Robin Koch exclusive - Leeds United defender on helping the city's kids, fitness latest and his next Elland Road task
The Leeds United defender was the guest of a Leeds United Foundation online forum for a group of veterans, ahead of the launch of the ‘Combat Cafe’ where they’ll meet up weekly and form a support network.
Koch shared with them his experience of growing up as the son of a Bundesliga champion, idolising Brazilian icon Ronaldinho and dreaming of becoming a footballer.
He talked about swapping Germany for England in the middle of a global pandemic and trying to stay positive while out of action following knee surgery.
The screen was filled with smiling faces and Koch even received some career advice from a Manchester City supporter on the call named Stan.
“Stay focused,” he told the centre-half.
“Be positive and work hard every day.”
Koch took it in the spirit intended and offered his thanks.
“It’s always nice to speak to fans,” he told the YEP when the veterans logged off.
“Every time I go for a walk and people come up to me and we have small conversations, it’s nice.
“For me it’s quite a weird situation, coming to a new country, a new city and you can’t really go out and see the city and meet people. I’m lucky, I can go and see my team-mates and train every day, I appreciate that. But it would be nice to get some friends over, get my family over and show them everything.
"At the moment it’s not possible, we’re all in the same situation, many other people can’t see their family.”
Koch doesn’t yet know Leeds, not really. But since his arrival from SC Freiburg last summer he’s tried to get to know the city, its people and how he can be a positive addition.
In December 2020 he became an ambassador for the Leeds Children’s Charity at Lineham Farm, who support kids affected by poverty, neglect, abuse or disability.
Earlier this month he paid a visit to their base to donate boxes of clothes and find out more about projects they’re ready to roll out when Covid restrictions allow.
“When I came to Leeds I was searching for some people I could help here,” he said.
“There are kids who stay with this charity, some come for a day or overnight and they’re doing really great stuff. I was there recently to see everything, how they work with the kids normally. At the moment no one can go there because of Covid, but there’s still opportunities to help.
“Normally I could go and see the kids and maybe talk with them or play with them, anything to help or give them a better day. At the moment it’s not possible but we find ways to support kids even in this situation.”
Koch’s own childhood was a happy one, he says, centred around football. He studied videos of Ronaldinho’s tricks to try to reproduce them and gleaned tips from dad Harry, a league winner with 1. FC Kaiserslautern, who never offered an opinion unless asked.
His family continue to play a big part in his life and after his knee operation in December he was on Facetime most days with his loved ones and friends, trying to stay connected and upbeat as he went through a three-month rehabilitation.
An injury first sustained at Anfield in the season opener initially did not require surgery so he played on for club and country.
“It was up and down,” he said. “After the first game it was quite painful, then we did the scan and saw a tear in my meniscus.
“Sometimes you can play with this injury, it depends on the pain. The risk of the tear getting bigger was there but in the week it felt better.
“From game to game it was different, sometimes I could train normally, sometimes I could train only once or twice, but in the game it was okay.
“Of course I’d love to play at 100 per cent fit but in the game you’re trying to focus and sometimes with pain you don’t feel it until you get into the locker room and then it’s ‘oh **** it’s not that good.’
“We all knew that sooner or later we’d have to fix it. Against Chelsea was the point where there was no possibility to play any more games, so we had to do the surgery.”
A March return to action, in an Under-23s win over Newcastle United, was followed by the briefest first-team cameos, late on against Fulham and Sheffield United.
With no Under-23s games until April 16, match fitness is a little harder to come by but Wednesday’s infamous Thorp Arch sessions help.
When Koch first signed, former Kaiserslautern team-mate Mateusz Klich posted a photo of the pair on Instagram, with a gleeful caption informing the German that Wednesdays are Murderball day.
It is, by all accounts, the Leeds United baptism of fire and a rite of passage. As Kalvin Phillips put it in an interview with The Times: “Murderball’s mental. I’m used to it now but for new players that have come in like Robin...after the session they were looking around, as if to say, ‘What have we just done?’”
“Normally you would think 11 v 11 is like a game but it’s different, really hard,” said Koch.
“You don’t stop, when the ball goes out another comes in so there’s no possibility to have a breather, that’s what makes it so hard.
“Over time you get used to it. I remember my first murderball on my first day in training. It was so hard.
“Now, every time after murderball I’m really tired but I remember the first time and it’s not that hard.
“Today, after murderball there’s a little bit of a reaction [in the knee] but it’s quite normal after surgery that some weeks there might be a little bit of swelling after training or feeling a little stiff. I’m really happy with the rehab and back in training now.”
Eight games remain in the Premier League season for Koch to fully reintroduce himself to Whites fans who liked what they saw in the first nine fixtures.
He walked straight into the Leeds team to face Liverpool but Bielsa now has Liam Cooper, Diego Llorente and Pascal Struijk all fit and staking claims to a shirt.
The centre of defence is where the competition is most fierce at Leeds, but Koch’s task from now until the summer, when he hopes to feature for Germany at the Euros, is simply to prove to Bielsa and Joachim Löw that he’s ready to be called upon.
“I have to get fully fit,” he said.
“I’m feeling good now. Competition is normal in every team, you have to show in training you’re fully fit and ready to play again. The most important thing is to get back on the pitch and show I’m fully fit, then it’s one of my biggest dreams to play in the Euros in the summer. I will work for that dream.
“We have two months until we meet with the national team. I’m looking forward to playing games and hopefully, then the Euros.”