Hein Vanhaezebrouck inspiration behind Gent's success in Belgium
Hein Vanhaezebrouck is not an easy name to pronounce, but you should get used to it. He is very likely to be on the bench in the Champions League group stages next season, as his Gent side are closing in on a very unexpected title in Belgium.
Their run can't be compared to the unbelievable challenge of Targu Mures in Romania, but it is sensational nevertheless. After all, Gent have never won the championship. During the summer, nobody could have imagined they would succeed this term after failing to finish in the top six in the previous two years and Vanhaezebrouck is now rightfully considered a miracle worker.
That doesn't mean Gent are not ambitious. Established in 1864, representing one of the biggest towns in Belgium and boasting a very considerable fan base, they see themselves as a top club, even though they have only won the Belgian Cup three times in their entire history. The management did their best to overcome countless obstacles to build a brand new stadium, the Ghelamco Arena. Opened two years ago, it is the most modern venue in the country and a long term plan is in place to take the team to the top.
Vanhaezebrouck was the man supposed to end the managerial merry-go-round which made Gent famous as "the coaches' cemetery". Five of them, including the likes of Victor Fernandez and Mircea Rednic, came and failed during the previous four years, before the club finally got their man.
"It is the beginning of a new era. Hein has long been on our wish list," chairman Ivan De Witte claimed when presenting the new coach to the press.
Little wonder -- Vanhaezebrouck might be totally unknown internationally but he is very highly respected in Belgium. A below-average central defender at modest Belgian side Harelbeke in his playing days, Vanhaezebrouck was named as coach at Kortrijk, the town of his birth, in 2006 and promptly changed their fortunes. Kortrijk were promoted to the first division in 2008 and pundits were impressed with the tactical nous of the young coach, whose 3-5-2 lineup managed to avoid relegation on a very limited budget.
Vanhaezebrouck was quite inventive. Intriguingly he once found a player, Istvan Bakx, using a simple Google search. Having read positive remarks on the internet about the amateur left-footed attacker, he sent scouts to check him up and eventually Bakx proved to be a great success at Kortrijk.
Such a Midas touch prompted Genk to give Vanhaezebrouck a job in the summer of 2009, but he wasn't ready for the pressure and struggled at the big club back then.
Genk president Herbert Houben harshly criticised him for stubbornness, saying: "Vanhaezebrouck lacks the necessary dose of self-criticism. We can't understand why he makes many decisions against the will of others. It seems like he thinks that he is the only intelligent coach around, but the results show differently."
Eventually, the coach was gone before the end of November.
Luckily for Vanhaezebrouck, Kortrijk were ready to take him back. George Leekens, who replaced him in 2009, left for the Belgium national team and the former club received the prodigal son with open arms.
In the four seasons that followed, Vanhaezebrouck made the unfortunate Genk spell look an insignificant footnote in his resume. The club was constantly forced to sell the best players, but the coach found able replacements time and time again, proving to be an excellent motivator and a brilliant tactician.
Finally, at 50 and having completely overgrown Kortrijk, Hein was ready for the big move again. This time he made no mistake and was given a free hand by the management. Gent's squad was significantly overhauled during the summer. Players with problematic attitudes like Herve Kage were shown the door while hard-working professionals with positive mentality were welcomed. Crucially, Vanhaezebrouck signed many players who worked under him in the past.
Israeli centre-back Rami Gershon, who impressed at Kortrijk two years ago and had a short spell at Celtic, was a low-profile signing but became a major success. Young local favourite Benito Raman, who grew up at Gent academy and is nicknamed Speedy Gonzalez for his quick feet, played on loan at Kortrijk last season. Midfield general Sven Kums, who was immediately promoted to captain, originally made his name at Kortrijk as well. Brecht Dejaegere, who was raised as a goalkeeper at Club Brugge until the age of 16 before being told that he is too short, switched to midfield at Kortrijk, made his debut under Vanhaezebrouck and was transferred to Gent in 2013.
They all settled in very well and the biggest surprise was Laurent Depoitre, who arrived from tiny Oostende without any expectations. The striker improved mightily under Vanhaezebrouck and became the leading scorer, contributing 13 goals so far.
In January, an even bigger surprise awaited the fans when an unknown 19-year-old Nigerian winger Moses Simon was signed from Trencin of Slovakia for just €800,000. He has turned out to be a true star -- amazingly skillful, fast, naturally two-footed and possessing a great eye for goal.
Now general manager Michel Louwagie rates him at €20million at least. "We must get rid of modesty. Memphis Depay goes to Manchester United for €30million. Why is he worth more than the best players from the Belgium? Our players are better than those from the Dutch league, our competition is more intense, but we still get lower prices," he said.
The atmosphere was positive from the beginning even though Vanhaezebrouck made the players work hard in the preseason, with three training sessions per day at times. Nobody dared to dream of the first place and the original goal was to qualify for the championship playoffs, which means finishing in the top 6.
Positive results have helped to build confidence, but even in February De Witte stated: "We must become champions in the next five years. Hein has a good vision, and I am sure he can lead us to the title, but this season it's a little too early."
Incredibly, Vanhaezebrouck proved that the timing was just right. Bold Gent have improved with every passing month and ended the regular season with eight wins and two draws in the final 10, easily qualifying for the championship playoffs in second place, just four points behind Brugge.
They became even better recently, thrashing Standard Liege away thanks to an outrageous long range effort by the lanky Danish striker Nicklas Pedersen and beating Anderlecht with an injury time winner by the reborn Brazilian midfielder Renato Neto.
On Sunday, Gent snatched a dramatic 3-2 local derby win at Brugge, with the brilliant Raman scoring on 87 minutes to put his team four points clear of Anderlecht with just two games left. A home win over Standard on Thursday will clinch a historic first title and the visitors' fans will be glad with such an outcome, as their hated rivals from Brussels will lose their crown.
"I have never said we won't win the title. We just adjusted our goals step by step," jubilant Vanhaezebrouck has said, but he warns the fight isn't over yet: "We must remain calm because everything changes very quickly in these playoffs."
The picturesque town of Gent is now preparing for celebrations. General manager Louwagie, formerly a holder of Belgian swimming record, promised to jump into the local Leie river if the team win the title. Having lost just once in 2015, they will be deserved champions and the credit must go to Vanhaezebrouck.
"Hein is incredible from the tactical point of view. He switches between systems and is always able to surprise opponents," Niels Poissonnier of Het Laatste Nieuws told ESPN FC.
Next season, he will try and surprise the likes of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, as Gent are about to enter the new era much earlier than expected.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin