In the summer of 2009 a small mini-bus carrying a football team made its way to a youth tournament in Ergenzingen, southern Germany. The tiny bus alongside two other and considerably larger buses that were the property of VfB Stuttgart and FSV Mainz. The team that disembarked the mini-bus was an under 19 team from the Swiss club, FC Thun. Their driver was the goalkeeper and the coach (as opposed to the bus) was Martin Schmidt.
Schmidt’s team didn’t concede a goal in that tournament and in so doing beat the Mainz team. His opposite number was a certain Thomas Tuchel. Weeks later Tuchel would be making the step up to head coach.
Up to that point, Schmidt had been pretty much a part time football coach, supplementing his income with numerous jobs including shepherd and motor mechanic. Raised among the mountains of Nagers, Switzerland. Schmidt enjoyed a modest career as a footballer at FC Nagers and FC Raron that was eventually halted by injury. He tore his ligaments seven times and broke his neck in a skiing accident. After taking his badges (for which he sustained no significant injury) in 2005 he was encouraged to pursue a career as a coach.
“When I made the B-license, the feedback was very good.” He told Bundesliga.com. “The trainers and experts have inspired me: ‘You must continue!’ they said”
So he did and after Tuchel’s promotion at Mainz, he looked to fill the gaps in his coaching team. Tuchel recalled that game against FC Thun and their coach and made the call.
“This is how the football and the life of coincidences are determined.” Schmidt told 11Freunde magazine years later. “At that time we were both youth trainers. A month later, Thomas became a Bundesliga trainer and somehow remembered me.”
There is a story about Schmidt that while at Raron he gave his players tee-shirts of Che Guervara. Not out of any political ideology but for the players to seek inspiration from the almost impossible achievement by the revolutionary in Cuba. Much of Schmidt’s approach to coaching is to help inspire them to better themselves. Particularly at the elite level where their talent and ability is less of an issue:
“The players decide the game.” he once said “ In professional football, psychology is becoming increasingly important for a coach. This is proved by such coach personalities as Jupp Heynckes or Ottmar Hitzfeld… They knew how to lead people. I believe that these trainers did not make mistakes in this area. They had the feeling to know when a loud speech is announced and when a quiet one. This flair is one of the most important factors for a coach in addition to credibility.”
As far as other coaches that have influenced Schmidt, there are not too many. He told Bundesliga.com that he admired legendary Argentine coach, César Luis Menotti “for smoking cigarettes and scaring Maradona.”
Schmidt was given Tuchel’s old job and put in charge of the Under 23s. During his five year spell he guided the young 05ers to the 3. Liga. While there he developed a statistical ranking system similar to the ATP for helping to develop and improve his young players.
In 2014 Tuchel left the Mainz having overseen one of its most notable periods in its history, qualifying for the Europa League and bringing through the Bruchweg Boys(Lewis Holtby, Andre Schürrle et al). His successor Kasper Hjulmand didn’t work out and Schmidt was hastily brought in as a replacement. The former mechanic had descended from the mountains and rose to the position of Bundesliga coach.
When he took over, Mainz were in a tough spot. Schmidt got them out of it. From deep in the relegation mire in February to free and clear in May. Schmidt had galvanised the team. The following season they finished sixth, beating Bayern Munich along the way. It was a season that made the reputation of players like Julian Baumgartlinger, Yunus Malli and Jhon Córdoba.
Sadly, for Schmidt, it didn’t last. Baumgartlinger left for Leverkusen the following summer of 2016 and Malli the winter after that. Another departure was the long serving sporting director Christian Heidel who left for Schalke. Mainz went into decline and flirted with relegation, effectively securing their safety on the penultimate matchday against rivals Eintracht Frankfurt. Acknowledging that it had been a tough season, Schmidt assured the Mainz public that no stone would be left unturned in his quest for a better season. However, before the month of May was out, Schmidt had left the club.
Fast forward to last Monday. VfL Wolfsburg have sacked their coach Andries Jonker. The former Arsenal academy director had only gleaned 4 points in as many games. Despite their reduced circumstances there was not deemed sufficient progress being made and Wolfsburg sporting director Olaf Rebbe decided to make a change. The VW owned club had expressed an interest in Schmidt last season, but the Swiss coach elected to stay in the south. On Monday morning he received a call at home and within a few hours Schmidt was posing for the cameras in a swanky new Wolfsburg training top.
Replacing a coach just the day before a league game is far from ideal and it’s reasonable to assume that Schmidt didn’t really have much to offer his new players beyond moral support in their Tuesday night game at home to Werder Bremen. But he can draw encouragement from the first half performance and the 1-0 scoreline. On loan Liverpool striker Divok Origi is off the mark which is just as well because it may be some time before Mario Gomez returns from injury. However, the second half performance was somewhat discouraging and the match petered out to a 1-1 draw.
Up next is Bayern Munich. In happier times die Wolfe would have aspired to some sort of parity with the record champions, but those days are over and Wolfsburg must narrow their ambitions. The fact that the former youth coach from the Swiss mountains is now in charge is a reflection of the current Wolfsburg outlook. Bundesliga survival rather than Champions League football is the priority. However, for Schmidt there is an opportunity to make a mark and provide much needed leadership in what is still a pretty well stocked squad, barring injuries. Who knows perhaps he can cajole those players find a way through that Bayern back line at the Allianz on Friday.