Football: Leekens has last laugh in Dublin

Glenn Moore sees Belgium's manager woo the Irish with his character and tactics
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Irish are said to love a "character" and they could not help warming to Georges Leekens in spite of themselves in Dublin last week. Resplendent in a yellow mac and a scarf reminiscent of Tom Baker's Dr Who, the wise-cracking Belgian manager had the Irish press suppressing their giggles both before and after the midweek 1-1 draw with the Republic.

At one stage he turned to an Irish journalist and said: "You have a question for me? Do you have problems with your wife?" To another he said: "I am ugly but I have other qualities, maybe you do too." All this with a smile disarming enough for his victims to join in the laughter.

It was on the pitch Leekens' "other qualities" became evident. Belgium were organised, motivated and fluent. They deserved to win and few outside the Irish squad believe they will not do so in Brussels in the World Cup play-off second leg on 15 November.

This would secure Belgium's fifth successive World Cup qualification, a record matched only by Brazil, West Germany/Germany, Italy, Argentina and Spain. Why, given this World Cup pedigree, did the Irish and Belgian public and press believe a transitional Republic side would win? This was largely because Belgian football is suffering a minor crisis. The revelations over the Anderlecht bribery case have followed several years of poor performance in Europe at club and international level as Lierse's recent 5-1 Champions' League defeat to Monaco underlined.

Leekens was made national manager in January after two playing legends, Paul van Himst and Wilfred van Moer, had failed. A more prosaic player, he won three caps and gloried in the nickname "Mac the Knife". This had been followed by a mixed management career. In 13 years he had had nine jobs, the highlight being a league-and-cup double with Bruges in 1989. What earned him the national post, however, was his achievements at tiny Mouscron. Having won promotion, via the play-offs, in 1996, he took them to top of the Belgian league before his national call-up.

Belgium were then in danger of not even qualifying for the World Cup play-offs but Leekens engineered a win over Turkey in Istanbul to ensure second place behind Holland. Among his most important moves were recalling 36-year-old Franky van der Elst, who pulls the midfield strings, and capping Michael Verstraeten, who so impressively blotted out Tony Cascarino.

While Mick McCarthy can only tinker, Leekens will be able to recall the injured trio Lorenzo Staelens, Enzo Scifo and Gilles de Bilde for the second leg - if he wants to. "We'll have to wait and see," he said, "but we must look first to the players who played in Dublin. Everybody played as I wanted them to; that doesn't always happen."

The Irish will be hoping it doesn't happen again, or Leekens will have even more to laugh about.

Comments