The Premier League interview: Emanuel Pogatetz

He is a thoughtful Austrian who belies his canine nickname, Mad Dog. He is also, unlike many of the footballers he plays against every week, going to be actively involved in Euro 2008 next summer. He tells Simon Turnbull why he is sorry England did not make it
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The Independent Football

Upstairs in Middlesbrough's state-of-the-art training complex, Stewart Downing is waiting in the corridor along from the players' canteen. "I've got a meeting," he tells Emanuel Pogatetz as we make our way past. Sadly, the appointment won't be about needing extra time off for national service in the summer. Like the manager who groomed him for club and country the presently unemployed Steve McClaren Middlesbrough's left-winger will not be going to the European Championship finals in Austria and Switzerland next June. Not to play for England, at any rate.

Pogatetz will be there, playing in football's showpiece event of 2008. Barring injury and another falling out with his national coach, that is. After a 14-month stand-off with Josef Hickersberger and the Osterreichischer Fussbalbund (OF), the left-back cum centre-half has patched up his differences and been welcomed back into the Austrian fold. Euro 2008 will be a coming home for the 24-year-old who signs off his blog on his website, www.pogatetz.com, as: "Your 'Mad Dog' Emanuel".

The epithet was bestowed by Middlesbrough fans, to whom the robust-tackling, wholehearted Pogatetz has become something of a cult figure, not to mention their club's current Player of the Year. In reality (well, away from the cut and thrust of Premier League battle, at least) the young man from Graz is more of a pussycat, a particularly affable pussycat, than a mentally afflicted canine.

He has been called other things in his time as he recounts when recalling his one personal encounter with the most celebrated son of Graz, Austria's second city, 120 miles south-west of Vienna. "When I was at Sturm Graz, in the youth team, he visited us once," Pogatetz reflects. "He came round and he shook everybody's hand and he said to us: 'You are all Terminators.' It was funny."

Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger, the original Terminator, lives in Los Angeles these days but the 38th Governor of California was born and raised in the Graz suburb of Thal. As a teenager he played on the wing (the right wing, presumably) in one of the junior teams run by Grazer AK. Not that Pogatetz, who played for his hometown club on loan from Bayer Leverkusen three seasons ago, happens to be aware of the fact.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger played on the wing?" he says, questioningly. "I don't know... I'm thinking of the size he was... I don't think he could have played football."

The young Arnie did, though before he got bitten by the bodybuilding bug. That happened when he was 15, after a football team trip to the Athletic Union gym in Graz.

"Actually, my dad, Luis, saw him train a lot of times in the gym," Pogatetz says. "Arnold Schwarzenegger lived about 500 yards away from where my dad lived. I grew up near to the gym but when I was young Arnold Schwarzenegger was already in America. He's very famous in Graz, of course."

Indeed, when a new stadium was opened in the city in 1997, as a home for both Sturm Graz and Grazer AK, it was named the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadion. It became the UPC Arena when the Governor of California refused a plea for clemency and consigned Stanley "Tookie" Williams to death by lethal injection in December 2005, outraging politicians and the public in his homeland. It still bore Schwarzenegger's name, though, when Pogatetz first came to Steve McClaren's, and Middlesbrough's, attention.

That was in the first leg of a Uefa Cup tie in February 2005. Pogatetz was on loan to Sturm Graz and made his presence felt in a 2-2 draw on a freezing night on which the travelling Boro faithful serenaded the locals with the immortal chant: "You only sing when you're skiing."

It will be in the Ernst Happel Stadion in Vienna named after the star of Austria's third-placed World Cup side of 1954 and who guided the Netherlands to the World Cup final in 1978 that Teesside's adopted Terminator will be attempting to make his mark for his country next summer. Not that anyone is expecting the co-hosts to create more than a token impression on the tournament, let alone get on a roll towards the final, which the Happel Stadion hosts on 29 June.

Such is Austria's football stock, a group of supporters petitioned to have the national team withdrawn from Euro 2008, and replaced by the best team that failed to qualify, rather than risk the damage of embarrassing results on home soil. These are dark days indeed for the schnes game in Austria. The national team went nine games without a win before a 3-2 victory against the Ivory Coast in November and can be found languishing in the depths of 94th place in the Fifa world rankings, nine rungs below Equatorial Guinea.

There is an obvious paucity of talent, with only three members of the national squad playing for clubs in one of the "Big Four" leagues in Europe: Pogatetz at Middlesbrough, the one-time goalkeeping Gunner Alex Manninger at Siena, and defender Gyorgy Garics (a native Hungarian with an Austrian passport) at Napoli. There might have been a fourth but the Wigan defender Paul Scharner announced his retirement from international football after falling out with Hickersberger and the OF last year, labelling the national team set-up "a shambles".

At least Pogatetz has come in from the cold. He was frozen out in September last year after accusing Hickersberger of "tactical incompetence" following a 2-2 draw against Costa Rica and a 1-0 loss to Venezuela. "Everything is fine now," Pogatetz happily reports. "I've spoken to the manager. That problem has gone. First he left me out for the criticism I made. OK, I had to take that. But now he says he wants me back in the team and that's the main thing.

"We spoke about it and I don't have a problem with him and he doesn't have a problem with me any more. I would have been involved in the match against England last month but I had a two-match ban to serve. In February we have a match against Germany and I will be involved again then. I'm happy that I can play again. I'm looking forward to it."

But is his country looking forward to Euro 2008? With anything other than trepidation, that is. "In general, everyone is looking forward to bringing all the big nations in, to seeing all the great players and some good games of football and the fan culture," Pogatetz replies. "It's a big tournament and we're proud that we can host it, together with Switzerland.

"But on the national team side people are a little bit anxious that we can't compete with the big teams, because we have not been playing very well. We didn't have to qualify, of course, so everyone is a little bit scared at the moment that we just can't compete with the best teams. We'll see.

"If we can make a good result against Germany in February [in a friendly in Vienna on the sixth of the month] the whole atmosphere can change quickly. We play Germany again in the Euro [in a group match in the Happel Stadion on 16 June]. That's a good game for us because all the pressure is on Germany to beat us.

"We are underdogs anyway in the tournament, but especially against Germany. The whole country just expects them to win, so it's a good position for us. On the other hand, you have to say that they have loads of quality players and it will be very hard for us to beat them. But it's a very good game for the supporters."

There might also have been a game against McClaren's England. Instead, the co-hosts open their Group B campaign against Croatia in Vienna on 8 June. Poland are also in the group.

"No, I wouldn't have preferred to play England," Pogatetz ponders, "but, of course, it would have been nice to have them at the tournament, in our group or not just for the players they have and the amount of supporters they bring and the atmosphere they can create in the stadium. It's a pity they're not there, but I think Croatia deserved to qualify. I think they'll be a very tough team to play against. I think maybe they're a little stronger than Germany.

"I do feel sorry for Steve McClaren. He was the one who brought me to England and I enjoyed working with him. It didn't work for him with England but I think that he's still a good manager. Maybe next season he will be managing a club. That's football. Life goes on."

Life at Middlesbrough has not all been smooth for Pogatetz since McClaren signed him from Leverkusen for 1.8m in the summer of 2005. His debut was delayed while he served a ban imposed after a leg-breaking tackle on an opposition player in his last game on loan to Spartak Moscow. Not realising the severity of the damage he had inadvertently caused, he flew home the next day but returned to Russia to apologise to the player, Yaroslav Kharitonskiy, and arranged for him to have treatment and rehabilitation in Germany with Leverkusen. The Russian Football Federation reduced the ban from six months to eight weeks.

At the end of that first season there was also the disappointment of missing out on an appearance in the Uefa Cup final, after suffering fractures of the nose, jaw and cheekbone in the quarter-final against Basle. Still, last season, switching from left-back to the centre of defence to cover for injured colleagues, Pogatetz established himself as a major player for Middlesbrough, and as a major crowd favourite.

This season his return after summer surgery to both knees coincided with the upturn in form that gave Boro a little breathing space heading towards the Christmas fixture list, relieving some of the pressure on Gareth Southgate, Pogatetz's defensive colleague turned manager. "We always knew we had good players here, but we didn't get the results we needed," the Austrian reflects. "If you beat a big team like Arsenal it can be a turning point but we will see how we get through all the holiday fixtures.

"This is my third season here and every time it's a big fight all through the year. For the players, it's good if you know that the manager has the support of the chairman. That really helped us in the bad period we had. At those times it's good if everyone stays calm. That's what the chairman did and it helped us a lot. It just makes it easier to concentrate on the football and play the game."

Steve Gibson and his far-sightedness, his principled aversion to football's endemic short-termism, is not the only major benefit of life playing for the Boro. The town might have been rated "the worst place to live in the UK" by Channel 4's Location, Location, Location but beyond the immediate industrial landscape lies the beauty of the Cleveland Hills, the North York Moors and the splendour of Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay.

Certainly, Boro's Austrian boy is more than happy with his professional location, location, location. "I have to say that for my family here it is similar to Austria," Pogatetz ventures. "We have loads of countryside round here and loads of things that you can do. I have a family [wife Mirjam, daughter Lea, three, and son Noah, nine months] so I don't have to be out in nightclubs like you have in London week after week. I drive to York, to Whitby, to Robin Hood's Bay beautiful places to go if you have a day off to enjoy with your family. For me and my family, it's perfect here."

As we finish our conversation and walk back along the corridor, it is easy to imagine Pogatetz enjoying afternoon tea and scones with his wife and kids at Betty's in York. Middlesbrough's shaven-headed cult hero is by no means a Mad Dog.

"I admire your newspaper's stance on environmental issues," he says, as we shake hands and prepare to go our separate ways. "It's very important that these things are taken seriously." Maybe there could be a future for him in politics. If not as Governor of California, as Mayor of Middlesbrough perhaps?

Austria v Germany: From Gijon pact to Cordoba knockout

Austria's Group B meeting with Germany in Euro 2008, in the Ernst Happel Stadion in Vienna on 16 June, will not be their first of note in a major tournament.

There was the infamous episode at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, when a 1-0 result in favour of West Germany would take both countries through the opening group phase at the expense of Algeria. Horst Hrubesch scored for the West Germans after 10 minutes and 80 minutes of aimless passing ensued. It was dubbed "der Nichtangriffspakt von Gijon" the non-aggression pact of Gijon.

Then there was the famous Austrian victory at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. The 3-2 win in Cordoba knocked out the defending champions, who had Sepp Maier, Berti Vogts and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in their side. The winning goal was scored by Hans Krankl, Austria's own version of the great German goalpoacher, Gerd Mller.

Josef Hickersberger, Austria's present coach, played in midfield that day, alongside the gifted Herbert Prohaska. Also in the Austrian side was Bruno Pezzey, who played in the Bundesliga for Eintracht Frankfurt and Werder Bremen. He died of heart failure while playing ice hockey on New Year's Eve in 1994, aged 39.

Simon Turnbull

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