Eric Gerets, or the discourse on the method
As demanding on himself as he is on others, Eric Gerets is not cutting any corners to achieve the goal he has set himself for next season – taking Marseille to the top of the French league.
He laps up compliments and sidesteps questions with a sombre voice so as to give an assured impression. 54-year-old Eric Gerets alternately shocks, impresses, fascinates and surprises people. The Lion of Rekem has Marseille in the palm of his hands. Everyone sits up to listen to the subtle tactician, admire the convincing communicator and respect the leader of men. The Belgian has managed to revamp Marseille without playing the great dictator. “You have to create an atmosphere in which everyone feels at home,” explains the former international in his managerial office located in the training centre and club headquarters. “Creating a good atmosphere means five or six points more a season.” His availability and accessibility have seemingly prevented him from staying longer than three years with any club since he began coaching in 1992. “My method of working means that I can’t stay anywhere for more than three years because I don’t distance myself much from the team. My office is always open if a player wants to talk about a personal problem. In one way, you become friends with the players but it can also be dangerous because it can be misunderstood. To stay any longer at a club, I would have to be more detached but I don’t like coaching that way. That’s the only way I can be the kind of coach I want to be, and it enables me to travel and to see different places.” And he has certainly been around: winning the European Cup with PSV Eindhoven in 1988, playing for Bruges and Lierse in his native Belgium, answering the call of Kaiserslautern and Wolfsburg in Germany, appearing for Galatasaray in Turkey and finally turning up in France in September 2007.
As a well-informed linguist, the former defender thrives on his experiences: “When I stop training, those experiences will be my heritage.” For him, adapting to different circumstances is not an obstacle. “It is only the details that change; the work and the way you approach it are always the same wherever you coach. But you can’t control everything — like Ramadan in Turkey, for instance. You can’t change people’s culture and customs – that’s not the object of the exercise,” he explains. “He couldn’t possibly criticise anyone in dressing rooms over there; that was just not done. He had to change his methods for that country,” points out his friend, Eric van Meir, former captain at Lierse, 1997 Belgian champions. When he was called upon by Marseille chairman Pape Diouf to succeed Albert Emon, the previous season’s runners-up were floundering in 19th place and confidence had taken a knock.
“THE BEST OUT OF EVERY PLAYER”
People who know him well, such as Van Meir, say Gerets, far away from his abode in the quiet town of Limbourg, is just the man to set the Provencal ship sailing again. “With the club under such pressure, there’s only one person who could possibly manage it and at the same restore order, and that’s him. He knows how to get the best out of every player and I’m a perfect example of that. Under his leadership, I was an international player and second best league scorer. He brought out my true potential. With Lierse in 1997, even the substitutes played their hearts out. They believed that the coach was relying on them and that they would have their turn. He just had a knack with words.”
“My job is to get the best out of a group, both individually and as a team, and it’s what I enjoy doing. Sometimes if I don’t manage it, I get very upset,” admits Gerets, puffing away on a cigar. “When Samir Nasri wasn’t making any headway the way he was supposed to, it worried me and I tried to find a solution and make adjustments.” Gerets is a stickler for precision. In his opinion, a footballer must feel at ease and in his best position on the pitch to perform to his full potential. “I personally don’t set too much store by systems; I have my own preferences. What’s important is to put the players in their optimum position – in the very spot where they perform best.”
He laughs and smiles a lot, enjoys teasing and chatting. But, if need be, he can also bang his fist on the table and tell people off. He is a very demanding person. “And a bad loser,” comments his son, Johan, a central defender with Dender in the Belgian first division. “What I want is to win and I don’t care who the opponent is,” asserts his father, who shows a dislike for privilege and other preferential treatment. “He is just as demanding in how he allocates his time, whether during training or during a match. You have to give 110% when you play for him or else you’re in trouble because he hates doing things by halves,” explains Johan, who still remembers how fiercely they used to play football in the back garden. “When I beat him for the first time when I was 14, he said, “That’s it; no more football’. And that was the end of football.”
As captain of Standard Liege, and Belgian champion in 1983, wherever he has been, Gerets has won practically everything, either as a player or as a coach.
And for next season, his goal is perfectly clear — the league championship with Marseille. He already know that entails a few sacrifices. It is a task in which his method will have a key role to play. “He is hard on himself and on others. He was like that as a player. It’s easy to talk to him; that’s no problem. But if you don’t take your work seriously, you’re in for big trouble. With him, there’s no room for mediocrity,” affirms Van Meir. “Sometimes you have shake the players to wake them,” explains The Lion, whose method can be summed up as “90% pitch and 10% dressing room”.
Although frank as a private person, as a coach he is less open in the field of tactical discipline. “Good organisation is the bulk of the work,” reckons the Marseille coach. A pragmatic, wily psychologist, Gerets is also aware that his profession has undergone huge change and that without good people and leadership skills he would be going nowhere. “The main change since the 1980s has been communication with the players. If you don’t master that, then you’re doomed. The psychological factor has always been important but we used to leave it until the game to work that out,” he confesses. Nostalgia means very little to him. It is not his style. “Life is changing, the world is changing and so is football – that’s normal. All the better – it makes life less boring.” He will probably bow out in “three to four years at the most”. Will he still be with Marseille then? “I don’t know. Life is so fast in football, it’s difficult to predict.”