The first time that Rangers supporters caught a glimpse of Stephan van der Heyden, it sparked a guessing game. The face of Philippe Clement had become an increasingly familiar one in the previous days, but a sense of mystery surrounded the man that was seated next to him on his flight to Glasgow.

Clement checked in at Ibrox just hours later to begin his reign as Rangers manager. Van der Heyden joined him as Scotland became the next base in a career of many stopovers. Like his boss and his friend, the 54-year-old is now in the right place at the right time.

This is not his first trip to this city, though. The former midfielder was part of the Club Brugge side that lost a Champions League fixture at Ibrox in 1993 and had an unlikely, and unlucky, hand in the most memorable moment. It was Van der Heyden that challenged Scott Nisbet and could then only watch on as the deflected strike spun off the Ibrox turf and over the head of the despairing Dany Verlinden. Three decades on, Van der Heyden will hope that his fortune has changed somewhat.

He is the only member of staff that Clement has appointed at Rangers. Clement inherited the interim team of Steven Davis, Alex Rae, Brian Gilmour and Steven Smith, while Colin Stewart continued as goalkeeping coach following the transition from Michael Beale to the Belgian. Davis later opted to step away from the first team environment to focus on his rehabilitation from knee surgery but Clement confirmed that the others will remain by his side on the eve of the historic win over Real Betis. As they say, if it isn’t broken, then don’t try to fix it.

Clement considered making changes to the staff in the first weeks of his tenure. As performances and results continued on an upward trajectory, he realised he already had the right team in place.

“It’s always interesting when you come into a club and have new staff,” Clement said as he stated that Van der Heyden and the others ‘work really well together’ and that it was a ‘really good staff’ on the eve of what was their most significant evening together to that stage. “They had also not been working with the first team for too long.

“You need to see what their qualities are and how they do things, how they fit with yourself and the rest of the staff. We took the time to make these observations and I’m happy with the work. They are ambitious.”

Each component part is crucial to the overall operation, but the relationship with Van der Heyden is perhaps the most important cog in what has become a well-oiled machine at Rangers.

The successes that Rangers have enjoyed to date come as no surprise to Ivan Vukomanovic. His own time with Van der Heyden by his side came to a premature and somewhat messy end but the Kerala Blasters manager still speaks with deep personal fondness and professional appreciation of the Belgian.

“He is a great human being,” Vukomanovic told the Rangers Review. “He fitted perfectly in the staff, especially with people from different backgrounds and with different mentalities. As a player and as a coach, he had all the international experience, he could deal with different mentalities and different nationalities. On top of that, he had great experience as a player, great knowledge of the game. As a head coach, you are busy with your team during the game and following certain things and he, as assistant, could follow different things and give you good advice and good hints during the game. I would say he has the full package, he is a great option.”

Vukomanovic made the move to the Indian Super League in June 2021 and it was another Belgian, former Standard Liege team-mate Patrick Van Kets that was named as his assistant. A month later, Van Kets left the club due to ill health and he sadly passed away after a battle with ALS, a muscle disorder, in September the following year.

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Van der Heyden was originally sounded out through compatriot Werner Martens, the Blasters’ strength and conditioning coach, and he was appointed on the eve of the ISL start date. Kerala would go on to reach the finals for the first time in six seasons but contractual wrangles regarding wages and bonus payments and an ever-souring relationship with Karolis Skinkys, the sporting director, overshadowed the positives from a sporting perspective.

“Well, first of all, he is a great guy, and we have known each other from a long time ago from our time in Belgium,” Vukomanovic said of the decision to appoint Van der Heyden. “I was looking to fill in my staff for my Indian adventure with someone who had great experience as a player and as an assistant coach. Coming to this kind of environment, it had to be somebody who could be flexible, who could adapt to certain changes and different environments. It fitted perfectly.

“It was great to have him within the staff and we were really sorry that we didn’t continue together. We reached the finals that year, nobody expected us to make that achievement, especially because it was our first year here in India, the club was in a difficult situation and struggling for the previous five, six years at the bottom of the table. It was a new approach, with the quality of the work of the staff, we achieved and reached the final. It was a great experience. When I realised that he had joined with Philippe at Rangers, I said ‘wow, what a great thing’. I am very happy for him.”

Van der Heyden considered packing his bags and heading for home just weeks after arriving in Kerala. He eventually departed in acrimonious circumstances and had several months out of the game before the call came from Clement. Perhaps it was a case of everything falling into place and happening for a reason.

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Four of his five previous roles, outside of a stint as a scout at Club Brugge, had been as an assistant manager. He was Clement’s right hand man at the Jan Breydel Stadium briefly before moving to Vardar in Macedonia and then to a position with the Jordan national side.

Van der Heyden has been trusted by many and Clement has now put his faith in him to act as a source of advice and inspiration. Vukomanovic knows exactly what he will have brought to Auchenhowie thus far.

“First of all, discipline,” Vukomanovic said when asked about the key principle of Van der Heyden’s work. “As a former defender, he is big on the kind of discipline that every player must have during the game. He was reminding the young boys especially about the responsibilities that they have in the game, especially how to defend and how to have a clean sheet because that was the task.

“I remember a couple of times in a training session when we were having a finishing session and how he was showing the quality of the crosses because he has a great left foot. First of all discipline, then responsibility that every player must have during the game and as a part of one big puzzle, not only on the pitch but off the pitch as well. When you are coming from that background in Belgium, you are big on discipline, responsibility, being a team player. It is never about me, it is about the team that has to win the game and Stephan is a great human being and great assistant coach.”

It says much about the quality of Van der Heyden’s work and his manner that Vukomanovic still speaks so warmly about him, and still keeps in touch with him. The Serbian has watched on from afar as he and Clement have recorded a historic Europa League win in Seville, lifted the League Cup and moved Rangers firmly into contention for the Premiership title.

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Van der Heyden’s time in India came during the long, difficult days of Covid as restrictions made personal and professional life a challenge, even for someone as well-travelled as the former Belgian internationalist. Vukomanovic credits him for raising and maintaining the levels of camaraderie within the group as month after month was spent living in a bubble in their hotel. There is a time to work and a time to play for Van der Heyden.

The ‘jokes and nice moments’ on journeys to training or matches still bring a smile to Vukomanovic’s face as he gives up his time to talk to the Rangers Review via video link. Many of those still under his guidance share the same memories as the manager.

“Even today, a lot of the players say that they still have contact with him and are exchanging messages on the phone or social media and it is great to hear that,” Vukomanovic said. “He fitted perfectly within the group, everyone liked him. He was actually the guy who was influencing young players to stay after the training, to work hard and work even more. On an individual level, he was the guy who was showing them a great example.

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“It was a difficult season because it was still the time of Covid and we were all in a bubble. He was a great professional, very good on the training ground, a great mentality. People from Belgium have a hard-working mentality and it fits perfectly, especially if you speak about our part of Europe. He brought something new, some refreshments, that the boys appreciated a lot. A lot of them have now found their way through the transfer market to other clubs and it is great to see the boys evolving and growing up. Everyone says that Stephan was great. He moved on and I am really excited now to see him and Philippe in Glasgow.”

Vukomanovic has an insight into the way that Clement works, too. He is just three years younger than the former Genk, Brugge and Monaco manager and he followed his path through the coaching courses that gave Clement his start in the dugout in his homeland.

Clement and Van der Heyden go way back. Now they are moving forward together, leading from the front and making an impression at Ibrox. Those that Clement worked with during his previous roles have not joined him in Glasgow but he is exploring new opportunities with an old friend.

“Philippe is a great guy and we have known each other for a long time from Belgium and from coach education,” Vukomanovic said. “He is a great head coach, he knows how to form his staff, knows how to lead great times. He has proven that in Belgium and in France. It is very pleasing for us as Belgian coaches to see one of our guys go into such a huge club and making that kind of results. He is an example that our coach education school is a good thing and is impressive and improving all the time. Really pleased to see that happening and hopefully they will achieve some nice things and some trophies.

“In football there is one thing that is very simple. If you see two coaches who are former players and who know each other for a long, long time, and they do from their time at Brugge and the national team, if that kind of friendship and collaboration is still on and still valid, it means something. It means that they have a great relationship, great communication, great cooperation and that is what makes a difference in football.

“You see around world football that head coaches always have the same people in the staff because it brings confidence, great understanding on the pitch and off the pitch and these kind of things bring results. It is great to see them because they know each other for a long time and they are collaborating once again.”

A former Yugoslavian youth international, Vukomanovic was boss at Standard Liege, the club where Nicolas Raskin emerged through the ranks, for a season after a stint as assistant. He has also been in charge at Slovan Bratislava and Apollon Limassol.

His time in India has not been without incident. He was fined and suspended last season after ordering his players to walk off the pitch during a controversial defeat to Bengaluru FC, ironically the ISL side that Rangers partnered with in the summer of 2022. To add to the ambiguous Ibrox links, it was Sunil Chhetri who scored the disputed free-kick that infuriated Vukomanovic so much that he ended up with a ten-game ban. Those with long memories and a thirst for quirky knowledge will remember that Chhetri failed to win a deal with Rangers after a trial with Ally McCoist’s side more than a decade ago.

Vukomanovic cannot predict what the future holds. In time, he may well work with Van der Heyden once again himself. He is sure, though, that the grounding that he and the Ibrox management received in Belgium will stand them all in good stead going forward.

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He pinpoints the reforms, both in terms of organisation and philosophy, that Belgian football went through in order to produce their golden generation of players. That evolution was followed by an overhaul of their technical and tactical processes after it was acknowledged that producing world class players had to go hand in hand with advancements in their coaching methodologies.

Clement has been at the forefront of that progress for some time now and his three Pro League titles earned him the positions at Monaco and Rangers. He is an example for others to follow.

“They were sure they would show results for the national team and that has happened for a decade,” Vukomanovic said of the blueprint that was implemented after Belgium failed to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups or three successive European Championships. “In one moment, the Federation realised and recognised their position in European football and they had to invest and improve in their coaching education because they didn’t have the coaches who were capable of pulling the projects in their way. Philippe was in the first group with Stephen in 2009 or 2010 and then latter we arrived in 2011.

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“As a coach, you see how you develop, how you improve to reach certain levels. It is nice to see them doing well and it makes us proud. Belgium is a small country but more and more clubs from top five leagues see our young players develop and our coaches develop and get them to a level. The machine is going on and on and hopefully we will see more coaches going abroad because there are not too many at the highest level. Hopefully it will change because it is a good education, a good mentality from excellent people who work hard.”

The rise and rise of Clement has seen him become the role model, the standard bearer, for Belgian bosses. A title win at Ibrox would be another hugely notable achievement for the 49-year-old and one which would surely make headlines back home as well as dominate the agenda in Glasgow.

In time, Vukomanovic hopes to be reunited with Clement and Van der Heyden once again. If he can plan his return right, he could well be in town for the crowning moments of the campaign.

“We will end our season around March or April,” Vukomanovic said. “When we come back to Belgium we would like to come and see them. When we go back we go and watch games, we got Bundesliga, to Holland, to England often. We still have contact with them and it would be a pleasure to come back and see them playing. Ibrox is one of the most famous stadiums in Europe with the atmosphere, the stadium shakes when everyone is jumping.”