On a bright and glorious morning by the banks of the River Aare, training is over for the day and David Wagner is feeling pretty good about life. “I needed this distance from football,” he says of his decision to take a nine-month break from the game last season. “Because to be totally honest, it was not my football. I like emotions, I like atmosphere. And during the corona period, it was anything but joy to be in a football stadium. I’m very happy that we are nearly back to normal.”
For Wagner, the manager who made miracles happen at Huddersfield, the past couple of years have been a tough lesson in the game’s highs and lows. His subsequent job at Schalke took a sour turn and he was sacked after a miserable run of 18 games without a win. Now he is back, refreshed and reinvigorated, as the manager of Bern’s Young Boys, and looking forward to his first tilt at the Champions League.
The visit of Manchester United to the Wankdorf Stadium on Tuesday evening feels like a good opportunity to catch up with a man who remains popular in English football, even if he has no current plans to return.
He is still in touch with many of his former colleagues at Huddersfield and speaks to the owner, Dean Hoyle, twice a month. But for now his focus is on Young Boys, champions of Switzerland for the past four seasons and in the Champions League group stages for the second time.
“It’s the first time where I joined a football club where everybody expects success, but this was exactly the challenge I wanted to face,” he says. “I’ve met a lot of open-minded people here. They’re open to change a little bit.
“What excites me is that this is a very hungry group. Everybody adapted very quickly to our ideas. And, apart from this, Bern is a wonderful place to be.”
Now, with the benefit of a little distance, Wagner is able to reflect on what went wrong at Schalke: a Bundesliga giant suffering from years of mismanagement and poor recruitment.
“If I speak about the time at Schalke, you can split it in two different periods,” he says. “The first period was very exciting. I think we only lost three of the first 25 games, we were third in the table. And then we didn’t win for 18 games. Yeah, I was part of this, but the part I was able to deal with was not the biggest one.
“You’ve seen how important it is to work in a stable club, where not everything looks like a mess. There were so many things happening off the pitch: the owner changing, the finance director changing, then came corona and we had no money to spend. The supporters were not happy.
“There were so many things I was not able to influence. And if you have the feeling that whatever you do, you will not change it, it’s a horrible feeling. It doesn’t depend who is on the sideline. You can bring in whoever you like: this club will not stop going down.”
So it proved. The problems at Schalke were manifold: mounting debts, the growing disconnect between the club and its fans, and the hated owner, Clemens Tönnies, who was cleared by the board despite making racist remarks during a speech.
After Wagner’s departure two games into last season, the decline continued: Schalke were relegated with 16 points.
Bruised and disillusioned, Wagner decided to choose his next move with care. There were rumours of interest from West Brom, but as Wagner told his agent: “The next project doesn’t depend on the size of the league. Everybody thought it would be the Bundesliga or the Premier League again. But I wanted a stable club with good people. People you can trust. And if there’s a possibility to play in Europe or win titles, then I was open to going into a smaller league as well.
“Switzerland is growing in football, as everybody saw at the European Championship. The difference between the top and bottom teams is big. But it’s a very interesting league with a lot of talent.”
Success at Young Boys would naturally generate speculation about a return to the Premier League, but Wagner has no intention of fuelling it. “What I learned in football is it makes no sense to plan your future,” he says. “I absolutely loved every second in English football. Will I be back in the future? I’ve no idea. If it happens, great. If it will not happen, I will die a lucky man as well.”
Wagner has already enjoyed some success at Young Boys, steering them through three rounds of qualifying. Now United and their all-star cast await. How does he intend to stop them? “If I knew 100%, I would sleep better,” he says, laughing.
“It’s totally clear who is the favourite and who is the underdog. I can’t promise a positive result. But what I can promise everybody is that we will fight for every inch. We play in our home stadium, on our pitch, with a sold out crowd. And for sure, we will try our best.”