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Ralf Rangnick and Southwick: How Manchester United boss was shaped by non-league English club

8:00 AM EST 12/5/21
Ralf Rangnick
The German coach had a unique formative experience in England which he looks back on fondly

When he retires, Ralf Rangnick will be able to look back on a legacy in football which saw him win trophies with Schalke, mould Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig in his image, and manage one of the biggest clubs in the world, Manchester United.

Known as 'The Professor' in Germany and pronounced 'The Godfather of Gegenpressing' by the British media, Rangnick's journey actually has roots in the lower tiers of English football, with a little-known non-league club helping to shape the man who influenced Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.

GOAL takes a look at Ralf Rangnick's connection to Southwick and the lasting impression his experience in England left.

How Ralf Rangnick was influenced by English football

In his first-ever press conference as Manchester United manager, Rangnick regaled reporters with his reflections on his time in England as a student and how he "fell in love" with English football.

"In the early 80s I took the fast train from Brighton to Victoria Station and every three days I watched a home game in the old Highbury and the old White Hart Lane, or even Liverpool - I went to Goodison Park," Rangnick explained.

"Since then I have always very much cherished the way that teams are supported [in England]. I think it's absolutely unique. You will find very few football clubs in the world with that much support.

"For me this is football in the purest sense - as it was back then - and it's more than exciting to now be a part of that atmosphere."

Rangnick was studying English and Physical Education in the University of Stuttgart when he moved to England for a year as part of an exchange programme with the University of Sussex in the late 1970s.

While there he made attempts to join a professional football team, but instead ended up playing for Sussex County League side Southwick, where he received a crash course in the sheer physicality of the English game.

"Brighton were in the First Division and I tried to join their squad, but couldn’t as students needed a work permit," Rangnick said in a 2017 interview with Four Four Two magazine.

"I probably wouldn’t have been good enough anyway, so I went to play for Southwick and in the second game for them I broke three ribs and perforated a lung!"

Then 21, Rangnick played 11 times for the Southwick first team but ultimately did not boast the talent required to carve out a career as a professional footballer. Despite not making the grade in England as a player, the experience clearly left a lasting imprint on the German.

One of Rangnick's former Southwick team-mates, Adrian Batchelor, has suggested that the distinctive high pressing game espoused by the former RB Leipzig boss could possibly have germinated on England's south coast.

"Some of that may well have come from the early ‘kick and rush’ [style] and the strength side of football, because he did talk about that," Batchelor hypothetised in an interview with The Times.

Rangnick himself revealed how impactful the experience of playing for Southwick was on his thinking.

"The most important thing for me was the amount of coaching we did on the pitch," he told the Guardian in 2011.

"There was hardly a situation where we didn't spur each other on, doing some coaching among ourselves or motivating each other. That was totally inspirational for me and certainly moulded me."

It is perhaps no surprise that Rangnick was so enamoured with English football in his youth considering how formidable the country's clubs were at the time.

The European Cup was won six years in a row by English clubs at the end of the 1970s into the early 1980s, with Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa boasting impressive teams.

However, the whole spectrum of the game in England certainly appealed to Rangnick. St Gallen coach Peter Ziedler, who was a student with Rangnick, told GOAL that the German could list off the clubs in the English third division and was keenly tuned in to developments across the football pyramid in the country.

"He watched mostly English games," explained Ziedler. "Coaching in England was a dream for him."

Rangnick's career has taken him all over Germany and to Russia, but he never stopped paying attention to English football and continued to follow the fortunes of his beloved Southwick.

In 2020, he even made a donation of £1,000 to the club as they sought to resurrect their fortunes and he underlined his devotion in an earnest message to the fundraisers.

"Dear supporters, having played for the Wickers in 1980, [it] was a great experience for me as a young student and player," wrote Rangnick.

"This is why I would love to support your campaign and very much hope that the club can return to the Old Barn Way in due course. Up the Wickers!"

It may only have been a year-long sojourn, but the experience at Southwick was truly formative as the student graduated and became 'The Professor'.

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