Since taking his seat in the Marseille dugout last September, Belgian coach Eric Gerets has garnered praise from every corner of the French game. The 'Lion of Rekem' came in when l'OM were floundering in 19th place in Ligue 1, but he has reversed their fortunes dramatically since then, lifting them into the coveted UEFA Champions League qualification berths.

Having been brought out of retirement, which he was spending on his farm in Limbourg after a spell at Galatasaray, the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™ semi-finalist has already proved his worth at the Mediterranean club. A UEFA European Cup winner as a player, with PSV Eindhoven in 1988, Gerets began coaching in 1992. Since then, he has held the reins at eight clubs and won trophies with nearly all of them.

Now enjoying life at Marseille, the Belgian's success, popularity and candour inspire parallels with his predecessor and compatriot Raymond Goethals, who took the club to the European summit. Matching that triumph may be a tough ask, but Gerets harbours big ambitions for Marseille and was happy to share a few of his secrets in this exclusive interview with Eric, there is a genuine feeling that the real star at Marseille these days is you. How do you explain the buzz surrounding you?
Eric Gerets:
It's true to say that Gerets and OM fit well together, but I knew that beforehand. My character and personality fit 100 per cent with the Marseille mentality. Added to that, everywhere I go I try to respect the local culture, speak the language and get my team playing the kind of football people enjoy watching. So far, I feel very good here at Marseille.

You say you are very close to the players, but your reputation when you arrived was that of a very strict coach who emphasised discipline and work. Is it possible to be close and strict at the same time?
You have to be delicate and forceful at the same time. You must never forget either of these two approaches because the day when it becomes really necessary to slam your fist on the table, you won't be able to. The same applies if you have to take a softly-softly tack. What's fundamental is that a player is made to feel at ease with himself so that he trains and plays well.

Marseille were 19th when you arrived, but six months later they are third in the table. How exactly did you go about changing things around?
It took a specific approach to get confidence flowing again. Everyone knew this team could play well but just weren't doing it. For that to happen, each player needed to feel good about himself and play in his correct position. We also worked on not losing the ball so quickly. When you are able to string together ten to 15 passes without the other team getting a touch, you pick up confidence and you automatically take more risks. Lastly, we had to end the fear of playing at the Velodrome (Marseille's home). The mutual affection eventually came back and we went on a good run.

Marseille experienced a slump after being eliminated from Europe. Were you surprised by the fragility of your squad?
You get to see a team's strength at its worst moments. Actually, that's the difference between Marseille and Lyon: Lyon have enough resources, especially mental resources, not to lose when they are playing badly.

Can you reduce this mental weakness?
Yes, I'll have to analyse and change certain things during the summer. I'll need to find players whose character and mentality make it possible for them to get through the more difficult moments.

Is it risky to put faith in young and inexperienced players at Marseille?
In this job, putting someone out on the pitch who doesn't deserve to be there is as good as signing your own redundancy papers. The only thing that matters is to get the club winning, not which players are doing it. I have my own rules of conduct and I can look players in the eye when I explain to them why they are playing or not.

After six months in France, what do you make of the quality of football in Ligue 1?
The football is elegant in France but it lacks pace. And the level of play is not going to improve while the best players continue to leave the country. I'm not optimistic about the future. I have the impression that what's happening in France is what happened in Belgium a few years ago. The Bundesliga is stronger, but for me the Premier League is the best.

How do you explain that the majority of coaches at the moment are former players?
Ex-players have the advantage of gaining the respect of the squad before their first training session. What's more, when you've been a professional you're able to put yourself in the shoes of your players better. You know what they're thinking and that makes it easier to act. But, whatever happens, results will dictate your path.

Former defenders often preach the virtues of attacking football when they become coaches, while former strikers and attacking midfielders often favour a more defensive style. Why do you think this is?
In my case, I was an extremely attacking defender. I actually started out in football as a forward and that has helped me a lot. What matters most is to have players behind the ball every time you lose it and to go forward whenever you get possession. You need players who take risks and who are disciplined. Players need to have very specific characteristics.

A lot of your colleagues believe that the best form of attack is defence and that without good defensive foundations you cannot attack properly. Would you agree with that?
I'm more tempted to say this: if you don't have a very good defence, it's perhaps better to attack than allow the possibility of your opponent putting pressure on your defence.

The job of a coach seems to be becoming more and more precarious. Is that your impression?
It's not a new thing, far from it. When you start out in this business, you need to remember that so that you don't suffer for no reason. You have to do your best and choose your team well to play physical and technical football. But there are certain intangibles in this job: you can be good for a year and bad two weeks later. That said, you get to experience great joys. When you manage to turn a team like OM around, it gives you a wonderful feeling.

Being a coach is obviously very tiring. How long are you planning to carry on in the game?
It's true that unlike players, who can switch off after training, a coach is invested 100 per cent mentally at every second. I'm thinking of carrying on for another three or four years maximum. I wanted to quit at 53 (Gerets will be 54 in May), but circumstances dictated that I'm still here. If, as a coach, you have four or five players in your team who understand that your job isn't over when training finishes, then you're lucky. That's why you need to shake them up from time to time, to keep them awake.

What is your favourite memory as a coach?
The Belgian title with Lierse in 1997, without a doubt. The team played magnificent football at the time, just superb. There was a good mix of youngsters and veterans, and they were all hungry. The officials went along with what I proposed and it worked. It was also very positive for the rest of my career, because it was a more unexpected success than those I achieved with PSV, (Club) Brugge or Galatasaray.

And as a player?
There were so many titles, cups and finals that I couldn't pick any one out in particular. But I must say that I always experienced a special feeling every time I heard the national anthem while wearing the shirt of the Red Devils. And I won 86 caps! I'm happy to have played in that era, the great era of the Red Devils.

Do you know what you want to do after Marseille, assuming you will not be staying more than your usual three years at the club?
Things move so quickly in football that you can't make plans, even in the medium term. I'd love to finish my career in Belgium to tie things together beautifully. On the other hand, if that went badly, it would be a shame to end with a failure.