Sinai Says: What a long, strange trip it's been for Eli Gutman

Sinai Says What a long,

Eli Gutman 248 88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Eli Gutman 248 88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
When Eli Gutman was named coach of Hapoel Tel Aviv two years ago, the overwhelming consensus was that this would be his last chance to guide a top club. Way back at the turn of the century, the 51-year-old was widely regarded as one of Israel's best coaches, often mentioned in the same breath as Avraham Grant and Dror Kashtan. However, Gutman quickly went from a national team coach candidate to just another name in the managerial merrygo-round. Poor decisions combined with some bad luck threatened to completely derail his career, and surely even Gutman himself knew that if he failed to make the most of his time at Hapoel he would likely never get a similar opportunity again. It all seemed so promising for Gutman a little more than a decade ago. He made his breakthrough as Hapoel Beersheba's coach, guiding the club to the State Cup in 1997, its first title in 21 years. Shortly after helping Beersheba to the cup, Gutman was lured up north to Hapoel Haifa by Roby Shapira's generous offer and big plans. Shapira invested heavily in the franchise and hand-picked Gutman in the belief that he would be the man to guide the club to glory. Gutman was handed an unprecedented transfer budget and in his first season at the helm helped the team to a thirdplace finish. The following season he made history. Haifa claimed its first ever Israeli championship in convincing fashion, with Gutman deservedly receiving heaps of credit for molding a triumphant team from a group of supremely talented, but potentially selfish, stars. It was around that time that he began being known in the Israeli soccer world as "The German", due to his extremely strict, almost militant, approach towards his players and his detail-oriented focus on tactics. Gutman's astuteness and work ethic also resulted in excellent performances in European competition the following season. Haifa knocked out Turkish club Besiktas in the Champions League qualifiers and also went on to get the better of Belgium's Club Brugge in the first round of the UEFA Cup. However, Gutman would leave Haifa at the end of the 1999/2000 season after the team only managed a seventh place finish in the Israeli Premier League. Matters would go from bad to worse after that. As one of the country's top coaches, new Betar Jerusalem owner Gad Ze'evi wanted Gutman in charge of his multimillion dollar project at Teddy Stadium. However, despite some good results, Gutman never settled at Betar, with the club's fans making his life a nightmare and forcing him to leave midway through the season with the team in second-position. After the Betar debacle, Gutman attempted to resurrect his career several times, but he did not have the platform to succeed in the subsequent seasons at Hapoel Petah Tikva, Hapoel Haifa and Hapoel Beersheba. Gutman went on to try his luck in Cyprus, at Paralimini and AEL Limassol, and in between also spent a rocky six months at Maccabi Netanya before eventually being sacked over the phone. Nothing seemed to be going Gutman's way, but in December of 2007 he was approached by a desperate Hapoel Tel Aviv team, which at the time was floundering in last place with six points from 11 matches. Hapoel was in shambles, but Gutman did not back away from the challenge and slowly rebuilt the team. After helping it to avoid relegation, Gutman led the side to a second-place finish last season, laying the platform for the stunning start to this campaign. Gutman retained the services of important veteran pieces, such as goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, defender Douglas da Silva and striker Samuel Yeboah, but just as importantly made the right signings in the summer and also helped turn his talented youngsters into legitimate players. The addition of Dedi Ben-Dayan and Nemanja Vucicevic plugged some crucial holes in the lineup, but far more impressive has been the way Gutman has helped his youngsters realize their potential. Under Gutman's guidance, Gili Vermut, Itai Shechter, Bibras Natcho and Avihai Yadin have all developed into top quality players, and not just by Israeli standards, but by European ones as well. All four have shined for the team in the first three months of the season, playing key roles in the side's sensational play which has taken it to second position in the Premier League standings behind Maccabi Haifa and to first place in the Europa League's Group C. On Wednesday, Gutman's project is set to take another significant step forward with the progress to the Europa League's round of 32. A point in Glasgow against Celtic or a failure by Rapid Vienna to win at Hamburg will secure Hapoel's place in the next stage with one game to spare. In the two years that have passed since he took charge of the team, Gutman has transformed Hapoel. Avoiding relegation was the team's only target two seasons ago, but Gutman has since completely altered the course of the club. Tel Aviv has gone from being a franchise in decline to one on the verge of something special, and once more Gutman's name is being mentioned in connection with the all-but-vacant Israeli national job. He certainly deserves no less.