They say 90 minutes is a long time in football. It’s true. Last Sunday at 18.00, Anderlecht were firm favourites to win a fourth successive Belgian title. With two home games and a visit to a totally demotivated Kortrijk, the championship was in the bag.
At 19.45, Anderlecht’s dreams were in tatters. A home draw with Standard Liege meant that it was now Gent’s title to lose. Earlier in the day, the Buffalos had unexpectedly won at the Jan Breydel stadium, effectively ending Michel Preud’homme’s Club Brugge’s hopes of the championship.
The focus immediately switched to Thursday night’s match at the Ghelamco Arena where Standard will be Gent’s visitors. A win for the home side will mean they will be Belgian champions for the first time in their history. The game is sold out with tickets reportedly available – not many – for over 1500 euros each.
It’s a remarkable story. Despite a budget of only 25 million euros, Gent are one of Belgium’s ‘Big Five’, but in the second tier – along with Racing Genk – a long way behind Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Standard Liège in the pecking order.
Two events have changed the picture. The first was in 2013 when their new ground was completed. The Ghelamco Arena is the only state-of-the-art stadium in Belgium. The second – and perhaps more important in many people’s eyes – was in 2014 when the club hired Hein Vanhaezebrouck.
Vanhaezebrouck is little-known outside Belgium. He’s had two spells at Kortrijk, seven years in total, winning the second division title and taking his team to the Belgian Cup Final in 2012. His work at Kortrijk has always been appreciated and it took him to Racing Genk in 2009. Unfortunately there was never any real chemistry between coach and management with Vanhaezebrouck being sacked after just six months.
After his second spell at Kortrijk, Vanhaezebrouck was appointed by Gent at the start of the current
season. He took over an unfancied club, one that has had six coaches since January 2013. He cleared out a few unwanted players and gave prominent roles to several players he’d worked with at Kortrijk. These included Israeli centre back Rami Gershon, much-travelled Sven Kums and two youngsters – Benito Raman and Brecht Dejaegere.
Vanhaezebrouck is certainly in charge of a team without any household names. Due to Gent’s results this season, Matz Sels was the runner–up in the Players’ Keeper of the Year voting, while Laurent Depoitre is still in with a shout for Players’ Player of the Year. Then there is Moses Simon, recently capped by Nigeria, who arrived in January as a total unknown and immediately hit the headlines to the extent that the club has slapped a 20 million euro price tag on the speedy winger.
Vanhaezebrouck seems to have learnt from his unhappy spell at Genk. He is a veritable man of the people; friendly and hard-working. He seems able to live with stress and he’s a top man-manager, often getting the most out of players who have had problems elsewhere.
Midfielder Kums is an example of the way in which Vanhaezebrouck works. After playing over 100 games for Kortrijk, mostly under Vanhaezebrouck, Kums moved to the Netherlands with Heerenveen. After Marco van Basten was appointed there, Kums moved back to Belgium to join Zulte Waregem.
He never made the headlines – they were dominated by Thorgan Hazard – and in the summer, Vanhaezebrouck brought him to Gent and promptly made him captain. Last Sunday, against Club Brugge, Kums was the man of the match.
If Gent win tonight, they will deserve the title. They have lost only one match in 2015, and that was to an extra time goal against Charleroi. A win would lead to Gent being in the Champions League draw and the name of Hein Vanhaezebrouck being better known outside of Belgium’s borders. But there’s still 90 long minutes to go.
Good Lord what an exciting finale to a completely bewildering play-off system!
So many unknown clubs, so many unpronouncable names.
Yet John Chapman once again brings all Belgian football to life with breathless
prose and and just a hint of irony.
Why isn’t he writing for the Grauniad?
Hi there, thanks for kind comments. The Guardian can’t afford me. And Hein Vanhaezebrouck did the job.