Few in Belgium believe that Michel Preud’homme will go his entire career without being appointed national team coach, it just seems written in the stars. The former keeper, who enjoyed notable spells with Standard Liege, Mechelen and Benfica, is now one of the most promising young managers in Belgian football and seemingly has a bright future.

Two years ago Preud’homme led his one of his former clubs – Standard Liege – to their first Belgian title in 25 years. And this season he has moulded Gent into one of the best teams in the Jupiler League, having guided the Flemish side to second place, their highest finish since 1955. This important achievement means that next season Gent will enjoy the spotlight of the Champions League, hoping to navigate their way through the preliminary round. Should they do so it will undoubtedly be the finest moment in a long long history – the club was formed in 1864 and is one of the founders of the Belgian Football Association.

Gent are a club steeped in history. Their nickname is De Buffalos, a term coined after a visit from the original Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Circus to the city in the early 1900s. It obviously had quite an impact, as a native American chief was chosen as the symbol of the club. Gent were known by the French name of La Gantoise until a decision was made to switch to the Dutch version in 1971.

Although Gent have been in the Belgian top flight since the 1989/90 season, the club have always failed to win the title: Simply put, the Buffalos have not been able to compete with the economic power of the country’s three giants – Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Standard Liege. Usually Gent’s budget stands at about half of Standard’s and almost a third of Anderlecht’s. In 2008, under Norwegian coach Trond Sollied, the club reached the cup final (they have lifted the trophy twice before in 1964 and 1984), however Anderlecht proved too strong and saw off the upstarts 3-2.

The following season Sollied left the Jules Ottenstadion for Dutch side Heerenveen and Preud’homme was appointed the new boss. The former keeper had just won the Belgian Coach of the Year award for a successful campaign with Standard Liege. Preud’homme went on record as saying he had departed Liege because he simply could not see a future with the club anymore, but the main reason seemed to be clear for all to see: Gent were offering more money.

Preud’homme switched Sollied’s 4-3-3 system into a 4-4-2 and at first found the going tough. In the first half of the season Gent lay stuck in mid-table, although things changed after the winter break with new arrivals Stef Wils, Tim Smolders and Adna Custovic, along with explosive Costa Rica forward Bryan Ruiz (Ruiz would go on to be included in the Jupiler League’s best eleven at the end of the season). Gent ended the 2008/09 season fourth, with the same number of points as giants Club Brugge, but worse goal difference.

The curse of a poor start seemed to stick with them for the current campaign, as Roma handed out a humiliating 7-1 home defeat in qualifying for the Europa League. However, Preud’homme gradually raised the team’s performance in the Jupiler League and then the championship playoffs where Gent started in third and ended in second. De Buffalo finished their season in style with a 6-2 win over Club Brugge in the last game of the playoffs. And this Saturday (15th May), Gent will take to the pitch for in the final of the Belgian Cup against Cercle Brugge.

Senegal forward Elimane Coulibaly, the club’s top scorer with 13 goals, and Costa Rica midfielder Randall Azofeifa, have been two of the key players in Gent’s rise. Azofeifa arrived in Belgium in 2006 alongside countryman Bryan Ruiz. Both were scouted by former Gent general manager Michael Louwagie, but, unlike Ruiz, Azofeifa has been inconsistent, with flashes of brilliance interspersed with dips in form. The 25-year-old is a fine passer and his shots are, as the Belgian press say, “as sharp as a razor’s edge.” Azofeifa still has some way to go though in order to show he can step up to a bigger league.

Preud’homme has won praise for discovering and developing talented youngsters, such as Belgian-Moroccan midfielder Yassine El Ghanassy. The 19-year-old joined the Buffalos in the summer of 2008 from La Louivere and has already impressed with his vision and pace. Having been labelled by home fans “little [Mbark] Boussoufa” (the midfielder is considered the club’s best player of the last 10 years) great things are expected. El Ghanassy notched his first goal against Naftan Novopolotsk in Europa League qualifying.

Gent’s coach was one of the best goalkeepers in the world over a long career and the first winner of the Yashin Award as the finest keeper at the 1994 World Cup. With Mechelen Preud’homme won the Belgian Cup in 1987, the Cup Winners Cup and European Super Cup in 1988 and the Belgian league title in 1989. While the 51-year-old’s coaching career has been short so far, the signs are it could be similarly marked with success. Whether Gent will be the main beneficiaries only time will tell: Their fans will hope so.


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