Luc Eymael has turned Free State Stars around this season - they are near the top of the league table as the nomad coach has taken the perennial under-achievers and made them into title hopefuls.
Tom Saintfiet, Ernst Middendorp, Giovanni Solinas and Denis Lavagne - all former Free State Stars coaches - advised Luc Eymael against taking the job at the Bethlehem-based outfit in August last year.

“I phoned all these guys because they are my friends, and they all told me I was going to the bush, where there’s a stupid chairman (Mike Mokoena), stupid people. But it’s been the complete opposite,” the 58-year-old Eymael says.

The Belgian ignored the warning from his predecessors and, unsurprisingly, has taken to the “bush” like a wild dog.

Ea Lla Koto, as Stars are known, are defying the odds in the Absa Premiership this season. With Eymael in charge, despite having only arrived two matches into the campaign following the sacking of Sammy Troughton, Stars are in fifth place, tied with Kaizer Chiefs who are third on the table, and just six points adrift of Mamelodi Sundowns - the log leaders - at the halfway mark.

“I have found people who are upfront with me and enjoy my work,” the coach says.

“I have also found a nice group of players. It’s not my problem the other guys were unhappy here. I don’t want to judge anybody, but I have followed their careers and I know what they have done and why, Solinas for example, leaves clubs.”

His colleagues also criticised Stars for not having quality players, citing that as a reason for struggling to turn the club into more than just a side trying to avoid relegation every season.

But Eymael has always been an overachiever with several titles across the continent and turning Polokwane City into dark horses in the championship race two years ago.

“Yes, I don’t have the names that are at Chiefs or Orlando Pirates.

“But okay, for me what is important is that the players want to work. It’s true that we don’t have 22 players of the same level, but when you arrive at a club, it’s your job to try and improve the players at your disposal,” he says.

“They have also adapted very quickly to my methods of training, which was most important to me. The results are there. I spoke to the chairman and told him I would like to have 22 points at the end of the first round, and we have obtained that. I am humble enough to know that I am not better than anybody else, but I am wise enough to know that I am perhaps different - certainly in my methods of training.”

And it’s true.

Eymael first arrived in SA as the head coach of Polokwane City, a relationship that ended in tears and is still costing the coach R30 000 a month as he is forced to pay compensation for having asked to be released from his contract prematurely.

In fact, his appointment as Bloemfontein Celtic coach is a footnote on his CV because Eymael never got permission from the Premier Soccer League to sit on the bench until the club washed their hands and walked away from the drama with Polokwane City.

It’s his thick skin and character building experiences across several other countries in Africa that have helped Eymael bounce back.

“I have been at a lot of clubs on this continent, and it is only here and in Gabon where I received a payslip. I enjoy working in South Africa. I came back to prove to everyone what I can do despite things that happened in Polokwane that have never happened to any other coach in this league,” he says.

You get the sense, however, that Eymael will not stick around for too long at Stars if a bigger, more lucrative, offer comes his way.

His CV suggests he is somewhat of a nomad. He has already turned down offers from Platinum Stars, who then hired Roger de Sa, the Uganda national team, and also Ajax Cape Town, who have since reunited with Muhsin Ertugral for the fourth time.

“Things happen,” is Eymael’s response to a question about his job-hopping.

“Before I came to Africa I was at one club for four years. I saw that the fourth year was too much. The maximum that you can stay, for me, is three years. You can either change the team or the coach because there are some habits that develop. And also when offers come it’s difficult to refuse.”

Stars might already have a back-up in case Eymael jumps ship.

“I have promised not to leave the club for a normal team, and if I leave, I will help them find a good coach,” he reveals. “I am very happy here and I have a buy-out clause. But if Ivory Coast come knocking, how can I say no? I have never been fired.”

Ea Lla Koto resume their Premier League schedule on Friday with an away fixture at the home of struggling defending champions Bidvest Wits, and the pursuit of their highest ever finish - fourth place in 2009 - is on.

“This is the most balanced league in Africa if I compare it to the DRC, Sudan, Gabon, Kenya and Algeria, where the big teams dominate. Here anybody can beat anybody,” says Eymael.

“You know, I don’t have a mandate. But I have said I want Free State Stars to be in the top eight. If I succeed, I would have reached my target.”


The Star

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