Jurgen Klopp’s early years and how he could have coached Manchester United

At Liverpool, it was Brendan Rodgers. At Borussia Dortmund, it was Thomas Doll and at Mainz, Jürgen Klopp’s predecessor went by the name of Eckhard Krautzun.

That’s not how Klopp usually describes him.

“When he sees me,” Krautzun explains, “and there are other people sitting around, he says: ‘This the guy who sent me to Tunisia, to a foreign country where I couldn’t speak a word of French to sit around in that stadium trying to scout a player!’”

It is just one of a number of anecdotes the 76-year-old is happy to tell about Klopp, whose subsequent reign at Mainz was regarded as a resounding success. In his first coaching job, Klopp saved the club from relegation after succeeding Krautzun, before taking them up to the Bundesliga for the first time three years later.

Relegation from the top flight after a three-season stay, and failing to come straight back up, didn’t tarnish what Klopp had achieved on modest resources. His reputation was such that Borussia Dortmund chose him to succeed Doll in 2008.

Unlike Doll or Rodgers, Krautzun had the unique pleasure of coaching Klopp, then a 33-year-old defender at Mainz. He was sacked by the club in February 2001 after just 98 days in charge and replaced by his player.

You’ll still hear him describe the current Liverpool manager as a ‘fantastic guy’, but it becomes quickly apparent after sitting down with the nomadic German coach that his tales about Klopp form only part of a wider, more colourful catalogue. You would expect that from someone who has coached in so many different countries.

Over cake and coffee in Café Zeilfelder in Mannheim, a city nestled towards Germany’s south west, he can’t remember the exact number. “Some media people always tell me…” This occasion is no different; while he notes some were shorter projects for the German government, the total is 32 different jobs in 12 different countries.

One of those was the Philippines national team, where Krautzun faced obstacles such as a coconut tree growing on the training pitch and the players not having enough money to buy cornflakes. Despite that the team performed admirably – so much so that he was once offered a job, via a note from a waiter in a hotel bar, by a vanquished opponent.

Then there was Kenya where fans poured beer on him from the stands. Having enough players in the team from the right tribe was important there. So too was pre-match witchcraft, with rituals followed by certain members of the squad.

But on this particular afternoon in Mannheim, Krautzun mostly talked about Klopp, whom he remains in contact with, as well as his great friend Sir Alex Ferguson.

“I’m not surprised he does so well,” he says when discussing how Klopp loved the Premier League and English football long before coming to England. When it came to his favourite club, however, Liverpool weren’t always number one.

“It would be his dream to go to England one day and his favourite club would be [Manchester] United. That’s what he said,” says Krautzun, recalling a conversation he once had with Klopp.

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It was a point Krautzun subsequently discussed “very openly” with Sir Alex Ferguson, who became a board member at Manchester United after calling time on his managerial career.

“I said, ‘Jürgen Klopp, if he goes abroad, if he goes to England, his love would be Manchester United.’”

The admiration flowed both ways. When Borussia Dortmund smashed Bayern Munich 5-2 in the 2012 German Cup final, Krautzun and Ferguson were both present in Berlin, with Klopp’s tactical acumen impressing the Scot.

“I think that’s where his love or respect for Jürgen Klopp grew tremendously,” says Krautzun, who still believes that had the United job been available when Klopp left Dortmund in 2015, he would have ended up at Old Trafford instead of Anfield.

“After three or four months not working, I knew that he wanted to be in action again…when the offer came from Liverpool [that October], I knew he would not hesitate because he wanted to get into a top club in England.”

It was a good choice, too, in Krautzun’s opinion.

“The emotions in the stadium in Liverpool and the enthusiasm of the fans, the temperament there – that fits Klopp. I was not surprised that the spectators liked him right away. His emotions, the way he coaches the team, the way he jumps around, the way he shows his desire to win, that fits the club.

“The fans are little more different to Man U. Man U is more quiet, the fans love their team too but there is more emotion and more passion I think in Liverpool. And Kloppo I think is a passionate, very temperamental man. That club fits him.”

Krautzun enthuses about another side of that emotion, remembering how tenderly Klopp spoke at the funeral of Wolfgang Frank, his former coach at Mainz, back in 2013.

“This is one of his great qualities. He can speak freely, at the right moment, the right words, the right phrases.

“He could do many other things because he’s so intelligent and quick to the point that whether you have a funeral, whether you’re having a wedding or a birthday party, he can be the best speaker.”

Krautzun has fond memories of his short spell coaching Klopp at Mainz in 2000.

“We often discussed the game plan, we often discussed the psychological aspect of our team and also about our next opponent. I could already see that he’d become a football coach.

“He was a player who wanted to win in practice every match. Every short match and practice game – he wanted to win. He is this kind of ambitious person.”

It is with a broad smile that Krautzun recalls Klopp’s will to win spilling over on two occasions.

“We were playing on an artificial turf in training and it had snowed. It was a little bit slippery and I told the players: ‘Be careful now. You don’t have your shinpads on now. It’s slippery. Don’t do unnecessary tackles and play the ball quickly with one or two touch football.’

“So I remember that Jürgen…” says Krautzun, briefly trailing off. He wants to choose his words carefully before continuing.

“He’s very tall and his technical ability was not the best. He tackled with a sliding tackle [on] Sandro Schwarz. This was unbelievable. So Sandro went to him, pushed him and said: ‘Are you crazy mate, doing this to me here?’ And they start getting into a brawl and pushing and shoving each other. So I stopped the game immediately, blew the whistle and sent them both to the locker room.”

For their troubles Krautzun fined Klopp and Schwarz, who is now the current coach of Mainz, 5,000 Deutsche Marks each – equivalent to around £1,500 at the time – which went straight into the team kitty.

That episode wasn’t the only time Krautzun ended up sending Klopp back to the dressing room. Many a referee in both England and Germany can attest to being on the receiving end of a barrage from Klopp on the sidelines. On this occasion, “He was complaining about the ball being in or out,” remembers Krautzun, who was refereeing a training game.

“The next time [you complain],” Krautzun told him, pausing as he mocks blowing a whistle and then pointing: “You go inside.”

“When I say the ball is out, it’s out. Even though if the ball is out, if I say, it’s in, it’s in, and you don’t complain. So that happened two or three times during that training session and I sent him inside.”

At the end of this particular memory Krautzun starts to laugh.

“We laughed later. The conversation ended up that I didn’t fine him. He apologised. He gave me his hand and said: ‘You are right, I learn from that.’”

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Krautzun can see how Klopp’s temperament has matured in the intervening years, though one particular comment – “He looks like a hungry wolf who’d attack somebody” – suggests there is still room for improvement.

“He is so fully involved in the match that he sometimes loses his self-control. I think he’s improving every year but you sometimes see scenes on the sideline where he yells at the referee or he jumps around or you see in his face that he’s full of anger and he’s furious with some decision.

“So that’s his character. He can’t change that completely but I think he’s learning from match to match. And year to year, I think he becomes more mature and more self-controlled.”

That side of Klopp’s character didn’t concern Mainz in February 2001 when they were 17th in the German second division and heading for the drop. Krautzun was already their second coach that season but results had not improved.

His fate was ultimately sealed away to Greuther Fürth. Mainz lost 3-1, leaving Krautzun with just six points from nine matches as his reign at the Playmobil Stadium quickly fell to pieces.

It would also turn out to be the end of Klopp’s playing career. He was in the starting line-up that day, one of three appearances he made during Krautzun’s short stint, but under Rene Vandereycken, Mainz’s first coach that season, he had not been a regular either.

It was decided that Klopp would take charge “until further notice”, as club president Harald Strutz put it at the time. “Perhaps it will be a long-term solution,” added Strutz in what turned out to be quite an understatement.

On the other side, Krautzun was not too fussed. When he was sacked by Mainz, he had an offer in his jacket pocket to take over as Tunisia coach, which he ended up accepting 12 days later.

“I had a very friendly and respectful meeting with the board of directors, including the president, and we cancelled the contract as friends,” he says.

Klopp faced Duisburg and bottom club Chemnitz in his first two games, both of which he won.

“I still believe I could have won these two matches too,” says Krautzun, jokingly, before conceding: “Already you could see he assembled the team around him. He created a new spirit in the team. Already there, you could see his personality and his acceptance as an authority person by the players.”

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He wasn’t surprised that Klopp was entrusted with the job even as a 33-year-old player.

“He had a very great influence with the directors…the bosses always asked Kloppo: ‘How’s the team doing? How’s the spirit in the team? What about the coach?’ And so on.”

“One day,” he adds, “maybe I will ask him when I have a couple of beers with him in Liverpool or wherever: ‘Hey – were you involved in my firing at that time?’”

Krautzun then erupts into the sort of hearty laugh that Klopp himself would be proud of.

His tone throughout the conversation suggests he bears no grudges against Klopp. Instead, Krautzun comes across as an easy-going, open-minded coach who, even at 76, is still keen to learn.

“I would be naive and stupid not to learn about what these young coaches are doing now. I think as a coach, regardless of age and of what you have reached in your coaching career, you should remain a student of the game until the last day you are coaching.

“Whether you’re an engineer or a doctor or a dentist, you should always know the latest methods. In medicine, as an architect, as an engineer…and the same applies to coaches or managers or instructors. If you do not go with the latest development in training, science, psychology, systems of play, then you are outdated.

“I think, personally, that some of the older managers, they don’t do that. They stick to their old tactics, to their old way of treating players. Young players have changed. The players will not do what you want them to do.

“They will question you: ‘Why do we do this particular exercise? Why do we do this particular group training? Why do we do this kind of system?’ And you have to convince them why this is necessary. In the past [coaches] would say: ‘Run 10 times up the hill’, and you will do that or, ‘Climb up the tree’, and you will do that without questioning.”

When it came to his players’ behaviour, Krautzun wasn’t too strict about checking if they were up late smoking or watching TV in the hotel before matches. “When players want to smoke secretly, what can you do?” That was the view he took with Klopp, who he remembers, with a wry smile, being one of the culprits.

That in turn sparks another memory. Krautzun was with Ferguson at a “posh restaurant in Manchester”. Fabien Barthez, the Manchester United goalkeeper at the time, was sitting in the corner with his girlfriend. He had a lit cigarette in one hand which he quickly tried to hide when his manager walked in.

“Don’t worry, son!” Ferguson piped up. “You can smoke. I saw that you were smoking. You’re going to play tomorrow anyway!”

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Krautzun’s friendship with Ferguson pre-dates that particular incident. They first met on an FA coaching course back in the mid-70s at Bisham Abbey. Krautzun was the only German, but there was quite a cast of famous coaches from that era of British football. According to Krautzun, Bill Shankly, Dave Sexton and Don Howe were all present, along with Ferguson, who was then the manager of St. Mirren.

“They called me Fritz at the time,” smiles Krautzun.

His main memory of the course was doing a lot of set-pieces and getting headaches from the practical sessions, such was the weight of the leather balls he had to head having been stuck at centre-back.

Whether they were comparing the English and Scottish styles of play, or cracking jokes at one another’s expense, it was Ferguson that Krautzun struck up a friendship with. They got on so well that the young German coach was invited to Scotland, where he stayed with Ferguson and his wife Cathy.

“We went to St. Mirren and he asked me to hold a training session. He always mentions that in a funny way. That when I did a coaching session for his team, all I did even in the soaking rain [was] make these players do diving headers.”

Back at home with the Fergusons, Krautzun had the dubious pleasure of experiencing haggis and black pudding for the first time. “One I liked very much, one I hesitated to touch and eat but I wanted to be polite. So I also tasted it and ate it.”

They remained in regular contact, with Ferguson asking Krautzun for advice on German opponents. When Aberdeen faced Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983, it was Krautzun who provided the scouting report on the record German champions.

“I think he was very satisfied in the way I did it,” says Krautzun with a grin. Aberdeen knocked Bayern out before going on to beat Real Madrid in the final.

This contact continued into Ferguson’s time at Manchester United but Krautzun isn’t quite so keen to let on about the details of that: “I might get into trouble!”

He doesn’t want to upset Ferguson, who evidently thinks a lot of his friend too. In the first chapter of the former United manager’s autobiography, you’ll find Krautzun listed when he talks about his strong friendships.

Perhaps a better indication comes from 2015, when Krautzun was nominated for German football’s ambassador of the year. He finished runner-up to Jürgen Klinsmann in a ceremony at the German ministry of culture in Berlin. And, without Krautzun’s knowledge, Ferguson had travelled alone by private plane to support him.

The pair still watch games together “six or seven times a year”, but this weekend’s derby between Liverpool and Manchester United won’t be one of those occasions. Krautzun is away in China working on yet another project. Of course.

His loyalties, however, are split, with Klopp in the Liverpool dugout and Ferguson on the Manchester United board. So who does he want to win?

“That’s a very difficult question,” Krautzun laughs. “Last time it was a draw when I was there. If it’s a draw, then that’s OK.”

Jurgen Klopp’s early years and how he could have coached Manchester United
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