!  

“He has had a concrete offer, he had to fly to England today but he declined. He takes decisions based on his feeling and he felt the project was not suitable for his ambitions. He didn’t believe they can fight for promotion. The financial terms were good but Dan didn’t want to manage a mediocre team. He once did the same with a Nottingham Forest offer,” Mara said during a TV show where he works as a pundit despite him also acting as a club president.

This statement retrospectively sounds like an unnecessary attempt to feed a cocky friend’s prestige to the Romanian then-unsuspecting public. Why would Petrescu refuse Sheffield after his CV was in  the owner’s office for more than a month? Was he upset by the protracted negotiations and  lost his faith in the club ambitions claimed by the new owner?

Petrescu couldn’t be reached to comment on the events that happened on June 9th 2015. That same day, he didn’t sign with ASA Targu Mures either as he promised. “He wants to wait for a day more or two,” Mara said.

What was the manager waiting for if he had already declined Sheffield’s offer?

While the Romanian public heard the news about his refusal to sign with an English club, the Thai investors contacted Doyen and apologised for the delays in the negotiations. They expressed their regret about  Doyen’s decision to pull the plug on the consultancy deal and asked the agents to invoice them for their work during the previous month. Doyen strategically declined to do so hoping for a revival in the business discussions.

Then, the email exchanges were interrupted. Two days later, Dan Petrescu signed for ASA Targu Mures but left the club after just one month in charge to join the rich Chinese club Jiangsu Suning. Two inglorious spells with Kuban Krasnodar and Al-Nasr later, he currently tops the Liga 1 table with CFR Cluj. His once-supportive friend Mara also acts as CFR president after ASA project went bankrupt.

But just one day after the Petrescu commitment for ASA on June 11th 2015, Doyen and Djephon Chansiri resumed their talks. Timidly at first, they decided to do business on a deal-to-deal basis rather than to sign a larger frame contract. Soon, the name of Portuguese manager Carlos Carvalhal entered the discussion for the first time. The then 50-year-old manager was unemployed for three years and his CV was slightly inferior to Petrescu’s.  

Nonetheless, at the end of June 2015, Carvalhal signed a 3-year, 300.000 pounds a season contract with Sheffield Wednesday. According to the deal, his wages would automatically increase to 1 million pounds a season in case of promotion.

Petrescu’s sour feeling was to Carvalhal’s taste. What followed could only embitter the Romanian manager further.

Dan Petrescu’s managerial limbo - The story of a dream bitterly postponed
Dan Petrescu’s managerial limbo – The story of a dream bitterly postponed

Backed by Djephon Chansiri’s spending of almost 40 million euros on new players during his reign, the Portuguese manager was twice in a  row on the brink to promote Sheffield, only for the Yorkshire club to miss the target in the Championship playoffs. Carvalhal failed to achieve Chansiri’s goal of going up by the summer of 2017 and on Christmas Eve he left the club by mutual consent with Sheffield Wednesday in the wrong half of  the table.

Only four days later, Carvalhal remarkably signed with bottom of the Premier League table Swansea. He incredibly won his first game in charge at Watford with the Welsh club scoring twice in  added time to overturn a goal deficit. His second game was a sharp reminder of the league’s tough environment as Swansea lost 2-0 at home to Champions League high-flyers Tottenham.

But, despite the almost impossible task waiting ahead, Carvalhal’s connections to the world of agents and his unpretentious go-ahead stance helped him get a coveted Premier League job that Dan Petrescu can only dream of at this very moment.

A cruel farce of destiny played on a cult player that almost forgot the  boyish smile from his heyday.

Based on documents obtained by the German news magazine DER SPIEGEL and passed to the European Investigative Collaborations network. A version of this story first appeared in the Romanian sports newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor.

Costin Stucan

Journalist. Gazeta Sporturilor. FootballLeaks team member. Die-hard Steve McManaman fan. Istanbul 3-3 emotional witness.