Fabian Otte is sharing memories of his recent experience working as a goalkeeper coach in the Premier League with Burnley when his face lights up at the memory of one particular exchange with a famous compatriot, the Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
“He was standing on the halfway line watching us warm-up,” Otte tells Sky Sports. “I think he always does that.” This was in May. It was Burnley’s final home game of the season.
“Our number three Will Norris was starting. Maybe Jurgen was watching him. Then he started smiling at me. Obviously, Jurgen Klopp is a big name, I have heard about him, read about him and watched him on television for many years. I just waved back.
“When I got back to the changing room, the kitman said, ‘Jurgen Klopp was just asking about you. He said he read this piece about you and was interested.’ Afterwards, I spoke to him for quite a while and he was such a cool person. It was a very interesting experience.
“This is the Liverpool manager. He could have a thousand better things to do than read about me but he knew so many details.
“This is a very German word but when there is someone people instantly like as a leader, they call him a menschenfresser. Literally, it means someone who eats people, he is catching people, people just come towards him. It got me thinking.
“If he is interested in me that much, how interested would he be in the staff members who he hires and works with on a daily basis? Instantly, you could imagine following him. This is the trait of a very good leader. It is about knowing the human behind the job.”
It is a lesson that Otte is learning himself as he looks to become the best coach that he can be. His record is already impressive. As well as Burnley, he has worked in New Zealand, has a PhD, and now, aged just 30, he is Borussia Monchengladbach’s goalkeeper coach.
“It is the little differences that I am noticing,” he says of the Bundesliga. “In England, nobody can watch training. In Germany, we have 200 fans, sometimes more, watching every session. Two-hundred people on a Tuesday morning watching us work.
The noise of matchdays has surprised him. “It is so loud you just get goosebumps.” Bayern Munich came to town. “They are so good.” Bayer Leverkusen too. “Very fast players.” And Union Berlin? “Quite similar to Burnley with the direct balls and the set pieces.”
His time at Turf Moor as an assistant to experienced goalkeeper coach Billy Mercer was a success. “He was an incredible mentor to me.” He was settled in the area with his British girlfriend and expecting to stay. But Gladbach was a huge opportunity for Otte.
“There was no plan to go back to Germany so quickly. The Gladbach thing came from nowhere but everyone agreed it was a chance I probably could not turn down. Being in charge of the department, it was just a step up the ladder at a big club at a young age.”
It is a testament to Burnley that one of their staff could go from an assistant role there, ostensibly working with the U23 goalkeepers, to heading up the goalkeeper department at one of the biggest clubs in the Bundesliga. So, what did he learn at the club?
“What I learned is that if you have a clear structure and good leadership at the top – and by that I mean Sean Dyche who puts a lot of the structure in place, the staff around him with Ian Woan, Billy Mercer and Steve Stone – you can make up for so many things.
“The players know exactly what the plan is. The club knows how things are run. It gives everyone a sense of security. That showed despite the club picking up only two points from the first seven games in the Premier League last season. Everyone was so calm.
“I was actually surprised one morning when I walked in. I know that in Germany everyone would be in panic mode. What are we doing wrong? We have to turn every stone around and rethink everything we have been doing because it may be wrong. Those emotions.
“Instead, everyone at Burnley was calm. They said, ‘Every year we go through a patch of games where we don’t manage to win. This year it just happens to be at the start of the season but don’t worry because everyone knows what the plan is.’
“That is exactly how it worked out for us. We won some big games at big moments against Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton – dominant opponents. This is because the structure was so clear and the leadership knew exactly what they wanted to do.
“Every player bought into the whole and this was bigger than any individual. That is the secret at Burnley. It comes from Sean. He does not even need to say anything, he is such an authority. My only regret is that I did not get to see the fans, that was my problem.”
Burnley is seen as one of the Premier League’s more traditional clubs with a more British core than many of their rivals. The appointment of a talented young German coach with a PhD and some innovative ideas might seem incongruous but there was a logic to it.
“I asked Billy about that and he was great about it. He wanted someone who thought differently to him and worked completely differently with the goalkeepers to how he worked with them because he felt that they needed something fresh in the building.”
“I know superficially I might not have seemed a good fit, it might have seemed that Burnley were the opposite to me at first, but everyone there was very open to new ideas.”
Otte had earlier spent time working at Hoffenheim, among the more imaginative clubs in European football with their use of tools such as the Helix and the Footbonaut. Their goalkeepers even worked with stroboscopic glasses to improve their reaction times.
“German clubs are unique because they try to be very innovative in their thinking and their use of technology. We also did psychological diagnostics, studying personality profiles when recruiting. It was a different way of looking at players and how you can develop them.”
In New Zealand, where he worked as the goalkeeper coach of the women’s team, he shared ideas across sports, gaining insight from the All Blacks. “Because it is small country, they are open to it. It was unbelievable to speak to rugby and cricket coaches.
“A hockey coach came to watch my sessions. He did not question the specific goalkeeper drills, all he questioned was my coaching. Why did you ask that question? Why did you emphasise this word and not that word? Why was your body language like this?
“They have a limited number of athletes so they have to think like this and do things a bit differently. The common denominator in my career so far is working with clubs and people who are prepared to challenge the status quo and think outside of the box.
“A lot of coaches I had just did things how they had always done them. I always want to think about whether we are doing something the right way when other methods might be more successful. How can we improve our training sessions?
“It is difficult for a coach to admit that the way they have been doing things for years may not be the most effective way and to change what they do. I would never underestimate experience. But what does science tell us too? Why can’t we merge the two?
“You cannot just say that a coach is just a coach. A coach can also be a sports scientist or a psychologist or a teacher or a father figure. A coach can be everything. So I want to challenge the status quo to inspire other coaches to innovate too.”
Coach education is a long-term passion. In the meantime, he will be getting the goosebumps once again when he takes his place in the dugout alongside the rest of the Gladbach coaching staff on Saturday evening when Stuttgart are the visitors, live on Sky Sports.
“This is the thing about having a PhD in football. It is a blue-collar sport so being an academic is viewed critically. I would never want to stand up in front of people and say I am Doctor Fabian Otte. I feel like I needed to be a more credible coach first.”
Ultimately, it is all about working with people. “If I knew anything about cricket or basketball, I would probably enjoy that just as much because I love helping people to learn.” And for Otte, helping people learn means listening as well as teaching.
“Nick Pope is a good example. I have a good relationship with him and speak to him every other week about goalkeeping and about other stuff. He sends me clips of goalkeepers, sometimes I send him stuff. We have this really good connection and this exchange.
“I probably learn more from the conversation than he does because he sees things from his experience. He has viewpoints that I did not consider, accounting for things like fans and pitch conditions. It is always a two-way street. You cannot see it as a hierarchy.
“It is all about finding the connection with the player. If you understand the person, you have hit the nail on the head. It sound cheesy but if a player feels open enough to talk to you about how they are feeling you have done the big part of the coaching job.”
Maybe Fabian Otte is a menschenfresser too.