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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

At Al Jazira, what you see in coach Eric Gerets is what you get

The candid and experienced manager, writes Ian Hawkey, has neither shied away from a challenge nor taking on big reputations.
Eric Gerets, left, is a hard taskmaster, and has coached big names such as Samir Nasri and Rudd van Nistelrooy among others. Courtesy Al Jazira
Eric Gerets, left, is a hard taskmaster, and has coached big names such as Samir Nasri and Rudd van Nistelrooy among others. Courtesy Al Jazira

When Eric Gerets was coach at Marseille in France, he had a close companion.

Georges was a formidable sidekick, big, powerful, but in spite of an intimidating appearance, quite a softy, according to those who got to know him around the club’s training ground.

He was also a reminder of past success. Georges had been a gift from an admirer when Gerets was in charge of Galatasaray, the Turkish side whom he led to the 2006 league championship.

Georges was a Great Dane, and Gerets has always had a fondness for the big dogs.

The admirer was a former president of Galatasaray, who on learning that Gerets had owned five Great Danes as pets through his life, made it his project to find him one in Istanbul.

It was a hard search.

Georges was located in Hungary and imported to Turkey, where one or two people noticed that his colouring – black and white – made him look rather like a follower of Galatasaray’s local rivals, Besiktas.

Gerets’ Al Jazira wore their Besiktas-like black-and-white stripes at the weekend; they did not play like a Gerets-like team.

At least, that was the verdict of the Belgian, who lamented the defensive flaws that, to his mind, cost two points in the 2-2 draw with Fujairah. His players can expect to be called out again, as they were after the Fujairah game, when they err.

What you get with Gerets is candour. The media tend to appreciate that, although he is not straightforward for their benefit, but rather to create a frank and secure working environment. No plots, no secrets, no favouritism.

“He does what he says he’s going to do and he doesn’t judge players on status,” said Christophe Dugarry, a former France striker who works as a pundit on French football.

“I would have liked to play under him. He’d have got the best out of me, even though I had a difficult character in some ways.”

A measure of how Marseille valued Gerets, 60, is that when they were preparing, last spring, to appoint their fourth coach in the five years since he left, they seriously considered him for the role.

There is still a feeling there that he contributed important foundation stones for Marseille’s Ligue 1 title in 2010, achieved under Didier Deschamps.

He has also proved time and again that big clubs, with all the attendant pressures and influences, do not daunt him.

The big stages never did when he was a player, integral to the Belgium national side’s most sustained period of preeminence, in the 1980s.

A tough, attacking right-back, he was known as the “Lion of Rekem” – Rekem is his home village, just over the border from the Netherlands city of Maastricht – largely as a tribute to his competitive zeal, but also his beard and long hair.

He played 86 times for his country, including in the final of the 1980 European championship, a 2-1 loss to West Germany, and the 1982 World Cup, where in the group stage Belgium defeated 1-0 the Argentina of a young Diego Maradona.

He played briefly with AC Milan and next joined PSV Eindhoven, where he was the captain in 1988 when the Netherlands side won the European Cup, defeating Benfica in a shootout.

While in Eindhoven, he played for the coach Guus Hiddink, who became a long-term mentor.

Gerets, like Hiddink, prefers his teams well-organised but also enterprising.

There are a number of modern creative players who would credit him with pushing forward their careers, boosting their confidence: Samir Nasri progressed under him at Marseille, as did Hatem Ben Arfa.

At the same time, he has bruised some notable egos.

The young Ruud van Nistelrooy, who scored freely under Gerets at PSV, was miffed when he was left out the starting XI. Ditto Djibril Cisse at Marseille.

When Gerets was in charge of the Morocco national squad, he risked alienating many Moroccans by dropping the showman Adel Taarabt.

For Gerets, reputations are there to be earned, week on week, not presented as guarantees of privilege.

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