BeNeLook: Yannick Ferrera – AVB’s youth with Simeone’s steel
Standard Liège’s sporting director Axel Lawarée was outlining the credentials of his new manager to the press. “Yannick is a very good communicator. He speaks very good French, Dutch, English and Spanish.” He was swiftly interrupted by the youthful-looking individual sat to his left who remarked “Italian.”
Such is the confidence of 34-year-old Yannick Ferrera who this week put an end to the speculation and denials surrounding his future and left Sint-Truiden for one of Belgium’s biggest clubs and arguably the toughest in which to succeed.
What he is walking into
Even by the standards (no pun intended) of events in recent years at Sclessin, the developments over the past few weeks have been scarcely believable. The sacking of coach Slavoljub Muslin after nine games in charge was followed by allegations from owner Bruno Venanzi on internet show Carrément Steph that a player had paid a manager to play last season and that the manager in question (there were three last year) had accepted the money. There will be no names here but a whole series of legal proceedings have been threatened and initiated as the club scrambles to try and claw back some public credibility.
Ferrera is used to a challenge. At 22, his dream of becoming a professional footballer was at end but undeterred, he resolved to become a top line coach instead. As an assistant, he has learned from two of the best in Belgian football in Francky Dury and Michel Preud’homme whom he followed to the Middle East. Despite the riches on offer, the lure of being number one was too strong and Ferrera took a leap of faith or perhaps foolishness in agreeing to take the Charleroi job. Charleroi at the time were a byword for strife, incompetence and disarray. Just promoted from the second tier, their squad looked to be a ragtag bunch of misfits and rejects – I have written on here before that seldom did a team ever look more destined for the relegation zone. Throw in a 31-year-old coach and all the ingredients are there for a disastrous season (assuming he would last it, which given Charleroi’s history, was quite a big assumption to make).
Against all odds, Charleroi stayed up and secured a spot in Play-Off 2. They copped a couple of beatings at the start of the season but secured top flight football for another season in February 2013 with four games to spare. Ferrera is someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and his wild celebrations following the critical 1-0 win over Lierse were his way of releasing months of pent-up frustration at the hoards of critics who had written both him and his team off. I was one of them. His stock was now high having cut his managerial teeth in a tough environment in which he admitted he feared for his job. That was the chance he had been prepared to take when he left Preud’homme behind in Saudi Arabia. Five days later, he was gone.
What happened in the intervening period was subject to conjecture and debate. The received wisdom was that Ferrera had jumped following internal disapproval of his candid media appearance on Flemish public broadcaster VRT’s flagship football show Extra Time. Denials were issued but his criticism of the club’s training facilities went down like a lead balloon. He was also in a strong position to demand a pay rise from his €3000 per month deal (plus car and accommodation) which was miniscule even by Pro League standards. Ferrera cited a lack of confidence in his work but in truth given the manner in which Charleroi was run, he was likely to have been dispensed with in the summer.
How he does business
Ferrera’s unusual path to the top means he is not always beholden to some of the more traditional methods of the job. When he took over at then second tier Sint-Truiden, he took on a young Will Still as his video analyst and opposition scout. Still in his early twenties, Still took the initiative of writing to the club, setting out his credentials and offering his services. He focused on Physical Education in his school studies in Wavre before completing a BA in Football Coaching at Myerscough College in England, also finding the time for a stint as the assistant boss of Preston North End’s u14 side. Still worked initially on a voluntary basis (he also helped out with training sessions and stated his desire to learn from Ferrera as his boss had learned from Preud’homme) before convincing the club of his importance to the first team and earning a full-time contract.
In contrast to his predecessor Muslin, Ferrera is not someone who is fixated on one system and who will stick to it at all costs. He generally prefers to play with one striker whereas Standard’s oft-quoted DNA is with two but I expect to see a good degree of tactical flexibility during his tenure. Ferrera’s Charleroi were not a particularly potent side but were able to grind out the necessary wins to stay up. STVV have played entertaining football in the top flight this season with a heavy emphasis on speed on the counter attack and players who can beat their man. Club Brugge and Racing Genk have already found themselves on the wrong end of Ferrera’s meticulous attention to detail this season. The downside of this exuberant approach has been a naïve aggression that often frustrated Ferrera. RTBF and Sport/Football magazine’s outstanding expert Alex Teklak has also noted Ferrera’s insistence on playing with a compact central box of two deep midfielders in front of the centrebacks.
This solid base from which to build is reminiscent of Ferrera’s managerial idol. Although he himself has evoked the trailblazing of non-professional coaches who made their mark when they were young (Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas) he sees his own philosophy as more akin to Diego Simeone, whose work in turning around Atlético Madrid has been spectacularly successful in ending the predictable hegemony of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Ferrera may not have El Cholo‘s impeccable playing credentials but he shares his passion and his iron-willed determination to succeed. Ambition is in no short supply and Ferrera has his sights set on a career beyond Belgian shores – there’s plenty of time for that of course.
What Ferrera leaves behind
Ferrera was unable to convince his assistant at STVV, Chris O’Loughlin whom he met on Linkedin and employed following conversations on Skype, to join him in Liège. The Belfast-born O’Loughlin, who grew up in South Africa, has been promoted to the top job in a desire to maintain the continuity of the vision he, Still and Ferrera were implementing at Stayen. STVV is a top flight club in structural terms and while still not particularly flush with money, are moving in the right direction on and off the field. O’Loughlin knows the club and will not change a great deal. He has experience as a head coach with Congolese outfit AS Vita and has brought long-time friend Benni McCarthy on board as assistant. McCarthy made a good impression working with the club’s strikers in the winter. O’Loughlin is an approachable individual but also a coach who demands a lot of his players but who is known to vary his sessions to keep his players on their toes. The better-than-expected start to the season gives STVV some breathing space but what O’Loughlin may lack in outright managerial experience, he will be looking to make up for by carrying through a coherent blueprint for top flight stability.
Can Yannick succeed where relatives Manu and Emilio did not?
Yes. Irrespective of my own personal view, it is fair to say the odds are against him but they have been before. In an ideal world, he would have stayed another season in Limburg before taking a bigger job. However, you cannot always choose your timing in the world of football management. Some may argue with justification that Standard, in becoming the first of the ‘big five’ to take a chance of Ferrera may take the hit and that, like Hein Vanhaezebrouck, he will be better second time around. I believe that Standard, whether by luck or otherwise, have stolen a march on their rivals by moving for a precociously talented young manager who has an insatiable work ethic and who is prepared to turn the club upside down. In the past he would have been met with fierce resistance but while Venanzi was trigger happy with Muslin, Ferrera is the first manager he has appointed and was undoubtedly his first choice. Upon being appointed, he said “When you want to reach the top, when you want to achieve something extraordinary, you have to behave in an extraordinary manner every day.”
There is little doubt Ferrera talks a good game nor that this is by far the biggest challenge of his career. If he is given the time and if he has the sheer force of personality to pull everyone in the same direction, the era of five managers in one year for Standard will be forgotten. Just don’t expect Ferrera to still be there in five years. Loyalty does cut both ways.