The ir­re­press­ible David Wag­ner was Jur­gen Klopp’s re­serve-team coach at Dort­mund and best man at his wed­ding, but hav­ing led Hud­der­s­field Town to the big time, he’s moved well out of his mate’s shadow

FourFourTwo - - DAVID WAGNER - In­ter­view Chris Flanagan Por­traits Jon Shard

Sausage and mash, fish and chips or a pint of John Smith’s. Lo­cal re­tirees are mulling over their op­tions as they drift into the bar area and pe­ruse the menu, hav­ing shrugged off the light driz­zle to com­plete an af­ter­noon con­test of crown green bowls. On ini­tial glance, this could be any work­ing men’s club across the north of Eng­land, were it not for the smart ‘Hud­der­s­field Town’ sig­nage out­side and the bloke wan­der­ing around re­cep­tion bear­ing an un­canny re­sem­blance to the Pre­mier League Man­ager of the Month for Au­gust. This is the most un­likely lo­ca­tion from which David Wag­ner has mas­ter­minded one of English foot­ball’s more re­mark­able suc­cess sto­ries of re­cent sea­sons. Af­ter the Ger­man has nipped into the team’s pri­vate din­ing area for a spot of lunch – there’s no sausage and mash for the play­ers, mind – we head up to his of­fice: a small room be­side a gym, bereft of nat­u­ral light. The club plan to up­grade their train­ing ground over time, but the in­ter­ac­tion with the pub­lic does not bother Wag­ner one bit – for one thing, the feed­back’s been pretty pos­i­tive dur­ing the past year or so.

“Yes, it has been,” the 45-year-old smiles, hav­ing led Hud­der­s­field into the top flight against the odds, briefly tak­ing them to the sum­mit of the ta­ble af­ter a stel­lar start to their first Pre­mier League sea­son. “But it is not that long ago, maybe 20 or 21 months, when I started here and we were only a cou­ple of points above the rel­e­ga­tion zone in the Cham­pi­onship. We lost the first two matches and went into the bot­tom three, but even then it was in­ter­est­ing to get feed­back from the com­mu­nity, to get a feel­ing for the at­mos­phere around the place and what had hap­pened pre­vi­ously.

“It won’t help me if some­one tells me while we are queu­ing for our food: ‘Next game you have to play an­other for­ma­tion’. But that didn’t hap­pen. The com­mu­nity has played a big part and will play a big part in the fu­ture, too. For our style of play, we need the en­ergy and sup­port from the stands – all that eu­pho­ria.”


Eu­pho­ria reached peak lev­els when Hud­der­s­field over­came Read­ing in May’s play-off fi­nal at Wem­b­ley, re­turn­ing to the top tier for the first time since 1971-72, the sea­son of Wag­ner’s birth. The day af­ter that penalty shootout suc­cess, the Ger­man stood in front of thou­sands of Town fans at a civic re­cep­tion and thwarted the com­pere’s be­lea­guered at­tempts to for­mally in­tro­duce him (as if he needed it) by con­tin­u­ally pinch­ing the mi­cro­phone and start­ing some chants. “We are Pre­mier League!” he yelled at the top of his voice, like he was the head of an ul­tras group rather than the gaffer.

Wag­ner has guided the Ter­ri­ers from the brink of League One up to the Pre­mier League by as­tute man­age­ment, but also by sheer force of per­son­al­ity – even he’s de­scribed him­self as “a lit­tle bit crazy”. His touch­line ex­u­ber­ance has be­come the stuff of le­gend in this part of the world: few will for­get his charge down the pitch to cel­e­brate the win­ner against ri­vals Leeds in Fe­bru­ary, and the re­sult­ing con­tretemps with Garry Monk. If Wag­ner could have done with­out the two-match touch­line ban and £6,000 fine, the in­ci­dent made one thing very clear: he cares, and he cares an aw­ful lot.

“I’ve never played a role, I don’t re­ally think about what I’m do­ing on the touch­line,” he says. “It hap­pens some­times – for­tu­nately only some­times be­cause it’s cost­ing me money! I don’t do it to make an im­pact on the play­ers, I do it be­cause that’s just how I am. This is the only way I am able to do this job. I would never be able to sit on the bench, watch the game, clap a few times, an­a­lyse the game af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle and then go home. That’s not how I feel about this game. I love this game, the game ex­cites me and I show that some­times.”

Wag­ner’s en­thu­si­asm and per­son­al­ity shines through­out his chat with Four­fourtwo: he is en­gag­ing and jovial – you could hap­pily talk about foot­ball and beyond for hours. The sim­i­lar­i­ties with Liver­pool’s man­ager Jur­gen Klopp are ob­vi­ous.

Still the best of friends to­day, the pair first met when a 19-year-old Wag­ner joined Klopp at sec­ond-di­vi­sion side Mainz back in 1991. “It was love on the first view, as we say in Ger­many!” Wag­ner chuck­les, para­phras­ing the old English adage. “We be­came friends more or less from that very first meet­ing. We were able to com­mu­ni­cate and we were on the same level. More or less right from the start we be­came roomies and spent ev­ery sec­ond around foot­ball.”

All that de­spite Wag­ner pinch­ing Klopp’s place in the team up­front. “In the be­gin­ning we were com­peti­tors,” he ad­mits. “He was a striker and I was a striker. Then Jur­gen be­came a de­fender and I think it was a good de­ci­sion from the man­ager! You have to pay credit to Jur­gen be­cause he was a proper striker, a goalscorer, strong in the air and quick – I re­mem­ber he scored four goals in one match once. But the man­ager said, ‘OK, now you’re a de­fender.’ And he never moaned. He adapted and had a proper ca­reer as a de­fender.”

The pair played to­gether for four years, be­fore Wag­ner pro­gressed to the Bun­desliga with Schalke. He helped them win the UEFA Cup in 1997 – al­beit as a bit-part player, scor­ing once in the early rounds at Roda JC – but was an unused sub­sti­tute when the Gelsenkirchen side clinched the tro­phy against Roy Hodg­son’s In­ter at the San Siro. “That was the most suc­cess­ful pe­riod for me as a player, even if I was more of a sub,” he says. “In that time I got eight caps for the USA as well.”

The son of an Amer­i­can ser­vice­man, Wag­ner rep­re­sented Ger­many at un­der-21 level but got a USA call-up fol­low­ing a rec­om­men­da­tion from his Schalke team-mate Thomas Doo­ley, nar­rowly miss­ing out on selec­tion for the 1998 World Cup. He also faced the un­usual sit­u­a­tion of lin­ing up for the US de­spite not feel­ing en­tirely con­fi­dent about his level of English – some­thing Wag­ner even raised as a con­cern be­fore tak­ing the Hud­der­s­field job a cou­ple of years ago.

“As a player it is eas­ier – if you didn’t un­der­stand the man­ager, you just took the ball and tried to do some­thing with it!” laughs Wag­ner, demon­strat­ing that his lan­guage skills are no longer a prob­lem at all. “But my English was a prob­lem when I was with the USA squad. Even though I was play­ing for Amer­ica, if you ask whether I feel Ger­man or Amer­i­can, I clearly feel Ger­man.”

His de­par­ture from Schalke and re­turn to Ger­many’s sec­ond tier at FC Guter­sloh would bring him face-to-face with his old mate Klopp, in an Oc­to­ber 1998 home match against Mainz. FFT asks if that clash rings any bells. “Yes, yes!” he smiles, the pitch of his voice briefly ris­ing.

No won­der he re­mem­bers it: de­spite be­ing a reg­u­lar in that team, Wag­ner scored only three league goals that sea­son and all of them came in that game against Klopp as Guter­sloh won 6-1. “Ac­tu­ally, maybe that was my best day as a foot­baller – not the UEFA Cup with Schalke!” he adds with a cheeky grin. “It was a crazy day – we were play­ing di­rectly against each other be­cause I was the left-winger and Jur­gen was play­ing as the right-back. I think I was nearly on my best form that day, and he prob­a­bly wasn’t! That was the only hat-trick of my whole ca­reer as a pro­fes­sional.”

Is it men­tioned of­ten when the pair meet up? “No, but some­times it comes on the ta­ble – if he flies too high then I give this in­for­ma­tion back to him!” smiles Wag­ner. “Maybe be­fore we go to Liver­pool I will re­mind him of this day in the past!”

That game at An­field is on Oc­to­ber 28. With plenty more fix­tures to play be­fore then, Hud­der­s­field’s gaffer is not think­ing about it yet, but he knows there will be me­dia in­ter­est. He’s never been that both­ered one way or an­other by the com­par­isons, the temp­ta­tion to view him as some sort of clone, as Klopp 2.0.

“I can live with it – lis­ten, I un­der­stand all of the ex­cite­ment in this story from the me­dia,” he says. “Two best friends – some­times I’d say it is more like a fam­ily mem­ber than a friend – work­ing as man­agers, work­ing in Eng­land and now work­ing in the Pre­mier League, maybe only 60 miles from each other. I to­tally get that this story is great for the me­dia. But for me, he is only my friend, just like he was my friend 25 years ago. For me, it isn’t some­thing re­ally ex­tra­or­di­nary that he is Jur­gen Klopp the foot­ball man­ager. That is the case, yes, but even if he was a chef he would still be my friend and I would still have the ex­act same re­la­tion­ship with him.”

The duo speak reg­u­larly – even more reg­u­larly this cam­paign, when Klopp has been able to of­fer use­ful ad­vice about the Pre­mier League. But if Wag­ner hopes his team can com­pete with Klopp’s at the end of this month, there’s one area where he’s never been able to com­pete – as re­vealed when FFT quiz him about the time he was best man at the Liver­pool man­ager’s wed­ding in 2005. “Yes, I was the best man, but I’ve no idea what the speech was like be­cause I drank too much al­co­hol that night!” he laughs. “I’m not the best drinker – I need two beers and it’s enough. He’s miles bet­ter at drink­ing al­co­hol than me!”


It was Klopp’s de­par­ture from Borus­sia Dort­mund in the sum­mer of 2015 that ul­ti­mately paved the way for his friend’s re­lo­ca­tion to Hud­der­s­field that Novem­ber, af­ter four years as the man­ager of Die Sch­warzgel­ben’s sec­ond team. “I had some other of­fers when I was work­ing for Dort­mund, although never any from Eng­land,” he ad­mits. “It was never the right tim­ing. I was re­ally happy with the job I was do­ing – in Dort­mund you can earn good money, even as the sec­ond team’s coach – and I never had it in my head to go and hunt for the next level. But then some cir­cum­stances at the club changed in the six months be­fore my exit.

“Stu­art Web­ber was head of foot­ball op­er­a­tions at Hud­der­s­field at the time. The chair­man wanted to make a change and Stu­art made some phone calls to agents. The agents in Eng­land said, ‘We have no idea who to rec­om­mend.’ But th­ese agents then phoned up agents in Ger­many and one of them men­tioned me. I met up with Stu­art and the chair­man, and had the feel­ing, ‘OK, it’s the right time to move on.’ Ob­vi­ously it has paid off.”

It most cer­tainly has. To­day, Wag­ner sits here as a Pre­mier League man­ager – quite the turn­around for a man who once quit the game al­to­gether and stud­ied for a de­gree in bi­ol­ogy and sports sci­ence at Darm­stadt Univer­sity. “I se­ri­ously came to the de­ci­sion to leave the foot­ball fam­ily be­cause I just wasn’t hun­gry any more,” the Ger­man says. “I thought, ‘There has to be some­thing else.’ At the be­gin­ning I en­joyed not hav­ing so many rules, not hav­ing so many peo­ple who tell you what you have to do. You are your own man, and I felt free for the first time in my life when I started to study. But if you’ve got this foot­ball virus in you it will come back, and af­ter two or three years that was what hap­pened.”


Wag­ner made sure he fin­ished his de­gree, how­ever, even though it proved to be the most chal­leng­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of his life. “I had to leave my com­fort zone,” he re­veals. “To be hon­est, if I’d known be­fore I started how hard it would be and how long it would take to get that de­gree – five years, five f**king years – I would never have started it. But I fin­ished it. Peo­ple ask me if I’m proud of what I’ve achieved with Hud­der­s­field? No. I’m happy for the peo­ple. I like to see all the happy faces, but I am re­ally proud that I fin­ished univer­sity with a de­gree in bi­ol­ogy and sports sci­ence. It has helped me for the job I have done since, as now I know what’s go­ing on in­side the bod­ies of the play­ers we’re work­ing with. If some­body asks me what the big­gest suc­cess in my life is, apart from get­ting mar­ried and then hav­ing two won­der­ful daugh­ters, it was to get my de­gree.”

Qual­i­fi­ca­tion ob­tained, Wag­ner was soon of­fered a role as coach of Hof­fen­heim’s un­der-19 side un­der Ralf Rang­nick, one of the ear­li­est ex­po­nents of the gegen­press sys­tem. Two years later he left foot­ball again and started train­ing to be­come a school­teacher, be­fore Klopp came call­ing with Dort­mund in 2011.

Hud­der­s­field fin­ished a lowly 19th in the Cham­pi­onship at the end of Wag­ner’s de­but cam­paign in Eng­land. But for­tunes would change dra­mat­i­cally af­ter his first pre-sea­son with the Ter­ri­ers, when he took the squad to a tiny Swedish is­land, con­fis­cated their smart­phones and in­structed them to live off the land.

“We spent three days and four nights in the wild with­out elec­tric­ity or the right food, no heat­ing, noth­ing,” he says. “We wanted to bring the group to­gether as quickly as pos­si­ble and we wanted to put them in a sit­u­a­tion where they had to leave their com­fort zone. If we re­ally wanted to be suc­cess­ful – we wanted to over­achieve, although it was never in my head to get pro­moted – we all knew we had to leave that com­fort zone.” Their treat on the fi­nal evening was to watch Eng­land against Ice­land on TV, although for the team’s English con­tin­gent it prob­a­bly felt like more pun­ish­ment.

How­ever, the camp cre­ated a unity that car­ried them all the way to a sur­prise pro­mo­tion to the Pre­mier League, de­spite op­er­at­ing with a re­ported wage ceil­ing of just £10,000 per week. Bun­desliga out­fit Wolfs­burg were said to have of­fered Wag­ner the chance to be­come their new coach mid­way through 2016-17, but he turned them down to the sur­prise of many in Ger­many. Hud­der­s­field were fourth in the Cham­pi­onship ta­ble at the time and few on­look­ers be­lieved that his side could re­ally reach the top flight.

“With­out go­ing into any names, yes there were of­fers and maybe some peo­ple were think­ing, ‘How can he turn them down?’” Wag­ner ex­plains. “But I thought, ‘This story isn’t done yet.’ It wasn’t the right time to leave this great foot­ball club.”

On Au­gust 12, that foot­ball club was on top of the Pre­mier League af­ter a 3-0 vic­tory at Crys­tal Palace on the open­ing day of the sea­son. “Be­fore the match I had no feel­ing of what would hap­pen,” Wag­ner ad­mits. “The pre-sea­son games had gone OK. We’d had our set­backs with in­juries, so I was pre­pared for ev­ery­thing – de­feat, draw, suc­cess. But the play­ers then showed so much trust and be­lief in them­selves.”

What’s next, then? Would Wag­ner still take a 17th-place fin­ish at the end of the cam­paign? “Last sea­son we said that we wouldn’t give our­selves a limit and be­fore this sea­son I said to the play­ers, ‘We can use ex­actly the same phrase again,’” he ex­plains. “We won’t be giv­ing our­selves a limit. Would I take 17th? No, be­cause maybe we have the chance to get 14th or 12th. But would it be a suc­cess for us if we stay up this year? Yes. With the re­sources we have, it would be com­pa­ra­ble to win­ning pro­mo­tion last sea­son.

“We’re aware how dif­fi­cult it will be. We are very hum­ble. We know we’re far from the strong­est club fi­nan­cially, but that does not stop us from be­ing am­bi­tious and in­vest­ing ev­ery­thing we have in ev­ery sin­gle game, so at the end we can say, ‘Yes, we got the max­i­mum out of the sea­son.’ If we’re able to say that, we’ll be in a place in the ta­ble we’re happy with. I’m to­tally sure about it.”

Wag­ner hasn’t been wrong about many things since he rocked up in West York­shire. If he’s right once again, the per­fect re­ward won’t be too far away in May. Take your pick, lads: sausage and mash, fish and chips or a pint of John Smith’s.

Top Wag­ner’s touch­line ex­u­ber­ance has landed him in hot wa­ter but it’s been a hit in Hud­der­s­field

Above “Give me that mic back!” The man­ager leads the cel­e­bra­tions fol­low­ing the Ter­ri­ers’ ex­tra­or­di­nary play-off win at Wem­b­ley

Top and bot­tom Wag­ner has built a sense of unity within the Ter­ri­ers’ camp which he says has helped the club to “over­achieve”

Left Best friend Jur­gen is “miles bet­ter at drink­ing” than Hud­der­s­field’s boss

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