On a Labor Day holiday with the luxury of having a rare Monday off work, I was looking to do some movie/TV watching to cap off Sunday. I pulled up Netflix on the old laptop, and had the extremely good fortune to find the documentary “Trainer!” by German filmmaker Aljoscha Pause on the 2012/2013 coaching seasons of Andre Schubert (FC St. Pauli) and Stephan Schmidt (SC Paderborn 07, Bundesliga 2 clubs at the time, and FC Heidenheim’s Frank Schmidt, a then 3. Liga side that has since earned the coveted promotion to Bundesliga 2.
Pause, the award-winning Bonn native who also directs and produces, has been making films on German football since 2001, including his trilogy on homosexuality and football and “Tom Meets Zizou,” the story of former Bundesliga player Thomas Broich and the revitalization of his career playing in Australia since 2010 for the Brisbane Roar. Pause created another highly-entertaining and informative documentary with “Trainer!'” — must-see TV for any fan who deeply appreciates German football.
Pause follows the two Schmidts and Schubert through the ups and downs of that one season. All three are relatively unknown coaches on clubs that have ambitions to move up. Unfortunately, Andre Schubert is fired in September, 2012 at FCSTP after winning only one of his the first seven 2012/2013 matches after succeeding popular FCSTP coach Holger Stanislawski the season before, while Stephan Schmidt gets the axe at Paderborn with just two matches remaining in the campaign. Frank Schmidt takes Heidenheim close to a promotion spot, but at the end of the season, they cannot reach their goal — although the former lower-division defender led FCH to Bundesliga 2 following the next season.
The German filmmaker does a remarkable job of intertwining the stories of these three coaches with additional commentary by such veteran German coaches as Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Schaaf, Armin Veh, Peter Neurer and Hans Meyer, who coached for 37 years, working with such clubs as Borussia Mönchengladbach, Chemnitzer FC, FC Twente and others after beginning his career on the sidelines at Carl Zeiss Jena. In extended cameos, these men echo some of the frustrations that are broached by the three coaches — overly high expectations from upper management, the stress of being criticised in the media (even at the lower-division level), the need to coach different players in different ways while retaining a ‘team-first’ mentality at the club alongside the loneliness of being away from loved ones (Stephan Schmidt’s wife and daughter remain in Berlin while he’s at Paderborn) or the little time to even interact with them with the pressure to do everything possible to prepare for a club’s next match.
The two-hour plus film also features artfully-woven footage of drills and practices, match footage, coaching staff meetings, player interviews (including comments from everyone’s favorite police detective/midfielder, Fabian Boll of St. Pauli), as well as commentary by Frank Wormuth, manager of the DFB Football Coaching Course, who works with individuals studying for their licensing as German coaches. (Gotta love Wormuth’s comment on former pupil Stephan Schmidt, whom the director praises but adds that “he’s from Berlin, so he’s got a big mouth”). And Pause made the correct decision on focusing on three articulate coaches from Germany’s second and third divisions — a reminder that football is as real with the fullness of joy, ambition and disappointment for players, coaches, administrators and supporters of these teams as for the big-money clubs that we see on TV and read about every day. The coaches are professionals, and for them a losing streak of just a couple of matches can mean that unemployment is only weeks away.
“Trainer!” shares many insights that we otherwise may not know. The loveable, hugging Jürgen Klopp, for example, believes that discipline is key to a club’s success, along with the level of football expertise of a club’s administration and board. Michael Oenning, who had such a brief time as head coach at dysfunctional Hamburger SV in 2011 after succeeding the fired Veh, comes across as highly thoughtful and well-spoken, perhaps characteristics that the average fan wouldn’t realise after his poor record during his brief stint at HSV. And Pause highlights attacking midfielder Deniz Naki, a talented if apparently problematic attacking midfielder who played for both Schubert at St. Pauli and Stephan Schmidt at Paderborn. Naki is critical of Schubert, but full of praise for Schmidt — the bottom line is that both got fired, and the German-born Naki is now playing 2nd league football in Turkey.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is the storyline featuring Frank Schmidt, still at Heidenheim. Schmidt was in his sixth season as FCH coach during the 2012/2013 campaign, and grew up 400 meters from the club’s Voith Stadium. Schmidt played in over 350 matches over nearly a decade’s time in the lower divisions of Germany and Austria, finishing his career as a defender with his hometown club. He almost immediately became the club’s coach in 2007. The film highlights the stress Schmidt is under during a losing streak, as the press attacks the man with FCH in his DNA and Schmidt’s 14 year-old daughter wonders why her father is under attack. The club is considering enlarging their home grounds at a cost of 6.5 million euros, small change to the Bayerns and Dortmunds of the world but a huge investment for the Baden-Wurtemburg club. Near the border of Bavaria and with a population of less than 50,000, the citizens of Heidenheim have seen Schmidt bring FCH up two levels from the 5th division level they competed in when he took over. Nonetheless, Schmidt is under fire.
Fortunately for the embattled coach, he has self-confidence and the backing of FCH General Manager Holger Sanwald, who considers Schmidt a friend and the absolute right man to bring the club forward. At the time the general manager was in his 17th season with the club, beginning with FCH when they featured in Germany’s 6th division. His absolute faith in Schmidt’s talent and personality is unshakeable, and while Sanwald isn’t immune to the criticism that occurs even in a smaller city, he retains that faith, and Schmidt. Fast-forward four seasons, and FCH in 2016/2017 are only one rung away from the Bundesliga, with hometown boy Schmidt still in charge and the overachievers currently in 9th place after three league matches. Sanwald’s actions (or rather, his inaction) in staying with his coach is an example that should be followed more frequently — a longer leash is often required before a new, less experienced coach can find his footing and establish himself with a new club. Patience is a virtue. If you believed in someone enough to hire them, retain that belief despite criticism. It’s only fair.
“Trainer!” is in German with English subtitles, which are sometimes hard for an older guy to read when the background is also white. That is my only complaint, and it is niggling. Pause does not interview the coaches’ family members, which would have been interesting in a sense, but might have lessened the frankness that runs through this film. Making a quality documentary is hero’s work, in that so much time and effort is put forth for, in most cases, so little of the fame and money associated with producing commercial films. But Pause has done what a great documentarian does….he enlightens us, takes us on a visual joyride through German football, and leaves us smarter and smiling in the end.
Notes: After taking several months off, Schubert became German U19 coach before being appointed to the head coaching role at Borussia Mönchengladbach last season. Stephan Schmidt is with Schalke coaching the U17s, while Michael Oenning is coaching Vasas SC in Hungary. Jurgen Klopp now coaches a club in Liverpool. Frank Wormuth coaches the German U20s.