The high hopes with which Olympic Marseille began the 2007-08 season have swiftly given way to disappointment. After nine games, the club find themselves in a less-than-glorious 17th place in the league. In a bid to stop the rot, the Marseille board decided to replace head coach Albert Emon, who had guided the club to Champions League qualification last season, with the experienced Eric Gerets. The Belgian was a surprise choice, to say the least. The names most often thrown into the mix when the identity of Emon's successor was being discussed were those of Didier Deschamps, Jean Tigana and Bruno Metsu.
However, according to Marseille President Pape Diouf, the decision to go with Gerets was no snap response, but the result of long and careful consideration. The two men first met a couple of years ago when OM were looking for a replacement for Jean Fernandez, after he left for Auxerre. At the time, however, the Belgian was under contract at Galatasary and was therefore unable to take up a role. Delighted at their approach first time around, the former Belgian international hoped that destiny would provide him with another chance to link up with Marseille at some point in the future, and so it proved. "When Marseille declared their interest, I didn't hesitate in agreeing. The club has a huge reputation and there is a big job to be done here. I like that!" said Gerets on his arrival in Provence.
After claiming the runners-up spot in Ligue 1 last season, Marseille's demanding supporters were expecting to see their team do at least as well this year. However, they have already had to downgrade their expectations. After the first nine games, they find themselves 12 points behind joint leaders Lyon and Nancy. Languishing perilously close to the relegation zone, instead of anticipating a battle for the title, they must now contemplate a struggle for survival.
A winner and a saviour
"The team has too much talent to be in this situation," said Gerets ahead of his first training session. "I'm extremely happy to be in charge of a team like Marseille. Coming here was not a random decision on my part. The only thing that is wrong at the moment is the results. There's a big responsibility on my shoulders to put that right."
If Marseille wanted a fire-fighter, the role would seem tailor-made for Gerets. While his impressive trophy haul and winner's mentality may have been the primary factors behind his appointment, the Belgian is also something of a specialist when it comes to saving clubs threatened by relegation. In February 2004, he was called in to revive FC Kaiserslautern, then languishing near the foot of the Bundesliga. Four months later, the club was celebrating its survival in the top flight. When VfL Wolfsburg found themselves in a similar position in April 2005, they too turned to Gerets to save the day. You can guess the outcome. The Wolves' place among the elite was secured, and the coach was accorded hero status. The club's president even offered him a contract for life - a proposition that Gerets politely declined.
Gerets' status as a Belgian football legend was firmly established during his playing days. Nicknamed the Lion due to his character and distinctive hairstyle, the former defender was an iconic figure at Standard Liege, the club where he made his debut in 1973 and spent his first 10 seasons. After winning two league titles and a Belgian Cup, he caught the eye of AC Milan, but failed to make an impression in Italy, managing just 13 appearances. It took a move to Holland to set him back on track and bring further additions to his medal collection. During seven seasons with PSV Eindhoven, between 1985 and 1992, he won no less than six league titles and three Dutch Cups, along with a 1988 European Cup winner's medal, before finally hanging up his boots in 1992.
Authority and success
His career as a coach has been characterised by similar success. In 1997, he caused a major shock by leading outsiders Lierse to the Belgian league title, before going on to repeat the feat the following season with FC Bruges. Those back-to-back triumphs paved the way for a move to PSV, where he continued to apply the golden touch. After serving up two Eredivisie titles and two Dutch Supercups at the Phillips Stadium, and following his two-club spell in Germany, where the focus was on survival rather than trophies, Gerets moved to Turkish club Galatasaray in 2005. True to form, he won the title in his first year. A champion in three different countries, and a coach used to delivering success, Gerets could be the perfect man to restore the glory days to Olympique de Marseille, who have been without a trophy since winning the Champions League in 1993.
Eagerly awaited as a saviour, the Lion of Rekem begins his new challenge with Marseille fully aware of the pressure on him to deliver, but unfazed by the task ahead. "I know that there is a lot of pressure at Marseille. But I had two years in Turkey, and it's the same there," he reminded those who predict that he is in for a difficult time. "I don't especially enjoy the pressure, but here you can't avoid it. And it's not something I fear."
His baptism of fire in charge of Marseille could hardly be more of a challenge, as he takes his new charges to Anfield to face Liverpool in the Champions League. Three days later, his domestic debut takes the form of a trip to St. Etienne and the 'cauldron' of the Geoffrey Guichard Stadium. Should Marseille manage to emerge unscathed from those two encounters, Gerets will be well on the way to having the Stade Velodrome in his pocket. The Marseille supporters might even start to wonder if it's a case of history repeating itself. The last Belgian coach to take the helm was one Raymond Goethals back in 1993, and he led them to the first and only Champions League triumph by a French club...