JPL Preview: Zulte Waregem – Carving out a niche
It is surreal to think that just a year ago, the future of football in the south of West Flanders was at the centre of one of the more bizarre controversies of recent years – the proposed move of Zulte Waregem to Antwerpen – Belgium’s second city that was shorn of top division football for the first time in over a century. KV Oostende were to then move to Waregem, thus reducing the number of clubs in the province as a precursor to a madcap merger between Essevee and their local rivals KV Kortrijk. There were shades of the rationalisation of clubs in Australian sport but thankfully the idea fizzled out and Patrick Decuyper has cut all ties with the club.
If it was a risky move of gamesmanship in order to put pressure on the local authorities to give the green light to making the Regenboogstadion a football-only ground and worthy of one of the country’s top sides then it worked. This summer has seen the start of a rebuilding job that will effectively culminate in an all-new arena being constructed on the same site, which is set to boast a capacity of around 13,000 with enhanced VIP facilities, the stands close to the pitch as in England and a bowling alley and fitness suite.
While the stadium will be renewed in stages (in the short-term the necessary upgrades have been made to satisfy UEFA), the squad has had to be overhauled in a much shorter space of time. Thorgan Hazard leaves for a loan spell at Borussia Mönchengladbach having been crowned as the best player in Belgium, the imposing Junior Malanda left midway through last season for VfL Wolfsburg, the ambitious KAA Gent have poached Sven Kums and would also like Ibrahima Conté while Club Brugge pulled off a shock move for captain and stalwart on the right of the defence Davy de fauw.
However, the success of those aforementioned younger players has had a positive legacy, that of seeing the club carve out a niche for itself. Foreign clubs have sat up and taken notice of the manner in which talented prospects are given their first taste of regular first-team football and are nurtured in a setup that allows them to thrive and grow both as players and people. Billionaire-backed AS Monaco were very keen to loan rightback Yarouba Cissako who has de fauw’s big shoes to fill.
Other young players have taken the opportunity to make permanent moves to Essevee including two from England’s biggest clubs. Chuks Aneke joins from Arsenal after 17 goals on loan at Crewe Alexandra last season and fellow midfielder Charni Ekangamene has swapped Manchester United for first-team opportunities. Both players admitted they didn’t take much persuasion to follow in Thorgan Hazard’s footsteps. Two famous names will join them in the ranks from the Proximus League – Thorgan’s younger brother Kylian and Christian Benteke’s sibling Jonathan. Neither have much of a track record in the lower tier but Dury’s riposte is that Thorgan and Malanda had hardly set the world on fire either.
The mastermind behind this operation is former policeman Francky Dury. The 56-year-old was a good manager during his first spell in charge when he lifted the club from the lower tiers to the UEFA Cup after a Belgian Cup win in 2006 but in his second stint, he has put into practice all the skills he acquired when in charge of Belgium’s under-21 team as well as the time he spent as the Belgian FA’s technical coordinator. He combines the roles of head coach and sporting director in Waregem, which allows him to shape the club as he wishes, à la Arsène Wenger.
What is so impressive about Dury beyond his ability to pull rabbits out of a hat time and time again is his winning mentality. Despite being in charge of what remains a very small club in financial terms, he is not only not afraid to take on the big guns- he relishes the battle and has faith in what his team can achieve on the pitch. When Zulte Waregem just missed out of an incredible maiden Belgian title on the last day, it came as little surprise to Dury who fostered belief and daring in his squad.
Aneke was impressive against Zawisza and he has first dibs on filling Hazard’s position in support of the main striker. The acquisition of Glynor Plet looks to be a shrewd piece of business with the Dutchman having already shown his ability to score against Pro League defences at Racing Genk. If Plet can be ably supported by Aneke and Idrissa Sylla then goals should not be in short supply. If Jens Naessens weighs in with something approaching double figures, it will be the managerial equivalent of walking on water.
In the last two seasons, the club with a budget of €9million lost just ten regular season games out of sixty, twice qualifying for Europe. A top four season and a cup final will be hard to repeat this time around, even more so if they lose Ibrahima Conte though one feels Sacha Kljestan will flourish in a smaller pond. Zulte Waregem are used to surprising us now…so much so that we shouldn’t be surprised anymore.