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Norbert Elgert interview: From Mesut Ozil to Leroy Sane, the secrets of Schalke’s youth coach

FC Schalke Under-19 coach Norbert Elgert [MUST CREDIT: FC SCHALKE]

Norbert Elgert has mentored everyone from Manuel Neuer and Mesut Ozil to Julian Draxler and Leroy Sane. Here, Elgert tells Adam Bate the secrets of his success at Schalke and gives his verdict on the Premier League stars he knows better than anyone else…

It is one of the great fixtures of English football. So when the calendar threw up a Christmas meeting between Arsenal and Liverpool, Sead Kolasinac knew what he wanted to do. The Gunners defender arranged a trip for his old Schalke youth coach Norbert Elgert to take advantage of the winter break and attend the game with his wife Conny.

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Elgert never gets blasé about such gestures but he is familiar with them. He and Conny also went to see the final of the 2013 Copa del Rey as a guest of Kolasinac's Arsenal team-mate Mesut Ozil. Manchester City's Leroy Sane is in regular contact, while Liverpool's Joel Matip recently sent him a signed jersey with a very personal message of thanks.

Such is the esteem in which Elgert is held among those whose careers he has helped to shape. This is not merely the man who taught them how to play football, this is the man who taught them how to think about football. He is the man whose guidance ensured they became better players but also became better human beings too.

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"I always saw my job as much more than a trainer," Elgert tells Sky Sports. "We coaches must be a little bit like psychologists and a little bit like gardeners. We have young plants and we must help them to grow. It is not just about preparing them for soccer. It is about preparing them for life and helping them to become more than soccer players.

"We live in a society here on planet earth. Soccer is important but other things are more important. It is a privilege and to earn more money than the generations before you confers a status. So it is important to give back to those who admire you. They should admire you as a good footballer but also because you are a good human being. It is possible to be both."

Mesut Ozil celebrates with Sead Kolasinac after scoring for Arsenal against Huddersfield Town at Emirates Stadium on November 29, 2017 in London, England
Image: Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac were brought through at Schalke by Elgert

This focus helps to explain the terms in which Elgert describes those stars who have emerged at Schalke during the two decades in which he has been coaching the club's Under-19 side with such success. Asked to describe Kolasinac, the captain of the side that beat Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga Under-19 final in 2012, and he calls him "a real friend".

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Sane, part of the Schalke side that won the same competition in 2015, is praised for his attitude and Matip for his work ethic. Ozil won it in 2006. The verdict on him? "He is humble and that is very important for us," says Elgert. "It is not just about technique. We try to transmit champion values like respect, tolerance, honesty, loyalty and especially integrity."

Elgert on Mesut Ozil

“Mesut was a little bit shy as a young boy but he had great confidence in his ability. He is a fantastic player with game intelligence, vision, awareness and technique. He is always scanning the pitch and establishes the mental picture very quickly. Mesut is also a very good character and because of this I am very proud of him. He is confident but never arrogant.”

It is working for Schalke. Since the Bundesliga youth competition was reorganised in 2003, no club in Germany can match the three titles won by Elgert. Not only have Schalke had success at youth level but they have brought players through to the senior side too. So what is the secret? "There is no secret," insists Elgert. "It is possible anywhere but it is not easy.

"Schalke is special in that we have that tradition and we want to bring through players. But it just makes sense if the players are good enough. You can transfer that thinking to any club. It is not impossible. You just need to take the right decisions. You need good players but England has very good players. You need good coaches but England has good coaches.

Schalke Under-19 trainer Norbert Elgert at work [MUST CREDIT: FC SCHALKE]
Image: Elgert puts the emphasis on the person as well as the player [Credit: FC Schalke]

"The important thing is not only to bring players into the senior squad but also bring players through to be more than just squad players. They must be willing to work hard and work smart over a long time. It is impossible to climb the ladder overnight. Too many young people want to spring from the first rung to the tenth. You must go step by step.

"You can see a lack of patience in society today. Too many people, not only young people, want to be a superstar overnight. It is not normal. It is possible in television but not real life. Success takes time. It is not possible to be a top player after playing for two years. Things change but the rules of success do not. The players must use the stairs not the elevator."

Elgert on Joel Matip

“Joel Matip was a little bit reserved and introverted but he was still self-confident. His talent was not out of the ordinary but he had a fantastic attitude and work ethic. His path was not foreseeable but he always wanted to improve every day and he worked intensely hard. He went on a fantastic journey because of his attitude and his work ethic.”

With Elgert now 60, and hearing him speak of about the pitfalls of modern life, there is perhaps a danger that one of his greatest qualities - the ability to bond with young players - begins to fade. After all, the father figure is more like a grandfather to his team now. But the interest in people remains undiminished and he continues to adapt.

It was an exchange with his mentor, the late Nikolaus B Enkelmann, a renowned motivational coach in Germany that inspired Elgert. "He saw my hair and he asked me how long I'd had this haircut," he explains. "I told him that I'd had it for years. He asked me if I liked it. I told him that I did. He then asked me if anything else had changed in my life."

Schalke coach Norbert Elgert in the Under-19 semi-final against Hoffenheim [MUST CREDIT: FC SCHALKE]
Image: Elgert has been Schalke's youth-team coach for two decades [Credit: FC Schalke]

Singled out during a public lecture, Elgert was embarrassed. But the message was clear. The person who stays the same is not learning. "At first, I was angry with him but I thought about it and he had a point," says Elgert. What might have seemed a trivial moment had a profound effect. "I still haven't changed my haircut though," he adds with a laugh.

"When you get older it is important to always remember to improve every day. You have to keep learning and to become a better person. When you don't develop and don't improve you have no chance with the youth of today. I am a lifelong learner and that is what I say to my boys. Be better today than yesterday and be better tomorrow than today.

Elgert on Sead Kolasinac

“Seo is a very strong guy with so much power and a great athlete, especially his capability to use his body to help his own team and dominate his opponents. Then, like now, he was a big winner with a good mentality. He always wants to be the best but he also has that team first mentality which is so important in my philosophy. With Seo, you have a real friend.”

"But the job has not changed so much. We always have to deal with human beings. They must stay at the centre of our work. The world has changed and the environment around them has changed but people do not really change and so my job has not changed so much either. The personal relationships that I have with the players have always been good."

So how long does Elgert plan to continue in his role? Around a year ago, he made the decision to leave but was persuaded to stay. "If they are convinced this is the way then I am too," he says. He has also turned down the role of first-team coach at Schalke more than once. Senior football might be more glamorous. Elgert prefers to make a difference.

Norbert Elgert's seven pillars of success

1/ Technique under pressure of time and space

2/ Tactics, game intelligence and awareness

3/ Athleticism, especially speed

4/ Mental quickness and mental strength

5/ To be able to play as part of a team

6/ Lifestyle, nutrition and living as a professional

7/ Good values and being an example to others

"With the age of the players that I work with we have the possibility to influence the minds of the boys more than if they were senior players," he adds. "The subconscious of an adult is more stable and is not so easy to influence. For me, it makes a lot of sense to educate young people and to prepare them for what lies ahead in life as well as soccer.

"Everybody knows that I have sometimes said no when my club has offered me the job of first-team coach. But I have always seen more sense in doing my current job. That is my way and everyone is different. I suppose when you do a job for 20 years and you turn down many offers then you must love your job." Like so many of his former players, the job loves Elgert too.

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