“I had to reintroduce myself to my family,” Jan Siewert says, reflecting on the strain a fraught seven months in charge of Huddersfield Town put on his home life. “I remember people in the cul-de-sac saying, ‘You left at seven and came back at 10,’ and it was like that, but it was needed.”
A football manager’s duties are many and onerous. It is an all-consuming job, one which demands obsession and leaves little room for outside interests – doubly so for a 36-year-old coach taking his first steps in top-flight senior management. Time evaporates, pressure never eases, and, before long, those closest become strangers.
“I realised, especially for my wife and my son, how intensive it was,” he continues. “When you’re in the job you don’t realise that. Now, after 15 years of managing, maybe I need this time.
“I’ve never had that period before, where you can have time to breathe, time to develop your process, to go to matches and scout without the pressure of the next game, to go to seminars. I just want to get prepared for my next challenge.”
It is a year this week since Siewert was named David Wagner’s replacement as Huddersfield manager, and the last 12 months have not been kind.
The Terriers were bottom of the Premier League when he took charge, 10 points adrift of safety with 15 games to play; relegation was inevitable. But a record of just one win from 19 games, including two losses and a draw in the first three fixtures of the 2019-20 Championship season, meant any signs of a brighter future were difficult to discern. He was sacked on 16 August.
Yet, as Siewert sits at his dining-room table he is open, engaging and at times enthusiastic when discussing his time with Huddersfield.
Despite the turbulence he endured and the difficulty of the position he inherited, the German coach feels he connected with Huddersfield – the area, the club, its players, staff and fans – and still lives a 20-minute drive from their training ground, at the end of a seven-house gated community amid West Yorkshire’s rolling green countryside, with his wife, Katrin, and their three-year-old son.
“I wouldn’t say it was a relief,” he says, dismissing the notion his sacking might have brought solace after nine months of struggle, “because still now it is painful for me if they lose. I left my heart there. For me, it’s really important people know I still care about the club, because I do.
“The whole time I’ve been living here – during my time with Huddersfield and especially after – people are so friendly. That’s one of the reasons why we felt so comfortable here, and we wanted our child to learn another culture, another language.
“The people always say, ‘We know what you have done and thank you for that’. It’s a really nice area, a nice neighbourhood. That’s why it was no question for us to leave.”
Fostering such personal bonds has always been a key tenet of how Siewert operates as a coach. Part of a prodigious generation of German tacticians, his reputation burgeoned through spells as assistant manager and under-19s coach at VfL Bochum and, like Huddersfield predecessor Wagner, as boss of Borussia Dortmund’s second string.
Although he quickly formulated his personal tactical principles – high pressing, front-foot football – after a serious knee injury effectively ended his playing career at the age of 22, Siewert has always prioritised building relationships with his players and staff.
“I always wanted to have a good exchange with my team,” he explains. “I looked up to Jose Mourinho in a way when I started coaching. He was very successful at that time and loved his players.
“I always had a strong bond with my players as well. When you work in football, there is so much interference around you, but if you stick to football and you know what these people in front of you are about, you can get the best out of them.
“It’s important to see these players as real people. It’s a real pressure situation. I think being a human, being a gentle person, is important. The connection between the player and you is very important.”
Huddersfield first made contact with Siewert when he was at Bochum, two years before they eventually appointed him, when they feared they might lose Wagner to a club of greater means than their own.
Of course, Wagner remained in place and guided the West Yorkshire side to Premier League promotion via the play-offs in 2017. But when he departed by mutual agreement in January last year, chairman Dean Hoyle returned for Siewert, having continued to monitor his progress at Dortmund.
“It was clear we wanted to develop something new for the next season,” Siewert says of the task that was laid out for him at Huddersfield. “Everyone was aware of that; there was no hiding from it. I said that I still wanted to do everything [to stay up], and they did as well.
“We wanted to stay in the league and do everything for that, and to then prepare for the next season, whichever league that would be in.”
His first game in charge brought an encouraging performance in a 1-0 defeat by Everton, but the fixture list quickly robbed Huddersfield of any chance of building momentum, bringing Chelsea and Arsenal – 5-0 and 2-1 defeats respectively – next.
A win against Wolves in late February was followed by eight successive defeats. Then green shoots briefly sprouted, despite their relegation having long since been confirmed, when Huddersfield recorded credible draws against a Champions League-chasing Manchester United and Southampton in the final two games of the season.
“We wanted to give something back to our supporters, although we were already relegated,” Siewert remembers. “[The players] were doing my things on the pitch, but already I could feel there was a deeper problem.
“After such a period when you lose so many games, it’s painful, and this was in their heads; you could see it within the players.”
The end of the season brought not only relegation for Huddersfield but structural upheaval, too, as ill health forced Hoyle to resign as chairman and he sold the club to lifelong fan and local businessman Phil Hodgkinson.
Siewert was retained as manager but, in the absence of a director of football, found himself taking on responsibilities beyond his ordinary remit.
“During the summer break I was doing a lot of work, not just as a manager,” he remembers. “I was helping the club in a structural way. This happened when others might have gone on holiday, but I felt I had to be there.”
Morale was temporarily boosted by positive pre-season performances, remaining unbeaten through seven games, including a win over German side Hamburg and a draw with Montpellier, who’d finished sixth in the French top flight the previous term.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out the next season,” Siewert says. “It’s different in pre-season when you’re not under pressure. I really felt it would take time with this team.”
After a winless start to the Championship season, the final straw proved to be a 1-0 Carabao Cup defeat at home by League One’s Lincoln City. Siewert was criticised for fielding an inexperienced side containing seven debutants. He was sacked three days later, to be replaced, co-incidentally, by Lincoln manager Danny Cowley.
Siewert is not concerned by the damage his ill-fated time with Huddersfield has done to his reputation. The question he has wrestled with since his dismissal, though, is one every manager must contemplate in the face of failure: how do you learn from a negative experience without it shattering your faith in the convictions that got you there?
“Reputation is one thing, but thinking of a 36-year-old manager going to a struggling club – you have to be brave to do that,” he says. “I knew what could have happened, but I was not afraid of that.
“You should not live with regret. Of course, there are things that I would do in another way. Maybe in the Lincoln game I could have played a more experienced team, but my decision was, no, I’ll play those players who we will need in the Championship as well this season.
“I always said, as a manager, you have to be brave. In my style of play, I want my players to be brave, so if I’m not brave in taking decisions and doing things, how can I ask them to be brave?
“I remember, as a fan of Eintracht Frankfurt, that a young manager was sacked at the club and everybody gave him the blame. More than 20 years later, he won the league, cup and Champions League in one season with Bayern Munich and is seen as one of the best German managers ever – Jupp Heynckes.
“When I look back in 10 years, when I’m 47, I want to be a better manager than I was when I was 37, and this experience will help me.
“One should never underestimate the power of failure and experience.”
The day before Siewert’s appointment was confirmed, cameramen filming Huddersfield’s 3-0 loss to Manchester City mistakenly thought they had spotted the new boss in a corporate box at the John Smith’s Stadium.
When approached by a reporter, it was discovered the man thought to be Siewert was in fact Martin Warhurst, a City fan from Wakefield. When it came time to publicly unveil their new manager, Huddersfield roped in the lookalike for a short video to be posted on social media, with Siewert walking into his new office to find the imposter sat at his desk – “Not now, Martin from Wakefield!”
While shooting the short clip, Siewert got chatting with his co-star and learned that Warhurst is the CEO of Martin House, a hospice for children in West Yorkshire. They exchanged numbers and promised to stay in touch.
“Unfortunately, I hadn’t had time [while I was managing Huddersfield], but I sent him a text a few weeks ago,” Siewert says. “I went and saw what they were doing there. It nearly brought me to tears.
“This is about life. It’s about people. There’s sometimes more than a 1-0. You have to find the balance in football. Of course, it’s about results every weekend, but what you do is what you do.”
In hindsight, the Huddersfield job was always an impossible task for Siewert, who arrived as a philosophising tactician with a long-view approach when a pragmatic firefighter was needed.
And, after just one win in nine months, he left damaged. But in taking the job he found community; in losing it he has reconnected with family, friends and his craft, and faces his failure head on, strengthened by it.
Article courtesy of BBC Sport