(Photo: Action Images)
By Chris Dunlavy
DAVID Wagner was once asked by a reporter from the Daily Mail if he was merely a clone of his friend and mentor Jurgen Klopp.
“Who is telling you this?” said the German. “You should sue them. He is 1.93 metres tall, I am 1.83. He is fair-skinned, I am dark-skinned. He has blond hair, I have black hair. If each spectacle wearer with a three-day beard is a Klopp clone, we have 49 million of them in Germany!”
Wagner takes all such comparisons with good grace. His relationship with Klopp – and the debt he owes the Liverpool boss – ensures that.
Friends since they played together at Mainz in the nineties, Wagner would try to persuade his lanky room-mate to stop smoking during long-distance runs. “The annoying thing was, he could still run forever,” said Wagner.
When Klopp got married, Wagner was best man. When Wagner had a daughter, he asked Klopp to be Godfather.
The pair bounced off each other. Wagner more studious and thoughtful, Klopp extrovert and dynamic. “We would go to parties and, at the start nobody there would know him,” Wagner once said. “Afterwards, everybody would be like ‘Wow, Jurgen is great’.”
Over time, their qualities would rub off on each other.
In 2011, after both journeymen had gone the distance, it was Klopp’s turn to offer advice, persuading his old team-mate to join him as Under-23 coach at Dortmund, instead of completing his training as a teacher.
“I spoke to David,” said Klopp. “I said ‘You played as a professional. Now you studied two subjects at university.
“If you get your pro-licence, who else will be as uniquely qualified as you? Give me one name’. He couldn’t think of one.”
But for that meeting, Wagner happily admits he’d be teaching in a German school, not managing Huddersfield in the Championship.
Yet, if Klopp provided the springboard, the raw materials – a sharp wit, analytical mind and ‘greed’ for knowledge – were always there.
During the 90s, when Wagner was playing for Schalke in the Bundesliga, he won eight caps for the USA.
The son of an American father and German mother, he was born in Germany, lived in Los Angeles and returned to Frankfurt when his parents divorced.
He has since lost touch with his father. “I have no picture of him in my mind, only in photographs,” he said in 1998.
Eric Wynalda, the former USA striker, says Wagner was never truly trusted by coach Steve Sampson.
“David really didn’t get a fair shake under Steve,” he said. “It was a tricky time for him. He was a good striker, very mobile. We had some good interactions and I enjoyed hanging out with him.
“It’s kind of funny because I don’t think we were ever introduced to the real David Wagner.
“We got the other version of a guy who didn’t know what the hell was going on or if this was going to work out for him. He was a little more reserved than he really is.”
But talk about the game, recalls Wynalda, and everything changed.
“We had a conversation during dinner and he wanted to know everything about the Concacaf region,” he said. “He was asking question after question.
“He looked at the game in the kind of way where it was very clear this guy was going to take the managerial route.
“He was just a big sponge who wanted to learn and understand everything about his surroundings. The real leaders are the ones that never stop learning. He definitely fell into that category.”
And, after his playing career petered out in the German lower leagues, Wagner did learn.
First, a degree in sports science and biology, then coaching the Under-17s at Mainz and Hoffenheim. Next came that teaching qualification and, finally, Dortmund.
During five years in charge of the second string, Wagner won promotion to the third tier and ushered the likes of Erik Durm, Jonas Hofman and Mario Gotze into the first team. Alongside Klopp, he also developed the ‘full-throttle’ football that captured the imagination of Huddersfield owner Dean Hoyle in 2015.
Since then, he has overhauled the Terriers, altering training times, implementing double sessions, transforming the club from escape artists to promotion contenders. So impressive has he been that Hoyle fended off an approach from Wolfsburg this season.
The Klopp philosophy is apparent. High pressing, swift counters, positional fluidity.
But so, too, is Wagner’s own ethos: an obsessive attention to detail and preparation that breeds a bullet-proof confidence.
“The way he prepares you for a game, you feel you cannot know any more about the opponent,” says Chris Lowe, the Terriers left-back. “He finds tiny details that make a big difference.”
Those thoughts are echoed by striker Elias Kachunga, 24.
“Before every match, the manager gives us the right tactics,” he said. “We go on to the pitch with everyone knowing what he has to do – and we have seen that, most of the time, he is right.”
Nahki Wells, who was at the club when Wagner arrived, goes even further. “His preparation is meticulous,” said the Bermudan international. “But it’s more than that.
“When he arrived, I was very hit and miss. We all were. But he believes in us and tells us ‘You make mistakes, you keep going’. We are not afraid to try stuff, and suddenly we’re all more confident and consistent.”