"He is one of my lads," said Michel Preud'homme of Marouane Fellaini as the Club Brugge coach prepares to face the Manchester United midfielder he used to coach.
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It has been a rollercoaster seven years for Marouane Fellaini since leaving Standard Liège for the Premier League, and as the Belgian international prepares to face his former coach on Tuesday, he has finally gained acceptance in Manchester.
Eyebrows were raised when Everton paid a club-record fee in September 2008 for a player many in England had never heard of, but in his five seasons at Goodison Park the tall midfielder excelled, prompting a big-money move to Manchester United to team up once again with his erstwhile manager on Merseyside, David Moyes.
However, Fellaini took a significant share of the blame during United's difficult 2013/14 campaign – one which resulted in the dismissal of Moyes less than ten months after succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson – for his perceived failure to adapt to what supporters regarded as United's traditional style of play. Indeed, he did not score his first goal for the three-time European champions until 20 October 2014.
Louis van Gaal's arrival last summer has helped turn things around for the Brussels-born player, who has achieved something of a cult status among the Red Devils' fans. Such a response from Fellaini is no surprise to Club Brugge boss Michel Preud'homme, who coached him at Standard from 2006 to 2008 and takes his side to Old Trafford for the first leg of the teams' play-off tie on Tuesday.
"Meeting Fellaini again will be special," said Preud'homme. "He is looking forward to it. When I returned to my office from the training pitch after the draw I received a text message from Marouane which said: 'Good luck.' I immediately replied with: 'You too, haha.' I always had a good bond with him. After all, he is one of my lads. The mutual respect is huge between us. He certainly has not forgotten that I launched his career at Standard."
While Fellaini struggled to nail down a starting place in his first year at Old Trafford, a more advanced position in his second season led to him scoring some vital goals as United finished fourth, booking an immediate return to the UEFA Champions League.
"He is proof that you should not make snap judgements about footballers," added Mario Notaro, Fellaini's coach during his time in Charleroi's youth section. "He did not have exceptional qualities at first glance, but it proves that his determination and ability to progress are huge. He had a huge will to become a professional. When you corrected him, he thought about it and tried to put it into practice. And he kept on improving. It is no coincidence that he always pops up at the right moment in the penalty area."
A key member of the Belgium squad that reached the 2014 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals and is going well in European Qualifying, Fellaini was sent off on the final day of last season, meaning Tuesday could be his first outing this term.
"The fans see he is very important for the team," said Van Gaal. "He scores goals, he applies pressure when we need it and he always plays the ball to the same colour [shirt]. That's very important and I'm very happy for him." It will take all of Preud'homme's insider knowledge to stop him.