“There’s a bit of tension about these games,” says Michel Preud’homme, not without a hint of irony, as the countdown continues to one of the most important matches of his coaching career: tomorrow’s Dutch title decider in Amsterdam between his FC Twente side and Ajax.
The mastermind behind Standard Liege’s first Belgian championship win in 25 years, an achievement he followed up by making KAA Gent league runners-up and cup winners, the ex-Mechelen and Benfica idol is now on the brink of Eredivisie glory. Once rated the best goalkeeper in the world, Preud’homme steered the men from Enschede to Dutch Cup success against Ajax last weekend and is bracing himself for another decisive meeting with the Amsterdam giants, one his side only need to draw to be crowned champions.
Finding time for an exclusive interview with FIFA.com in his intensive schedule, the former Belgium custodian was in relaxed mood as he spoke about the showdown and discussed his winning mentality and coaching philosophy.
FIFA.com: You’ve never been involved in a last-day title decider before. How do feel going into the game and do you think your experience will give you an advantage?
Michel Preud’homme: The title’s always at stake whenever you have a big game. At Standard the decider was the home match with Anderlecht four games from the end of the season. If they’d won that, they’d have got back into the race. Obviously things aren’t quite the same here because there’s no second chance. You can’t compare one game to the other but there are things you can draw on and refer to. My experience is obviously a help, even if it is a unique situation for me. Everything I’ve been through as a player and coach is a bonus because every situation you’re in makes you stronger. The most important thing is obviously to react to things as they happen, whether it’s before or during a game, such as at half-time. You always have to be on your guard, and that’s why a coach needs to keep his head clear, so that he can react in the right way at the right time.
Twente beat Ajax in the Dutch Cup final last weekend. Does that give you a psychological advantage?
Well, as I’ve already been saying, this match will be totally different. To start with, we’re playing in Amsterdam and not at a neutral stadium, and the whole crowd will be against us. So you can’t compare the two at all. We’re in the lead right now and a draw is all we need to be champions. My team have shown that they can perform away from home and that they can play their own game. We produced some good football at Werder Bremen, Tottenham [Hotspur] and at Inter Milan [in this season’s UEFA Champions League]. The team can handle the pressure and can hurt other teams when it wants to.
Twente only need a point. Are you tempted to play for a draw?
We could go out and look for a draw. I’ve done that before with the Belgian national team. We said, “We’ll play for a 0-0 and if we can get a goal on the break, let’s go for it”. But we were set up to play like that because we were well-organised at the back, and Twente aren’t used to playing that way. You can’t change a team’s mindset from one day to the next. Obviously, you can tighten things up at the back late on in a game, to hold on to a result, but I’d never ask my players to go and do something they weren’t used to. You have to stick to your principles, even if it means losing.
So what are your principles?
So far I’ve been lucky enough to coach teams that aim for the top, like Standard and Gent, while sticking to my principles too. I understand coaches who use what they’ve got and play a defensive game, but I have an attacking philosophy and I’ve always believed that you have to urge your teams to take the initiative. Twente had been tracking me for a few years and approached me because of my principles. They knew how I worked and when I came here the club had already won the championship and the foundations in place were fantastic. All I had to do was add my personal touch and help the team get even better, just as my successor will do.
Twente midfielder Bryan Ruiz recently told us that you’ve brought your winning mentality to the club and that the team needed it after winning that title you mentioned. Where do you get your motivation from?
It’s been a part of me ever since my playing days. I had it drummed into me as a youth player at Standard, where we were programmed to win. Sometimes they ask you to win with style and I always prefer it that way. First and foremost, though, we were taught to win. When I stop feeling that way, I’ll give it up. I retired from playing when I was 40 and still in good physical shape. The only thing is I didn’t want to put myself through any more pain. I can’t function any other way. This Twente team has that same desire: to see things through to the end.
You seem to be calmer now than when you first started coaching in Belgium. Has that helped you become a better coach?
It makes me laugh because they focus a lot here on the way I behave on the touchline. Some coaches show no emotions, while others are always jumping around and still don’t get any labels stuck to them. But when you’ve got a background they talk about you more. I know we’ve got an example to set so I try not to go over the top, but when I do overreact I’m not necessarily having a go at anyone in particular. Well, the referees maybe, but name me a coach who doesn’t do that? That’s also part of my make-up as a winner.
Ajax coach Frank de Boer has told us he is like a father to his players. Is that a good description of you too?
Paternalistic is not the right word because I don’t want to control my players’ private lives. I come out and say good and bad things to them, like people do with their kids, but I see myself as more of a big brother to them. I want the players to know they can count on me, that I’m there for them when they need me. I’m a stickler for rules and organisation, but I laugh with them too and I like to share a joke or two.