Australian coach Michael Valkanis’ head is still spinning after a tumultuous first week at Qatari-backed Belgium Pro League KAS Eupen, where the former A-League manager found himself in sole charge of the first team as Covid-19 ripped through the club.
The former PEC Zwolle and Greek national team assistant had barely unpacked his suitcase in the sleepy town of 20,000 souls nestled near the German border when the whirlwind hit.
Fourteen players and two staff went down with the virus, including head coach Stefan Kramer.
The cascade of cases thrust newly-minted assistant Valkanis, 47, into the limelight as he led the heavily depleted mid-table team in to battle against Cercle Bruges at the weekend - a 2-0 loss far from shabby in the surreal circumstances.
“I’ve missed the day-to-day involvement of working with a club team - but I wasn’t expecting an intro quite as intense as this,” Valkanis told FTBL.
“I’d done my homework coming into the club, which was important as I had to take over the running of the team pretty much straight away.
“The virus took a toll and we had a really under-strength line-up, and only two training sessions to prepare.
“We tried to cancel the match - but the Pro League said it had to go ahead. We’re living in crazy times.
“It was a huge challenge - in my time with Greece (two-and-a-half years riding shotgun to John van’t Schip) I always talked about having to maximise minimum time available.
“And that was definitely the case here. In the end, it was a great experience under difficult circumstances, and the four players we brought in from our youth academy did really well.
“I think the performance made the club really proud with the character they showed. I can now reflect on (the chaos of) it now and I have to smile.”
It was Doha-based Socceroos legend Tim Cahill, in his role as a Eupen board member, who reached out to Valkanis, whom he briefly played under when the latter was interim boss at Melbourne City back in 2016, to bring him to Belgium.
The pair forged a relationship back in Australia, with Valkanis explaining: “He must have been happy with how I coached. We won the FFA Cup that season and implemented a good attacking style of play. And I guess Tim remembered that.
“He’s followed what I’ve done since in Holland and with Greece, and was in a position (also as Chief Football Officer at the Aspire Academy) to ask me to come along and help out at (Aspire-owned) KAS Eupen.
“I saw it as a great opportunity to come to a really good league at a club with strong backing.
“They had a good start to the season but lost their way a bit in the last nine or 10 games, and now there's a need to stabilise things a bit.”
On the plus side, the Pandas are in the semi-finals of the Belgium Cup, with the first leg against thoroughbreds Anderlecht on February 3.
“It’s a well run club and there are a lot of good people here,” added Valkanis.
“Our budget isn’t the same as some of the bigger clubs here but it’s about working on developing youth and sustaining ourselves.
“The possibility of reaching the cup final is huge for a club of this size, and a testament to the way they’re going about things.
“I’m just delighted to be here in a league and a country with a great footballing history - I’m just sucking it all in.”