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How a former car salesman gave Klopp and Tuchel their big break in management

As Thomas Tuchel and Jürgen Klopp prepare to lead Chelsea and Liverpool through the Wembley tunnel in the 2022 FA Cup Final, we look at the man who gave two of the best coaches in the modern game their first job: Christian Heidel of FSV Mainz.

It was the end of February 2001 when Christian Heidel was ready to make the big call.

The Sporting Director of FSV Mainz had witness a thoroughly dispiriting 1-0 defeat to Greuther Fürth and the club were down to sixteenth in the 2 Bundesliga, Germany’s second division. The club had burned through four coaches in the 10 months prior to that. The problem was Wolfgang Frank. The German coach had spent the previous two years bringing a degree of stability to what was then a small club with a traditionally tenuous link to the second flight. Under his stewardship, Frank had steered this small squad of hard working but limited players to mid-table security.

The problem was Frank’s tactics, and also the fact that he was no longer at the club. At the time, and for many years before, German football was wedded to the libero or sweeper system: the strategy of the extra man in defence. Wolfgang Frank had divorced Mainz from that approach, switching to a back four. When he left Mainz, his revolutionary 4-4-2 was still a minority view among proper football people in Germany. A succession of coaches tried to reintroduce the libero, but it was not working. The players were hard-wired to Frank’s principles and could not re-adjust.

The latest coach to try and fail was Eckhard Krautzun. A vastly experienced coach who had worked in Asia, Africa, and North America as well as Germany. After the Fürth game, Heidel decided to make another change and this time it was a far more drastic and unexpected one. In a interview in Elmar Neveling's biography of Jürgen Klopp, Heidel explained that at the time, the players were best placed to get the club out of the mess.

“The team’s problems, Heidel concluded, had nothing to do with defiance,” Neveling writes. “Nor was it because the team was unmanageable. The players had an understanding of football matched by very few managers in Germany at that time, and Krautzen was one of them. It was time for the players to step up.”

For that reason, he decided to turn to Klopp for the next two fixtures. A couple of six-pointers against Duisburg and Chemnitz.

Jürgen Klopp was not the captain of the team, but he was a senior player in the squad. He had led a rebellion of sorts on behalf of the players against the then coach, Reinhard Saftig, back in 1997. Klopp was a proponent of Frank’s approach, and Heidel saw him as the man to produce a short-term bounce. He knew that Klopp fancied a crack at management and offered him the role of player-manager on a temporary basis.

Klopp not only accepted the position but chose to hang up his boots and retired as a player. He has been a full-time coach ever since.

The decision to recruit Klopp did not go down well locally. As Neveling writes: “The club called a press conference where Heidel would present the new manager. The Mainzer journalists had caught wind that something was up… and when they saw who was with Heidel they wisecracked ‘What’s Klopp doing here, has he got lost?’ When Heidel told them he was going to be the new manager, the laughter really started.”

However, the players were not laughing. Heidel had cleared the appointment with captain Dimo Wache beforehand, and the players were behind the new coach. Under Klopp, Mainz won those two games. He stayed in post until the end of the season and in those twelve remaining games, Mainz only lost twice, finishing in fourteenth. In the following summer, Heidel formalised Klopp as head coach of Mainz by which time the journalist pool had long since stopped laughing.

A Bundesliga club is born

From then on Mainz stopped looking fretfully at the relegation zone and instead looked to the top of the table and promotion to the Bundesliga. Characteristic of his early years at Liverpool, Klopp had to endure disappointment of a series of near misses for promotion to the Bundesliga. However, in the end, Heidel’s decision paid off. In the seven years under Klopp the team rose to the top flight and even to Europe.

The foundations of a coaching legacy that would include back-to-back Bundesliga wins for a club that was not Bayern Munich and a European Cup plus long-awaited Championship for Liverpool, were established. So too was Heidel’s reputation as an operator.

Christian Heidel has not always worked for Mainz, but he has done his best work there and he is a proud son of that place.

“I was born in this city, have my roots here and am deeply connected to this club," he told Bundesliga.com in 2016. "My work at Mainz 05 is – as someone from Mainz – not only my job, but really a labour of love." Not a former professional footballer, Heidel volunteered his services as general manager, or sporting director, at the club from 1992 while running a car sales showroom in the city. It was not until 2005 that he assumed the position full-time, after the dealership went bankrupt.

Heidel has had two spells at Mainz. His first included the successful period with Klopp and then another, later with Thomas Tuchel. However, while great memories were made on the pitch some groundwork was being done to seal the club’s future as a natural topflight outfit. A new stadium, the COFACE Arena (now called the Mewa Arena), was constructed during Heidel’s time at the club and they relocated there in 2011. The fans had a team to be proud which would help to take the edge off leaving the old-fashioned but much loved Bruchwegstadion.

Much like Freiburg’s old Dreisamtstadion, the Bruchwegstadion was a rickety but much-loved old barn. Its swansong came in the form of the Bruchweg Boys. The trio of three young players, André Schürrle Ádám Szalai and Lewis Holtby who spearheaded the great Mainz team of 2010/11. That squad, under coach Thomas Tuchel in his second season in charge, began the season with a seven-game unbeaten streak.

The Bruchweg Boys captured the public imagination with the press casting these three young stars (19, 22 and 20 respectively) as a boy band. This attacking trio propelled Mainz to the top of the table. Like all chart-toppers, it did not last but the team finished a more than respectable fifth and solidified Thomas Tuchel as a coach with prospects, and the hipster’s choice. Many a football blogger’s avatars were replaced with a picture of Thomy T.

Once again, Heidel had hired the right man for the job and laid down the path for yet another titan of football coaching to tread but the circumstances of Tuchel’s hiring were peculiar.

Sensational start for TT

Jürgen Klopp’s first two seasons in the Bundesliga were a success. Under him they finished the 2004/05 and the 05/06 season in a comfortable eleventh place. More than adequate for a perennial second tier club. They even managed to qualify for the UEFA Cup in the latter season, qualifying under the fair play rules. However, these achievements were garnering unwanted attention and a number of players left for bigger clubs. The loss of defender Mathias Abel who left for Schalke, midfielder Toni da Silva to Stuttgart and Mohamed Zidan to Werder took its toll on the squad and they were subsequently relegated.

Mainz eventually recovered their topflight status, but they did not bounce back straight away. After having failed to do gain promotion after one season, Klopp bid a tearful farewell to Mainz after having accepted an offer to take over at Borussia Dortmund. The man Heidel chose to replace him was Jørn Andersen. The Norwegian had no prior background at Mainz but spent the bulk of his playing career in Germany. His previous post had been with fellow second division club, Kickers Offenbach who were relegated the season before. His short-lived spell at Mainz was a success but on the eve of their return to the Bundesliga at the beginning of the 2009/10 season, Heidel sacked him.

The reasons for Andersen’s dismissal were dramatic but not mysterious, and not much has been said about the matter since. The trigger was the DFB Pokal first round exit to VfB Lübeck, a small regional club from a picturesque town in northern Germany. Every year the new season starts with the first round of the German Cup. The draw is configured to match top clubs against lower league opponents, away from home. They are a potential banana skin for Bundesliga clubs and can sometimes expose weaknesses within them. This would seem to be the case at Mainz as Andersen was fired immediately after the defeat with only days remaining before the start of the new Bundesliga season.

Raphael Honigstein reported in The Guardian at the time:

"Andersen, if dressing-room whispers are to be believed, had behaved increasingly erratic in recent weeks. He banned all family photos from lockers in order that players should "concentrate properly", spent more time golfing than on the training pitch and had turned into a bit of a caricature dictator. ‘We know we can only survive in this league with great team spirit, that's why we had to make this decision now,’ explained the general manager Christian Heidel."

Heidel also told Mainzer Rhein-Zeitung “We have clear requirements of how a head coach should deal with the players and the club. Our strengths are teamwork, closeness to the team and internal communication.”

The inference being that this was not the spirit in which Andersen operated. Heidel wasted no time in naming Under 19s coach Thomas Tuchel as Andersen’s successor which suggests that he envisaged the 35-year-old taking the job at some point. The timing, however, was still less than ideal. Appointing an inexperienced coach at such a moment was a big gamble. One that would pay off spectacularly.

Mainz made a dream start to Tuchel’s first season with an unbeaten six game start to the season which confounded the critics. The highlight being 2-1 win at home to Bayern Munich, a feat that they repeated the following season. Rather than fight a relegation battle the team finished ninth. The following season the 05ers went much further: a fifth placed finish and qualification to the Europa League. Along with the Bruchweg Boys the team was boosted hugely by the goals of Sami Allagui who found the net ten times that season.

Perhaps inevitably, in view of the size of the club, it was not possible to maintain such a high standard and lower mid-table finishes followed in the subsequent two seasons. However, Mainz concluded the 2013/14 campaign in an impressive seventh and with it came another Europa League place. With Holtby, Schürrle and co departed, the squad had stand-out players in the shape of Shinji Okasaki, Julian Baumgartlinger and Nicolai Müller. At this point, however, the bigger clubs were casting their eye on the coach.

Approaches were made in the 2013/14 season from Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen for Tuchel’s services. Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported in May 2014 that Tuchel has negotiated a deal with Schalke in February of that year, only for Heidel to block the move.

During a press conference he said "We didn't find out from Thomas or from Schalke" said Heidel. Sueddeutsche Zeitung then reported that he had a conversation with his Schalke Sporting Director Horst Heldt and "… recommended that he get the coach in 2015" which was when Tuchel’s contract was due to expire.

However, Tuchel did end up leaving in 2014. His departure was on the understanding that he honoured his contract until its expiry the following year. There seems to be no acrimony involved and if there is an inside story to his departure, it has yet to be published. On the surface, it looked like Tuchel felt he had gone far as he could and that it was time to move on. He eventually returned to work as Jürgen Klopp’s replacement at Borussia Dortmund where he achieved a creditable runner-up behind Pep Guardiola’s Bayern and won the DFB Pokal.

Gelsenkirchen and back home

Heidel’s next appointment was Kasper Hjulmand. A more then capable Danish coach with a good reputation, having led Nordsjælland to their first Danish league title. After a good start, things went south and Hjulmand (who is now coach of the Danish national team) was sacked.

After over 23 years in post Heidel decided to take on a new challenge, one of the biggest in German football, that of Schalke 04. He replaced Horst Heldt in that role in 2016 and it is fair to say that results were mixed. Underwhelming to begin with: he appointed Marcus Weinzierl who had done an excellent job as head coach at FC Augsburg. However, the club finished the 2016/17 season in tenth which was a huge under-achievement for the Ruhrpott giant, at least it was at the time.

The following season was much better: a second placed finished under young head coach Domenico Tedesco. However, the next campaign was a disaster. The team fell off a cliff and Todesco was replaced by veteran coach Huub Stevens in 2019. Heidel did the decent thing: he handed in his notice and was gone at the end of the 2018/19 season. Later than year Heidel suffered a stroke while on holiday in Turkey. He spent a substantial portion of his convalescence in Mallorca where he has a second home where his wife and youngest daughter now live.

Recovered from his illness, Heidel returned to Mainz in December 2020, this time as Director of Sport, which is a more senior role than Sporting Director - who was and still is former head coach Martin Schmidt. Together they oversaw the revival of a club in crisis, sacking head coach Jan-Moritz Lichte and eventually arriving at Bo Svensson as successor.

At 42, Svensson arrived with a big reputation. The former defender played for Mainz under both Klopp and Tuchel. After retiring in 2015, he coached the 05ers youth teams before joining the Red Bull coaching set up at Liefering and then Salzburg. Before the Dane joined in January 2021, Mainz were one of the worst teams in the Bundesliga and in open revolt. By the end of the season, they were comfortably mid-table and, on form, one of the best teams in the league. With one game left of this season, Mainz are sitting in a more than creditable ninth place. It is likely that bigger clubs, in Germany and elsewhere, are keeping a close eye on this promising coach. Is it possible that Heidel has helped develop another Klopp or Tuchel? No pressure.

A few hours before the FA Cup final in London kicks off, Mainz will be playing their final game of the season against local rivals, Eintracht Frankfurt. If the calendar had fallen differently, I wonder if Klopp or Tuchel would have invited their former boss to Wembley for some of the FA’s famed hospitality. Heidel continues to be good friends with the Liverpool boss, holidaying together quite recently. But both men have reason to be thankful to this former car-salesman.

Terry has written a history of Klopp and Tuchel's former club Borussia Dortmund, charting the club's journey from its birth in Germany's industrial heartland to becoming one of the giants of world football.

Borussia Dortmund: A history in black and yellow is available from Amazon and from the better high street bookshops.

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