“I COULD NEVER SIT On THE BENCH, CLAP A FEW TIMES AND GO HOME”
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
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.”
“IN THE BEGINNING, KLOPP AND I WERE RIVALS”
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!”
“AM I PROUD OF PROMOTION? NO, I’M PROUD I FINISHED UNIVERSITY”
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.”
“YES, I WAS KLOPP’S BEST MAN, BUT I’VE GOT no IDEA WHAT THE SPEECH WAS LIKE – I DRANK FAR TOO MUCH ALCOHOL THAT NIGHT”
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