As featured in The Guardian:

As an evening filled with whimsical stories of Jurgen Klopp’s kooky antics draws to a close, I attempt to pay the bill at the downtown burger-house but the barman brings my hysterics to an abrupt halt, “We don’t accept card payments here. Nobody in this city does!” Club media worker, Jens Volke, interjects with “There’s a movement in which the locals don’t want to use credit cards in order to stop Big Brother watching our every move.” and directs me to the closest cashpoint. Things are done differently around here.

The distinctive tone follows suit as I visit Borussia Dortmund’s training ground in Brackel – a suburb of the Westphalia city which once hosted the British Rhine army on the Hohenbuschei compound. The last soldiers withdrew in 1995; the same year that Borussia Dortmund won their first ever Bundesliga title since its rebranding in 1963.

Whilst walking the corridors and chatting to staff, I notice that not a single individual has passed another without shaking their hand and greeting them, from the Under-9 players to members of the first team to kitchen staff to kitmen. There is a congenial feel to this club that comes from the top.

The likes of Mario Götze and Marco Reus graduated as players here but names such as David Wagner, Daniel Farke, Jan Siewert and Hannes Wolf all coached within the Dortmund Youth Sector before going onto ply their trade at the top level of European football.

Academy Manager Lars Ricken tells me “It’s a family. We’re a big club with a huge stadium, but our heart beats here at Brackel.” He adds “There’s an environment that has been created and we’re desperate for anybody with this club’s badge on their chest to succeed”.

Having notched up over 300 first team appearances for the eight-time German champions and scored a memorable long-distance goal in the 1997 Champions League final against Juventus, Ricken is a club legend and knows exactly what it takes to reach the top.

“We want to win titles from Under-14 upwards so it’s important to have our staff create a winning culture so the boys are ready to step up to the top at any point. We look for work-ethic and they’ll never say ‘OK I need four new players, two new training pitches with heating and my function team is too small.’ No, they want to work with the current situation and this serves them well for their future. We love to see how they develop, even if it’s at other clubs.”

The former midfielder continues ardently “For example, our current first-team assistant coach, Edin Terzić, was assisting with the Under-19s and we really saw something in him so wanted him to lead our Under-16s. Just three days after the start of the season, Slavan Bilic called him and he was gone to coach at Beşiktaş. He ended up coaching in the Premier League with West Ham United before we finally brought him home to Dortmund”. He continues “Current Hamburg manager Hannes Wolf was the same and we always keep close relationships with our coaches as they grow professionally. Maybe there’ll be a point in the future when they can come back to Dortmund.”

“Our goal is to mould courageous players who can find creative solutions in the final third. The first team stadium holds 80,000 people. What do they want to see? They don’t come to watch draws. They want goals.” – Lars Ricken

As the afternoon plays out, the younger age-groups take to the pitch and I watch on while Under-12 coach Andreas Bona describes the dynamic ambiance around the campus, “If Dortmund want someone from the area, they get him. This is a special place, a huge club, and it’s everybody’s dream to play or coach here; then once you’re in it becomes your life. As of this season, every coach from Under-9s up is now employed on a full-time basis and we’re well looked after. The Under-17 boss goes to the Under-11 coach for advice and we all want each other to progress, that’s rare in the football world.”

With sessions now well underway, I raise the point that not a single exercise looks anything like the one on the next pitch and Bona responds with amending expression “We have principles, but they are very flexible. Coaches have breathing space to teach in their own way; this creates versatile players that can adapt too. “At this moment in time there’s almost 60 of our academy graduates who are playing professionally, both in Germany and abroad, so something is working.”

The young coach expands “Lars wants us to have our own personality and pathway, supporting every step. Infact, I just did my UEFA A license and the club paid the €530 fee and accommodated for me to go and complete the four-week course. It’s easy to get on and pay for the courses here” Bona says. “Christian Fluthmann, who was the assistant of Farke at Norwich, was my colleague at the Under-16s and now he’s finally doing his UEFA Pro level with the English FA. He told me it’s incredibly difficult to get on courses there due to so many ex-professionals taking places and they also don’t want too many foreigners enrolled.”

The jovial lambasting of English football pursues as Volke interrupts to rhetorically ask if I would prefer to watch this evening’s match from the press-box or on the ‘Yellow Wall with all the staff”, continuing “It’s still allowed in Germany, to drink, and to stand, and to sing. We still do it properly here! I remember going to Arsenal in the Champions League and the locals were sitting silently, staring at us like we were crazy.”

With sessions ranging from technical receiving and releasing stations to 11-a-side tactical exercises, one thing that never hinders is the intensity and pace to the sessions as the areas are small and so are the margins of error.

As players sweat through the drills, Ricken exhorts the culture he has driven into place “In recent years we’ve had to bring in various professionals for assorted fields as we weren’t happy with the mentality of some players, including the first team. For example, last year we had the best squad by far in the U19 Bundesliga but we didn’t win the Championship; infact we were lucky to make the play-offs. We had to sit down and have a meeting that lasted two days about how we needed to improve the culture and personal development of the players in order to move forward.”

“Even in this meeting I didn’t want to say ‘we have to do this and that’ as the knowledge lays within our coaches, they have to develop the place; it was a huge moment for our academy. The UEFA coaching courses in Germany are top, but they aren’t the only important thing to have as coaches need to be social workers and have pedagogical skills as they’re the first port of call to the kids.” He proceeds “Now our coaching staff have a meeting with the club’s psychologists and social workers every Monday. We went to speak with people at Bochum University about how to work on resilience, identification, humility, decision making and self-confidence, and now we model ourselves on these values with reiterated messages forced into the boys.”

With a nod towards the growth and development of staff, Ricken advances “It’s not only coaches that we want to develop here but scouts, fitness workers, physios and video analysts. There are 15 people who worked within our youth department who are now working in the professional game. In our own club we have an athletic coach and two physiotherapists who graduated to the first team and 12 others have gone onto other clubs. We can’t only educate players but everybody that enters the building with our club’s logo.”

“’Speed of action’ is the most important thing a player needs for us, so we need staff who’re on the same page, driven with ambition so our boys are in the correct mental state to make good decisions in the shortest possible time. That’s everything. That’s also the idea behind our ‘Footbonaut’. Each player must go into the Footbonaut once a week. That’s an extra 5,000 touches of the ball per year. Then over a four-year-span they have an extra 20,000 decisions to make, additional to the training sessions. This machine is so important for us.”

As we leave the building to begin our trip across town to Signal Iduna Park – Germany’s largest footballing stage – we pass the admin offices and Ricken points to a youthful blonde staff member: “That’s Patrick Fritsch. He was tipped as the next star and, then-manager, Thomas Tuchel was a huge fan, stating that he would ‘have no problems in having a huge career at the top’ and calling him up from the Under-19s to play with the first team on numerous occasions. The defender then suffered a heartbreaking cruciate ligament injury that ended his budding career and the club have now employed him in the marketing sector as well as putting him through two years of education. Patty now leads workshops to the current academy players on a regular occurrence. It’s so important for us to take care of our people.”

Author: Alex Clapham