It was somewhat of a surprise to see Steffen Freund return to Tottenham this summer after he accepted Andre Villas-Boas’ offer to join him on the bench at White Hart Lane as his assistant manager, but that was more down to ignorance than merit.
For Freund arrived with a stellar coaching CV, with spells as an assistant manager for the German U20 team and to Berti Vogts for Nigeria’s African Cup of Nations campaign in 2008, before grasping the role of manager for the U16 and U17 German youth teams.
The 42-year-old spent five years in north London and was a part of the 1999 League Cup victory that is remembered as a rare highlight of an otherwise uninspiring and mediocre decade for the club. Between 1998 and 2003, Freund became something of a cult figure amongst the Spurs faithful mainly thanks to a tireless work ethic and determination and an amiable nature off the pitch.
Fans take to players that commit fully to their club and few others worked as hard for the Lilywhite shirt as Freund. Indeed, David Ginola’s famous anecdote about the German’s incessant instructions to ‘arbeit’, or ‘work’, added to the cult of Freund, a phenomenon that led to a t-shirt designed in honour of the midfielder in the style of the popular US TV sitcom ‘Friends’.
In an era that has increasingly moved away from the days of former players taking management positions, many supporters could be forgiven for thinking the picture of Freund hanging in the Tottenham Hall of Fame would be the closest the German came to a return. But the man who unexpectedly joined the Spurs faithful in the stands wearing his very own autographed shirt from the 1999 final has returned in an official capacity at an exciting time for the club.
“The new academy can’t be compared. It’s a world-class facility,” he explained. “I have my office here and look over the pitches. The conditions are unbelievably good. The previous training ground Spurs Lodge at Chigwell wasn’t bad, but there’s no comparison with what we have here. It’s a dream. It’s an absolutely world-class facility that not many teams have.
“We have a wonderful stadium at White Hart Lane. Now everything is free to build a bigger and even more beautiful stadium. The club is changing and changing.”
After years of mid-table mediocrity with the occasional relegation battle thrown in, ENIC, the current majority shareholder of the club embarked on a long-term mission to bring the club more in line with local rivals Arsenal as well as establish a team capable of challenging for trophies. Though one League Cup triumph in 2007 is the sum of their achievements, regular top-half finishes have shown that progress has been steady and a far cry from the darker days of Freund’s stay at the club.
He says: “On the pitch, in the last few years the team has come fourth or fifth, it’s always up there. When I was a player, we were on average in 9th to 12th place. We were relatively strong in cup games with two FA Cup semi-finals and a League Cup final. Individually, we were well stocked with players, but now it’s an established top-six team, and that makes me happy.”
The squad is barely recognisable to Freund though, as he explains: “I knew most of the players’ names. Ledley King and Robbie Keane were the last ones I played together with. Both are gone, King stopped for health reasons and Keane has moved on.”
For the man who claimed on his arrival that it had been: “my dream, one day to come back to Spurs,” Freund always kept a close eye on his adopted club, adding: “As Sky often show English football in Germany, they’ve often shown Tottenham in the last few years. For example, I saw a Tottenham v Chelsea 1-1 draw played at White Hart Lane (last season) at an unbelievable tempo. You could see what the players were bringing to the team.
“Now the whole central midfield has changed. Modric and Van der Vaart have gone, while Parker is injured. So there have been a few changes, and a new head coach.”
Villas-Boas’ arrival heralded a new era at Tottenham following the successful period under Harry Redknapp and the three-hour meeting with Freund was enough to convince the German to relinquish his duties as U17 manager.
“We didn’t know each other. But he said directly to me at the first meeting that he wanted a former player. I know at Chelsea he worked with a former player in Di Matteo. He saw a past player as having a positive input,” he says.
“It’s a dream for me to experience all this on the bench. There’s an unbelievable atmosphere. It’s a tight stadium with the fans three to five metres from the pitch. The message for the future of Tottenham is it’s all a big step forward.”
So what of Villas-Boas? The Portuguese had an unhappy spell at London rivals Chelsea, badly damaging his reputation as one of the game’s up-and-coming coaches and painting him in a difficult light. Freund sees it differently though, lavishing praise on the man in charge of the side now fifth in the Premier League following a slow start.
“He has absolute professionalism and organisation,” Freund explains. “He expects that we coaches should all ready, that we arrive earlier at training and leave later, a bit like the situation in Germany. We must work for him, help him where we can, organise everything, the training sessions, note everything down.
“We have meetings, discuss line-ups. We have an open relationship. He asks us in certain situations. I have to say we’ve worked together very well in the last few months. We regularly exchange ideas and discuss situations.
“I personally think every coach is different. He has a clear, open relationship with the players. They go to him. He makes many decisions. My role is to be in constant contact with the players. All the players are important for the team and there’s a situation of respect.
“He has a lot of humour. He has a relationship on a professional basis, but jokes are sometimes made. I think it’s a very pleasant working atmosphere.”
A notable difference to the Redknapp era has been the integration of a number of the younger players in the Spurs ranks, a situation Freund attributes to the work of Tim Sherwood, a protege of the last regime.
“Tim Sherwood is the coach of the Development squad team and is a key link to the professional teams. I think his role is very important in any club. You have to have someone to judge young players and to bring young players through, as has been the case,” he says.
“It was very important in the situation where we had five or six players injured. It was important to have players like Falque, Mason, Carroll and Townsend ready to come straight in, and Kane who is now injured.
“They need time, that’s clear. But we must keep developing them.”
As for the first-team, Spurs have found their stride, finding themselves unbeaten in nine with four consecutive league victories, including the memorable 3-2 triumph at Old Trafford. However, Freund is quick to temper title aspirations, pointing to the unpredictable nature of the Premier League.
He suggests: “It’s too early to say. I think it’s very important not to focus on the end of the season, nor on the outcome of one game. When we dropped points at the beginning of the season, it was said to be all negative, but not for me. I wasn’t down.
“We deserved to get a point when we lost at Newcastle and more points in the next games. Now we’ve won four league games in a row.
“We want to be in the top four. If we win a trophy, that’s great. But there’s no pressure on our ambition at the start.”
The former midfield general has won coveted trophies throughout his time in football: two Bundesliga titles preceded a Champions League win with Borussia Dortmund and sandwiched international success with Germany at the European Championships in 1996. He led the German stars of tomorrow to the final of the 2011 U17 equivalent before claiming third place at the U17 World Cup that same year. In short, he is accustomed to success.
Despite that, Freund is acutely aware of the need to convince not just his employers, but the fans of his and Villas-Boas’ methods. The team received a frosty reception after draws with West Brom and Norwich but there has been a noticeable improvement since then.
He says: “The atmosphere was more positive against Aston Villa. That wasn’t always so when I was a player when the atmosphere would very, very quickly turn negative. Against Aston Villa it was more positive. That pleases me. The team deserves that.
“The team lost a top defender in Ledley King, they were missing the midfield who were injured or sold. I enjoyed the last 20 minutes against Villa. It plays a role that we won at Man Utd. But we were neither in a state of euphoria or pessimism.
“It would be wrong to talk about the championship. It will be great against Chelsea at home. Then there are games against Southampton, Wigan, Man City and Arsenal to come. We should make the most of the experience. At some point, there are defeats to come. It’s a good message for observers that it’s difficult to beat Tottenham. But we mustn’t be euphoric and must keep our feet on the ground.
“We’ve got seven games in twenty days, including two Europa League games against Maribor and the Capital One Cup at Norwich. That’s an extremely hard programme.”
It is tough, but for a man synonymous with hardwork and with a record littered with success, Tottenham should be grateful to have the cult of Freund once again back among the ranks.
Interview conducted by Victor Vago