Nine operations, 302 fans and Red Bull: How Danny Röhl went from retirement at 20 to Sheffield Wednesday

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It was November 21 2009 and FC Eilenburg had beaten Bornaer SV 2-0 to go fifth in the Landesliga Sachsen, which had recently become the sixth tier of German football after a restructure on the pyramid a year earlier. It had been a comfortable but unspectacular win for the home side. They were, in truth, unspectacular surroundings.

Rohl, a gangly and intelligent 20-year-old enrolled to study sports science at the nearby University of Leipzig, had come off the bench to replace forward Markus von Durschefsky in the 82nd minute, instructed to help his side close out the match and secure their third win on the spin. Taking his seat in the changing room, he removed his shin pads and boots with a smile and a feeling of satisfaction as teammates celebrated around him. What he didn't know was that he was doing so for the final time as a footballer.

A few days later Danny Rohl seriously injured his ACL in a training incident and having struggled with injuries throughout his short playing career in Germany's lower leagues, he made the decision to call time on his first love. In truth, he'd known it had been coming for some time. This is the story of Danny Rohl's transition from 20-year-old football retiree to one of the most highly-rated young coaches in world football.

A proud old city perched on a hill..

It's difficult to get a true sense of a city 620 miles away without making the trip. But without delving too far into the realms of clumsy amateur psychology, to spend an hour or two searching for information about the city Rohl was born and raised in does raise an air of fascination as to how it may have helped sculpt the personality of the Wednesday boss and how he goes about things.

What else is striking are the on-the-surface parallels between Zwickau and the city in which he now works. Rohl's home town is an East German city rich in culture and history, set on a hill, surrounded by forest on the south-western region of Saxony. It's most famous son is Robert Schumann, the troubled, seminal Romantic-era composer and virtuoso pianist who along with his own achievements acted as a mentor to Johannes Brahms.

A list of other notable Zwickau folk include famous physicians, engineers, politicians, painters and academics. It seems to be a city deep in thought. It's history suggests a city deep in hard working, blue collar values, too.

A vibrant coal mining community industrialised the region in the 19th century and continued until 1978. In 1989 uranium mining ended in the region and in 1992 Zwickau's last coke oven plant was closed. Automobile production remains a major local industry with Audi AG and Volkswagen holding plants there to this day.

Along with post-war reunification in Germany and some changes to regional boundaries, the reduction of local work opportunity contributed to the population of Zwickau dropping from a high of 138,844 in 1950 to just 86,592 at most recent count.

In just 11 years between 1986 and 2021 nearly 30,000 people moved elsewhere. It's beautiful, but it's had its hardships. Danny Rohl was born in 1989, six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and at a fascinating time for his country.

A proud city, hills, culture, working class values, the late-1900s demise of major local industry? Perhaps there's a reason Rohl maintains he has felt at home since arriving in Sheffield. One source who knew Rohl towards the back end of his playing years suggests his work ethic and analytical approach that is typical of his home town, laughing at the lazy English stereotype of 'German efficiency' but agreeing it goes some way to describing his style.

He described a 'smart boy' who despite struggles with injuries rarely frustrated his clubs due to his hard-working personality. He said he was 'always going to achieve things'. Few though, the source said, would have imagined just how much achievement he'd pack into his career by the age of 34.

"I missed the moments to enjoy football.."

Nearly 15 years on from that final outing as a footballer, Rohl speaks modestly about his capabilities as a player in a way that doesn't quite tally with the confident way he speaks about coaching. There's a clear logic to that of course; he admits his achievements as a player were decidedly modest, especially in comparison to a steep rise through the coaching world that has taken him from video analysis of an under-16 side to the Hillsborough hot seat via the small matter of World Cups with Germany and Champions League wins with Bayern Munich.

His first love was always football and he admits that while he takes a healthy professional interest in other sports including handball and American football, no other game came close in his devotion. He stepped out for FSV Zwickau and FC Sachsen Leipzig II in the earliest days of his career as a part-time professional before his career ended with a short, seven-appearance stint at FC Eilenburg. It was a cruelly short playing career blighted by injury; between the ages of 16 and 20, he underwent nine surgeries on various issues.

Rohl admits with a tinge of sadness that he was still a teenager when he accepted his body wouldn't allow him to build a career as a player. He had the foresight to sign up at the University of Leipzig, where an already keen hunger for learning, analysis and critical thinking was sharpened. Such was the modesty of his surroundings at smaller clubs, sports scientists and athletic coaches were thin on the ground and so Rohl took it upon himself to study how best to go about his regular recoveries from injury.

He researched best methods of strengthening his body and wrote his own recovery programmes. For the most part, he was still a teenager. FC Eilenburg was an amateur club made up mainly of students and players brought through their own junior system.

The student players would coach those youngsters and Rohl was among them. The fire was lit. "I started very early," he said in conversation with The Star this month. "Looking back to the facilities and environments in my academy teams, it was never going to be that I had an athletic coach.

When I had injuries I started reading books and to the internet on how I could build up myself to be stronger. I found that I enjoyed this and began to understand I could read the game well. "I was thinking about how I can stop the other team and saw some signals that maybe I could be a coach.

I started step by step doing some training and it was clear that after school I wanted to be a coach alongside playing football. I had a knee injury, I couldn't train and that is when I took my first assistant coach job in the academy. I enjoyed being on the pitch, working with players and then it was every step to the next."

Rohl's love for his players to be able to play in a number of positions is clear, his explanation being that it allows him and his coaching staff to more easily switch and tweak systems in-game. But there is perhaps a throwback to how he went about playing football, albeit at a far lower level than those he has coached in. But what is most revealing is an admission that while he looks back on his playing days with fondness, he was too intense, too eager to impress to fully enjoy his time as a player.

He feels it held him back. As a coach, though his instructions are famously meticulous in detail and preparation, he wants to see more freedom and enjoyment from his players than he was able to show. "I was fast and I could run a lot," he said. "I played a lot of positions; right-winger, right full-back, number six, centre-back.

I was OK but I was never at the highest level. "To be honest as a player I missed the moments to enjoy football. I had too many things in my mind and I was desperate to bring good things to the pitch.

This is a balance I am trying to give my players, to give them the freedom to enjoy football. Of course they know what I demand, but it makes no sense to be too straight in one direction, that makes no sense in football." As a player, Danny Rohl and spent more time in rehabilitation from injuries than that spent fit.

It leaves some wondering where the playing career of a tall, physically athletic and versatile young player could have led. Despite that source of ponder, Rohl looks back at his years as a player and transition into management as full of luck.

"Sometimes there is luck involved.."

In May 2007, the nature of Red Bull's intention to invest in German football was made public after details of their approach to buy a controlling stake in Fortuna Dusseldorf was reported in the press. They were looking to expand what was then a four-team stable of teams in their most ambitious move yet; a move into one of the foremost football league systems in Europe. It was an intention bathed in controversy.

St Pauli and 1860 Munich were among the other clubs sounded-out as Red Bull sought to make their mark in a football pyramid built on ideals of fan ownership. Many fans of the more traditional clubs reviled at the thought of an energy drinks company forging their way through the traditions of the German football pyramid. There were protests, some violent.

Red Bull found themselves in a difficult position. To form a new club altogether they would be forced to start at the very bottom of the pyramid, a reality that would set their plans back several years and so a club would have to be sought to take over the playing rights from. That was, partly on the recommendation of football legend Franz Beckenbauer, until they looked to Saxony.

Though a proud football region in the days of East and West separation, Saxony had not had a Bundesliga team since 1994 and no team in the professional leagues at all since 1998. Group that with the well-developed infrastructure in the form of an international airport, motorway connections and, most importantly, a large and underutilised football stadium only recently re-developed for the 2006 World Cup and it all made sense.

Their initial club of choice? FC Eilenburg.

Discussions were had, contracts drawn up, but the move to take over the club Rohl would ironically join for his final playing stint a few months later hung on their survival as a fifth tier side. They were relegated and from the playing rights of nearby SSV Markranstadt, RB Leipzig was born. The entry of RB Leipzig into Saxony delivered a shot in the arm to the region and fresh opportunities to those who wanted them, the timing impeccable for a figure of Rohl's ambition.

Despite the lasting controversy of how they went about things in a German football culture built on tradition and fan-led governance, Red Bull brought a progressive image of how football could be played and encouraged 'blue sky thinking'. It embraced analytics and favoured youth. Had Red Bull received less push-back from Dusseldorf, St Pauli or 1860 and not ended up as RB Leipzig (officially named RasenBallsport Leipzig due to rules on sponsorship naming rights) then life after playing could have been very different for Danny Rohl.

But the sliding doors pushed in his direction and within a year of his retirement from playing, he was working as an analyst and co-trainer in the RB Leipzig youth ranks. "My big goal was always to work in the football business," he said. "The room is small, there are not so many opportunities. It is about being in the right place, using momentum and using any opportunities you manage to get.

It was always in my mind to be a coach. My small goal was to be a coach in the academy, then it is next step and next step. Now I am here in a fantastic football place at a big club with a big challenge ahead.

It is a great league and we have big challenges every week. "Sometimes there is luck involved. Red Bull came to Leipzig, which meant they needed young coaches and so I was immediately in a position."

The rest is by now well-trodden history. After four years cutting his teeth in the 'RasenBallsport' youth ranks, Rohl was promoted to a senior staff under Ralph Hasenhuttl that finished as runners-up and qualified for the Champions League in their maiden season in the Bundesliga. He followed Hasenhuttl to Southampton and was assistant manager of a Premier League side in his 20s.

Then came Hansi Flick, a treble with Bayern, Germany and now Sheffield Wednesday.

It's been a fascinating journey for Danny Rohl.

Championship survival from the depths of despair before he walked through the door at Hillsborough in October would serve as the latest chapter in an increasingly remarkable story.


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