On a pitch behind Leeds United’s training ground in Austria was proof last night that Thomas Christiansen still has it. The final participant in a pimped-up version of the crossbar challenge, the club’s head coach showed most of his players the way: two attempts, two clean hits.
Christiansen showed an eye for goal in his prime until his playing career was taken away at the age of 33, at least two years before he expected to retire. A striker at Hannover at the time, he played for 18 months with an undiagnosed fracture of one shin, looking for answers from a medical team who were mystified.
“I hobbled around for one whole season, taking lots of tablets while everyone told me there was nothing wrong with me,” Christiansen says. “They didn’t recognise that my shin was broken on the inside.
“I said to my wife ‘I either feel so old or I have some big problem. I can’t walk without any pain’. Eventually I told the team doctor I needed an operation, I had to have one, and he asked ‘for what?’ A day later they found out what was wrong.”
A first bout of surgery went wrong and a second, successful procedure prolonged his recovery period to 18 months. His contract with Hannover had expired and it was, to his mind, “too difficult to come back.” “I stopped aged 33 years and I was not prepared,” he says. “It meant football leaving me, not me leaving the football. When it’s your decision, fine. You’ve thought about it for a long time. But injury is different.”
Christiansen is speaking at Leeds’ training base in Jenbach, halfway through a pre-season tour and in the shade from the afternoon sun. Appointed as head coach a month ago, the nature of his retirement and the events of the years that followed made his path to Elland Road an unconventional one.
On the day that he quit, in 2006, he had no qualifications and no immediate desire to coach; only an interest in remaining in professional football. He worked as an agent for a short time, using his contacts in Germany and Spain where he had been on the books at Barcelona, before leaving a murky industry after being asked by his employers to tout players who belonged to other representatives. “I recognised that it was not my job,” he says. “I didn’t want to dirty my name.”
A transfer to Barcelona, where Johan Cruyff was manager, in 1991 was a big break but Christiansen’s best years were at Vfl Bochum, a club based in west Germany. A forward “who didn’t have the physique but had a nose for being in the right places”, he top-scored in the Bundesliga in 2003 with 21 goals, alongside Bayern Munich’s Giovane Elber.
“It was a big thing for anyone but doing it at a club like Bochum...we got less opportunities to score than someone like Giovane Elber, a lot less opportunities,” he says. “So I was very proud of that, of what we and I achieved that season. That was the peak for me.”
The spirit of the underdog is there in Christiansen’s CV. Out of the blue, he was asked by Oscar Garcia, an old team-mate at Barcelona, to join him in taking UEFA’s coaching licence together. Garcia, now coach of St Etienne, was forced to miss the course but Christiansen worked in a group which included Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino. In 2014, another old Barca connection, Xavier Roca, offered him a job at AEK Larnaca in Cyprus. “He was going there as sporting director and said he would take me as head coach,” Christiansen recalled. “That was my start as head coach.”
The Cypriot league is a minor division but Christiansen, who grew up in Denmark but played for Spain’s national side after taking up Spanish citizenship in Barcelona, saw plenty of risk in the Larnaca job. “You always have to work your way up,” he says. “Pressure is everywhere. In Spain it is difficult because there are so many coaches fighting to get a team. My experience as a player helped me to go abroad because I spoke languages but everywhere you go, you have to prove yourself.
“It was like this – if I go to Cyprus and after five weeks I’m off, no-one will think anything of me or really want me again. You have failed. It’s real pressure. But everything went well and we made history at both of my clubs.”
APOEL liked what Christiansen achieved at Larnaca, navigating the club into the Europa League, and took him on last summer. Leeds were as appreciative of his work in a single season at APOEL, despite him parting company with the club after winning the title and taking them to the Europa League’s last 16. After three years as a head coach, was Christiansen ready for the job at Elland Road?
“If I don’t believe in myself to take over a team like Leeds, I wouldn’t have come here,” he says. “I know football and I know that you have to have the confidence. I felt ready, which is why I am the coach.
“You get knowledge as you work and it’s important that as a coach you learn from when you were a player. Remember how players think. They will judge you and you cannot afford to make mistakes. Every session, every game, you have to be prepared. If you’re not, bad talk starts.”
The weeks of pre-season are a critical time for new managers, the period in which players discover their methods and take an initial view on the man in front of them. The squad Christiansen inherited was Garry Monk’s; seventh in the Championship last season and schooled in a specific way of playing. Monk, to the outside world, kept his dressing room in order. The first job for Christiansen, minus an imposing reputation, was to win the players’ faith and their support.
“I’m not too worried about that because I believe in treating players properly,” he says. “Be honest with them and straight with them.
“I’m here to take decisions. I have to send some players out, I have to choose who is in the XI and of course, some players won’t like me because I don’t put them on the pitch but you know, politics is something I know a lot about. I try to control it. I’m happy so far but we will all be judged by results, me most of all.”
Christiansen is less than three weeks out from the start of the English season. Leeds travel home from their pre-season tour of Austria on Monday, a marker which says that competitive football is coming. He is cryptic about his aims in the Championship but transparent in his own way; clear enough that qualifying for the play-offs is on the agenda.
“I want to make something better than it was last season,” he says. “If I could be satisfied with seventh place, or eighth or ninth I would not be the coach of Leeds. That is the truth.”