Uwe Rösler: 'Cancer did not change me. I still have the same hunger for my profession'
The Brian Viner Interview: former City striker, who grew up in East Germany, has overcome lymphoma and made a bright start as manager of Brentford – but has ambitions to return to Manchester
Monday 22 August 2011
Growing up behind the Berlin Wall, being separated from his parents at the age of 11, fighting non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and being told by doctors that without emergency surgery he might not survive the week, putting Manchester City ahead with a wonderful goal in the fifth round of the FA Cup at Old Trafford... Uwe Rösler's 42 years have certainly not been lacking in experiences of all kinds, and if it seems fanciful to bracket his famous strike for City with the tumour that nearly killed him as an example of life's ups and downs, to Rösler himself it makes sense. Cancer did not make football seem less important.
"Football is still life and death," says Brentford's manager, with the glimmer of a smile.
He is only four league matches into his new career in English football, but already it feels like his spiritual home. Rösler played for 11 clubs in his 16-year career, in Germany, England and Norway, but it was his four years with Manchester City that he recalls with the greatest affection. The feeling is mutual; Rösler, and his 65 goals in 167 appearances, have an enduring place in the heart of all City fans old enough to remember the rollercoaster 1990s. I duly ask whether his dream is to return to City one day as manager. A shrug. "I don't need to mention that. I can't even think that. Everybody knows it, everybody knows my feelings for the club, and that will never change. But I have to prove myself in England first."
He has made a splendid start. Brentford currently sit fourth in League One, with nine points garnered from a possible 12, and in Saturday's London derby hammered Leyton Orient 5-0. If they are that near the top at the end of the season, then Rösler will have comfortably exceeded his first-term objective. "We are aiming for the top 10, in contention for the play-offs," he says. "I don't know if we're good enough to get into the play-offs, but with the players we have it is achievable, if we have a little bit [of] lady luck in terms of injuries."
Rösler has made five signings since his appointment two months ago, and seems happy with the transfer funds afforded him by the club's owner, Matthew Benham, an online betting tycoon and professional gambler, whose punt on the former manager of Norwegian clubs Lillestrom, Viking and Molde appears, so far as one can judge before August is out, to be a shrewd one.
"We certainly can't compete with the big guns," Rösler adds. "Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Preston, Huddersfield, they are totally out of our range, but compared with the rest we have a solid budget. We don't need to sell. There were 16 players under contract when I took over, with room to bring in more. That's a good scenario."
We are sitting in the bar at Griffin Park, not an especially salubrious room but Rösler looks around approvingly. "Brentford for me is a very good starting point in England," he says. "I have everything I need to succeed. A compliment to the former management, there is a great work ethic here, and a great team spirit."
He is generous with his compliments, in particular singling out his old Manchester adversary Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, who succeeded him at Molde and recommended him to Benham. The Bees' owner is one of the driving forces behind the creation of a European Champions League at under-19s level, with Molde as the Norwegian representatives. That's what brought Benham and Solksjaer together, and knowing Benham was looking for a new manager, the former baby-faced assassin advised him to set his sights on Rösler.
"I was already on his radar, but Ole Gunnar told him what I had done in Norway, what I am as a person. I think without Ole Gunnar I wouldn't sit here today."
By the time Benham invited him for interview, Rösler had already moved, with his Norwegian wife and their two sons, back to the North-west of England. "We came back to Bramhall last November," he says. "The kids were 11 and 13, coming to important years at school, and we had never lost contact with our friends in Manchester. City helped me to relocate, and helped me to get the kids into school. They helped me only because I was a former player, but later they asked me, 'Uwe, do you want to do something with us, maybe work as an attacking coach?' I thought I could combine that with my TV work in Norway, so I went to work in the City academy and I picked up a lot of good things there. I also watched a lot of League One and League Two football, and I applied for several jobs, mainly in the North-west. I was once or twice on the shortlist. Then came a call from my agent, saying that Brentford were interested in me."
He has signed a two-year contract, and has moved into a flat in west London, but the family have stayed behind in Greater Manchester. "The kids are settled there, the youngest plays in the City academy, so I am going home only after games to the North-west."
It is not an ideal arrangement for a man who resolved after his cancer treatment to spend more time with his children. On the other hand, it is their well-being that has become his priority, not his own. In 2003, while playing for Lillestrom, he suffered breathing problems. "I'd had a fantastic pre-season, I'd scored nine goals in 10 games, and felt better than I had for a long time. But when I was eating I felt like there was always food stuck, and then, even though I was very fit, I found I couldn't run. Just before Easter I had an X-ray and they found a tumour the size of a tennis ball, pressing against, what is the word, the windpipe. In Norway everything closes down over Easter but they told me they couldn't wait even a week, they had to start treatment immediately. It was very aggressive lymphoma."
It was not the kind of curtain he expected to close his playing career, one round a hospital bed, and later, like most chemotherapy patients, he took stock. "I was determined to find more time for my family, and I now see a few things differently. Before, if a bus was five minutes late, I was annoyed. Now, if it's late, it's late. But the cancer did not change me as a person. I have the same character, the same hunger for my profession."
While in remission he took his coaching badges and 16 successful years as a striker were parlayed into a promising career as a manager. "When I started managing in Norway in 2005," he recalls, "the league there was very strong. Television put a lot of money into the clubs, and there was a special tax rule for foreign players, who were only taxed 15 per cent, so I signed, for example, the Slovenian Robert Koren, who went on to West Bromwich and Hull City. At that time maybe three or four clubs in Norway were Championship-standard, but in the last two years the money has gone out of the league. Now it is mainly Scandinavian players, and mostly the standard is about League One."
Which, if nothing else, equipped him for life with Brentford. But what sort of manager is he? Is he a disciplinarian?
"It is for other people to judge," he replies. "Obviously you need values and rules, and I believe that if you can't take care of yourself off the field, you can't take care of yourself on it, so I like my players to behave responsibly at all times. But I also want to create an environment in which people smile and respect each other, from players to the secretary, the groundsman. I ask for a lot of loyalty. We can't have people here with their own agendas." He smiles. "You know, I was asked the same question in Norway all the time. 'Are you a disciplinarian?' It is because I am from Germany."
He grew up in Altenburg, not far from the Czech border, and aged 11 was deemed a good enough young footballer to board at one of East Germany's government-sponsored elite sports schools, in Leipzig. "I only saw my parents at the weekend but I was proud to do that, because nobody in my district had achieved it before. The East German philosophy was that, although we could not compete economically with capitalism, we could show through sport that our system was the best. So they had the best possible scouting, and very modern coaching methods. In 1981 they measured the distance between my fingers to make a prediction of how tall I would be. These days, that is thought to be modern."
Of course, East Germany's pursuit of sporting excellence was fuelled by more than desire, but Rösler is adamant that he never encountered doping of any kind. "I don't think you can come too far with doping in football," he says, "because you need technique, vision and awareness as well as physical attributes. No, I am thankful to the government at that time. Without the education I had I would not have come so far. But I am not talking about the whole system. I was happy to see the Wall come down, and for me it happened at the best time. I had my whole career in front of me, and so many possibilities. Going to the Bundesliga, to England, meeting my wife. But other players, great players, who were by then 30, 32, they never had an opportunity to make a good living out of football."
Rösler had been capped five times by East Germany, but, in an era replete with top strikers, led by Jürgen Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff, never got to play for the unified German team. Yet it is no more a regret to him than reaching the peak of his career a decade or so before wages hit the stratosphere, not least at his beloved Manchester City. "I enjoyed my time, I was privileged to have such a career, and I earnt very good money compared to a lorry driver," he says. When I impertinently ask whether he made enough out of football not to have to work, he sidesteps the question. "I would not feel complete just playing golf. I have always been ambitious."
And England has always featured in those ambitions. At the sports school in Leipzig, Rösler had listened raptly to tapes of English football crowds singing their songs, so when the offer came from Manchester City it was a chance to embrace a culture that had long fascinated him. He duly became Francis Lee's first signing as chairman, during Brian Horton's tenure as manager, and he wasn't disappointed. "I settled in fast. The team at that time – Beagrie, Summerbee, Flitcroft – played attractive attacking football and it was a joy to be part of that. No German player had played for decades in England, Klinsmann came the year after me, but of course City had had Trautmann, and that made it easier for me. And when I scored that goal at Old Trafford, chipping Schmeichel after Georgi [Kinkladze] played me through, it was the best atmosphere I had ever experienced... even though we eventually lost."
He doesn't mind admitting that he was close to tears when City won last season's FA Cup. "To see [long-serving secretary] Bernard Halford lifting the Cup, that was a fantastic gesture and it made me very emotional."
He is still, he adds, in regular touch with his old boss, Horton. "He is assistant to Phil Brown at Preston and he invited me there a lot last season, but now it is more difficult, because we are competing against each other." Still, Rosler will soon get his chance to repay the hospitality; Preston visit Griffin Park next month. Another three points that day, and perhaps even an FA Cup tie at Eastlands, will help to make this a season worth remembering for Brentford's new, ambitious manager. Promotion would help even more.
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