"See you in next season's Champions League, buddy!" Schalke coach David Wagner and Liverpool counterpart Jürgen Klopp (l-r.) are former colleagues and best friends. - © imago/Action Plus
"See you in next season's Champions League, buddy!" Schalke coach David Wagner and Liverpool counterpart Jürgen Klopp (l-r.) are former colleagues and best friends. - © imago/Action Plus

"Jürgen Klopp shaped me as a coach" - Schalke's David Wagner


Inspired by the Great Chronicles of best friend and former mentor Jürgen Klopp, David Wagner is writing his own success story at Schalke - and it's shaping up to be more than just a novella.

Wagner joined the Borussia Dortmund reserves in 2011, shortly after Klopp had steered the first team to the Bundesliga title. BVB won a domestic double the following campaign, whilst Wagner's reserves gained promotion to Germany's third tier.

Klopp and Wagner left Dortmund in May and October of 2015 respectively, the former taking the reins at Liverpool in the English Premier League, and the latter in the English Championship with Huddersfield Town.

Both went on to enjoy tremendous success: Klopp recently lifted the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League, whilst Wagner famously oversaw Huddersfield's fairy-tale promotion to the Premier League and successful debut season in the English top flight in 2017/18.

Wagner left Huddersfield in January 2019, but was lured back into coaching by Schalke - the club he represented as a player between 1995 and 1997.

Despite flirting with the relegation places last season, the Royal Blues have made a flying start to life under their new coach, and sit just two points adrift of leaders Borussia Mönchengladbach after seven matches, in sixth place.

In a wide-ranging interview, Wagner discusses his encouraging start as Schalke boss, stop-start route into coaching and role models...

Question: David Wagner, you've already been in charge of Schalke for over 100 days. How have you managed to turn the club from relegation to top-four candidates?

David Wagner: "Fortunately, Schalke weren't relegated. The focus since I came in has been to improve the team; knocking around towards the top of the table doesn't mean much to me."

Question: But how do you fire up a team whose confidence had taken such a hit in such a short amount of time?

Wagner: "A lot of things have to come together, but I must stress that I came into a team that was completely open to new ideas, willing to work, and also rocked by last season. They want to show that they're better than what people think and say about them."

Watch: David Wagner has revived the career of Schalke midfielder Amine Harit

Question: What's the more difficult job: finishing the current season in the top four with Schalke, or taking Huddersfield into the Premier League?

Wagner: "Both are pretty tall orders."

Question: But you did it with Huddersfield...

Wagner: "The conditions were right. It wasn't just on the pitch where things clicked. Stories like that can happen, but you need good decision making, hard work and form on your side. We're working hard here to steer the club back in the right direction."

Question: How did it feel to be back at Schalke after 22 years?

Wagner: "Even though it's such a long time and so much has changed, the emotional connection is there. It's a big club."

Question: Is the club a good fit for you?

Wagner: "Huddersfield is a very traditional club with regional roots - very close knit, that's where I found myself. I sense that emotion and openness that the people in Yorkshire have here. I think I fit more in a region or club that has that emotional bond and closeness."

Question: Did you expect to feel at home in Gelsenkirchen?

Wagner: "Yes. I feel happy here. I like the people. Open, direct, no airs and graces. I didn't think I'd find that in another country. The only thing I had difficulty with in Yorkshire was the local dialect."

Question: Your role at Huddersfield was different to being a coach in Germany...

Wagner: "You're entrusted with management tasks, squad planning, scouting and the youth academy. I learnt so much and know exactly how guys like [Schalke head of sport] Jochen Schneider or [Schalke technical director] Michael Reschke develop their ideas. It's a more comfortable set-up for me in Germany, though, because responsibility is shared across different departments."

Question: After your playing career, you went into teaching. How has that informed your current job?

Wagner: "Having experienced that being in football is not living in the real world was extremely important. I wanted to study, not have my hands tied at weekends or be told what I can eat and drink or when I should go to bed. I completely distanced myself from football: I didn't go to any games, didn't watch any sports shows on TV or any international matches - nothing."

Question: How did you get back into football?

Wagner: "A good friend said to me: you're an ex-pro, you've just finished your teaching degree. If you wanted to go into coaching, you'd have a route in not afforded to many others. I also had my passion for football again, so went and did my coaching badges and state exams."

Question: After two years as Hoffenheim youth coach you were out of work...

Wagner: "Yes, I was classed as an artist at the job centre, but they couldn't find anything for me. That's why I decided to go back and do my teacher training. Six months before my second state exam, a coaching job offer came in. My family didn't exactly jump for joy. Six months later, I would have been a qualified teacher: 12 weeks' holiday a year and a civil servant - not a bad prospect. But I wanted to give coaching another go."

Wagner took Huddersfield into the English Premier League for the first time in the club's history. - imago/PA Images

Question: Is it true you once enquired about jobs at Schalke?

Wagner: "Yes. I called Uwe Scherr, who was in charge of the youth team department back then. The reserves in the Regionalliga were looking for a coach, but [first-team coach] Felix Magath had other ideas."

Question: At Hoffenheim and Dortmund you worked with Ralf Rangnick and Jürgen Klopp respectively. Are they your coaching role models? What did you learn from them?

Wagner: "There are three main takeaways: the analytical approach of Ralf Rangnick, the human and emotional approach of Kloppo and the style of football they both wanted to play - that's what shaped me as a coach. It's difficult with role models. Kloppo's success is exemplary, but very few achieve it."

As well as being on coaching staff in their time at Dortmund, Wagner and Klopp (l-r.) also played together for Mainz in the 1990s. - 2012 Getty Images

Question: Do comparisons with Klopp annoy you?

Wagner: "No, not at all. I understand why it appeals to journalists. It's not every day two best friends are football coaches, first at the same club, then in England not far from one another, and both in charge of two huge rivals in the Bundesliga. I have no problem with it, even if I'm a bit bored by it now."

Question: When Klopp took charge in 2008, Dortmund had come close to relegation, didn't have the money to bring in big names and the team stayed pretty much the same. A new style of football brought success and excitement, which Klopp quickly poured water on. In his first season, BVB narrowly missed out on European football - three years later, they were champions.

Wagner: "Cool story. I'd just joined the reserves when he'd won his first Bundesliga title. I thought: it can't get any better. And then he won the domestic double, and [the reserves] got promoted. I said to myself that his achievements are extraordinary, but I also said it would be difficult to repeat."