Growing up in East Germany, Uwe Rosler’s footballing skills gave him a lifestyle few others enjoyed and he says he still feels fortunate to be paid for managing “massive club” Leeds United. Phil Hay reports.
Uwe Rosler understands the concept of privilege because in East Germany he had it. People who ask him about his childhood always assume that life was brutal. “I tell them no. I had the best upbringing I could ever wish for,” he says.
That, he admits, is because footballers in the communist state were among the “three or four per cent who had a good life.” Put in those terms you start to appreciate why the sport is something Rosler says he would struggle to cope without. “It was similar to how football is now.”
Rosler was born in Altenburg in 1968 and lived in Leipzig by the time his playing career began in earnest. In the west, East German footballers were classed as amateurs but the reality was rather different. Rosler says he was effectively sponsored to pursue the game, live a footballer’s life and promote “the system” to the western world.
“As a footballer you were privileged,” he says. “You were a privileged person in the system. These days in the western world as a footballer, a successful footballer, you are very privileged. That was the same in the Eastern bloc.
“You were one of the three, four per cent of the population who had a good life. We’re talking about finance, about living, about having a car. In East Germany (other people) had to wait for over 10 years for a car. In terms of travelling, you had the chance to travel to Western countries where nobody else could travel. You presented the system outside of the east.
“People ask me how I reckon my youth was. ‘It must have been very tough.’ I say I had the best youth I could ever have wished for because the government sponsored me and my family to do the only thing I wanted to do – to be a sportsman, living on a complex doing the same principles 30 years ago that academies do now.”
Kossen in Austria – the base for Leeds United’s pre-season training camp this week – is not so far away from Leipzig; a five-hour drive but still a relative stone’s throw from where the iron curtain once was. The village is green, plush and visibly affluent and talk about Rosler’s youth takes him back a long way.
When he came to the west independently, joining Manchester City in 1994, the differences were acute and challenging. “It was a culture shock because everything in the east was dictated to you,” he says. “Certain things were put on the line and you couldn’t overstep the line.
“In the west, everything was more loose. You had to be more responsible for yourself, using that responsibility in the right way. You learned to live with the media, to live with more financial wealth. You needed to understand what to do with the money you had – long term investments, looking after your family.
“It was a completely new world. A lot of East German guys have been very successful and have a very good life. But a few East German players didn’t make that transition and unfortunately they’re facing problems now.”
Rosler is one of those who coped. A player for the best part of two decades, his career as a coach is into its 11th year and in May, at a time when Leeds were urgently looking for direction, he took the job of head coach at Elland Road, returning to management six months after being sacked by Wigan Athletic.
Rosler sold himself to United’s owner, Massimo Cellino with a formal presentation. “I showed him on a laptop how I wanted to play,” he says, “but I think he did his homework before then anyway. He knew what my teams stand for. But I did the same presentation for the players too. When you see those 10 minutes, you know what you’re getting yourself into.”
With Rosler, the formula is established – intense, high-octane, pressing football which relies on tip-top fitness. The 46-year-old revised his original pre-season schedule after testing United’s players for two days at the start of this month, deciding that their conditioning needed more work.
As a whole he would argue that his career in management vindicates his tactics. The question mark on his record is the period at Wigan which led to his dismissal last November, months after the club had reached the semi-finals of both the Championship play-offs and the FA Cup. A few months on from his exit, Wigan were relegated to League One.
“In coaching, everywhere I went I improved the team with immediate effect,” he says. “There was natural progression in all of my stages. Then I got a little blip with Wigan. But I’m also absolutely confident that Wigan wouldn’t have got relegated if I’d stayed there.”
Does he know what I went wrong? “I know but there’s no reason anymore to talk about that,” he says. “It’s done. But I learned a lot from that. You learn more when things aren’t going to plan.
“People only see that but it’s wrong. Mr Cellino is different. He saw my 11-and-a-half months there and he saw that the first seven months were very successful. Then there were a few months where it didn’t go well. I learned a lot. I need to make sure I don’t make the same mistakes again.
“I was keen to start work again and I had opportunities to be a firefighter in February or March but I didn’t want to do it. There wasn’t the right club available. And ideally I wanted a pre-season.
“Pre-season is about getting physically ready but also testing the players mentally. Because with the amount of training, the heat out here, the type of opposition – now the real DNA comes out. That’s very important for me to see. Because when it comes to Christmas and playing every two days, that is extreme. You need fitness, morale and organisation. That’s what you find out about in pre-season.”
In Cellino’s tenure as owner of Leeds – 15 months and counting – the club have raced through head coaches. Rosler is his fifth.
Conversations with coaches at United are often bogged down in the quality of their relationship with the Italian but from the outside this summer Leeds have looked joined-up and productive.
Cellino passed some necessary control to Adam Pearson, his executive director, and allowed Rosler to build a three-man coaching team: Rob Kelly, Julian Darby and goalkeeping coach Richard Hartis. Six players have signed and Rosler says that while the club’s financial framework is “limited”, he wants to do “one more thing”; his code for bringing in a left winger.
“What Mr Cellino has done did is put a lot of very competent, highly-rated people into positions,” Rosler says. “That made my life much easier. I can concentrate on what I think I do best – working with the players.
“Mr Cellino, all credit to him. He saw what was needed and he put it in place. I see another side of him that a lot of people have not seen. We both enjoy our company. We listen to each other and we both want to do really, really well for this football club. We’re really ambitious.”
Rosler says that when he was starting out as a player in western Europe in the 1990s, the idea of managing Leeds was a fantasy. “If anyone had said that, I would have signed it off straight away,” he laughs. He sees in United’s support the same yearning he saw at Manchester City when the club he played for until 1998 dropped out of the Premiership and muddled around in the lower leagues.
“Manchester City supporters were very desperate when they were in League One. I see a little bit of the same desperation now.
“Leeds United is a massive club. I understand the desperation. I understand the history. I understand one city, one club. I see that not as a disturbance but as a big possibility. My job now is to unify people together – and first of all my team where I have the most influence.”
It is much to carry and other coaches before him have found the pressure hard to bear. For Rosler, his enthusiasm for the job and all it might throw at him goes back to his youth – the original feeling of joy which football gave him in the circumstances that might otherwise have been very different.
“When we were all growing up, every player and every coach loved football,” he says. “Before all the pressure comes, before all the finance comes, before all the contracting issues and agents. You start in football because you love the game.
“Going back to basics, I love the game and I want to stay in the game. I can’t see myself not being in the game in some sort of capacity. That’s why I feel privileged – I get paid for my love. And Leeds United is too good an opportunity to turn down.”