Photo: Ebbsfleet United

It is one guaranteed to perk the interest of mainstream media should the club enjoy an FA Cup run, or perhaps promotion will do it. While Ebbsfleet United boss Dennis Kutrieb’s early progress has been documented by some back home in Germany, the story largely remains bubbling under the surface – for now.

A high-level English club pursuing a German manager is nothing new by this point. In non-league, though, it is an entirely different matter, and so Ebbsfleet’s appointment last June of Dennis Kutrieb was very much a bolt from the blue.

The Tennis Borussia Berlin boss fit the profile they were looking for, as a young manager with demonstrable promise from his early coaching career in his nation’s lower leagues. He became aware of the club’s interest when CEO Damian Irvine contacted him, though it took a second attempt before he realised it was more than just tentative intrigue.

Clubs from far and wide have so often gone all out to bring in a player or manager, attracted by the idea of what they may do for them, but with no real interest in investing in them as people, or willing to see beyond instant success. In conversations with outlets back home over the past 11 months, Fleet’s 41-year-old manager has frequently cited the professionalism he has seen around him at the club. Crucially, though, he tells how it has extended beyond that.

“The club helps me a lot, because they are there for me 24 hours a day. Our CEO, head of performance (Lee Taylor), and all the other people at the club that we have, they are outstanding, they help me all day long, and so it was very easy for me to settle in.

“If I didn’t understand something, they helped me. Today, when you have FaceTime, WhatsApp calls and all these things, you can have a lot of time to talk on the phone with your family in Germany, so that helps me a lot, and even my girlfriend tries to come over as much as possible, but it’s not easy because of the restrictions.

“I haven’t seen much (in England so far); I’ve seen the football grounds, I’ve seen my home, and that’s it. It’s good because you can be focused on work, and work harder to push things in the right direction, but away from that, I only saw a few restaurants before they closed the second time.”

It is a sizeable step to take at any time, especially during a pandemic, when nobody could be justifiably criticised for opting to ‘play it safe’ and remain as close to familiarity and their foundations as possible. It was a chance, however, that captured his imagination. An arrangement to reap all sorts of reward for club and manager alike if it takes off, and at the very least, a life experience certain to develop and challenge him.

The Berlin native has spent the lion’s share of his time in the game around the German capital, with a move of 300+ miles west to Rot-Weiß Oberhausen as a player his biggest venture away previously. His Tennis Borussia Berlin side led the NOFV-Oberliga Nord by five points (2nd-place Greifswalder having one game in hand) before last season’s shutdown after 19 matches. The club subsequently reached the fourth tier, where they remain for next season.

Playing for the club and returning initially as Under-19 coach, his two-and-a-half years at the TeBe helm also included a Berlin Cup final and runners-up finish the season before last. It is a club with much to admire for its strength of support and huge emphasis on inclusivity, but having been a Bundesliga outfit for part of the mid-to-late-1970s, and in the second tier most recently in 2000, TeBe’s history includes demotions and financial strife.

With the feeling of a somewhat low ceiling being placed on their ambitions, Dennis felt the time was right to bow out, and it is Ebbsfleet that he is now set on putting the necessary building blocks in place for.

“When I was speaking to Damian from Ebbsfleet, I was very excited after the first phone call, the second phone call, third phone call. So, I couldn’t stay (at TeBe), because I’m a manager who loves projects.

“I don’t want to be a manager just to be a manager, I want to be successful. I want to have a task and an aim to fight for.

“I don’t want to bring in players and say ‘we don’t want to get relegated, we don’t want to get promoted’, because when you know you are staying in the league, then you are bored. That’s not me, so when there is a project that I can be involved in, then I am in the right place.

“When it’s boring, I’m not on top of my own performance; I need the pressure to be successful.”

Also winning promotion to the fourth tier with VSG Altglienicke in 2016/17, the specific division he would lead Ebbsfleet in was not known when he was appointed, as the uncertainty of 2019/20’s outcome in the National League rumbled on. His predecessor Kevin Watson deserves considerable credit for getting them in with a genuine shout of staying up, with Fleet riding high in the form table with seven of their games remaining before the season suspension, and boosted further by a televised win at high-flying FC Halifax Town. We will sadly never know how it would have turned out, though it is hard for a club to simply brush it off and move on after being relegated on points per game, despite being one ahead of Maidenhead United, who had a game in hand and subsequently survived.

Consequently, it was a squad for the National League South that was being built last summer, and an almost completely new one at that. To take on a job not only in a new country but lower down the divisions is undoubtedly much more challenging, where knowledge of players and teams is initially diminished, and with obvious resource limitations compared to a Premier League or Championship boss.

It is where shared knowledge and understanding becomes central, and although defender Sefa Kahraman and attacking performer Alex Eirich would join the manager from TeBe, the Fleet side put together was one largely of domestic players familiar with this kind of level. Dennis describes the collective recruitment efforts, including getting as much information as he could on players he was typically seeing footage of for the first time.

“I watched some videos and said ‘he’s an interesting player, I want to talk to him,’ so I would then try to get a feeling; I was based in Berlin so I had only WhatsApp calls. Later, when I was here, I met some signings that we made later.

“I would say we made mostly the right decisions, but of course, this year is completely different, because now I know our league for eight months. Since our league stopped, that means I can see games every Tuesday and Saturday from the National League and League Two.

“I would say I know the leagues very well now, and of course the players as well. Now we know their weaknesses, their strengths, not only with our squad but with other squads.

“It’s a completely different situation now, and it’s more comfortable, because you know more about it, we can meet the people, talk to them, and we know exactly which targets we have.”

He notes what he sees as higher match intensity here to comparable levels in Germany, which he believes leads to a greater number of forced errors. As a second successive campaign was brought to an early halt, Fleet sat a point outside the National League South play-offs, with a game in hand on three of the sides in those places, having only played 18.

Promotion ultimately could not have been attained anyway, but Dennis saw more than enough to believe that it was not a wasted season, in the context of where they want to get to.

“I was happy with the attitude from my boys, I was happy with the character. They work really hard seven days a week.

“I know that I’m very crazy sometimes and obsessed with football, I’m very demanding, I have high expectations. I know this, and it’s not easy to work with me sometimes, but I want to do it the right way, because that’s how we can succeed.

“For some players sometimes, it’s not easy, because they’re used to playing their own style for many, many years, but to be open-minded and to try, that’s what I really appreciated over the season. It was disappointing that we couldn’t get the right results overall.

“Sometimes it worked, but other times we had really crazy games where we had something like 14 corner kicks to one, 70/30 per cent possession, or 15 shots on target to one, but we lost the game 1-0 or we drew 1-1. Of course, we’re not happy with that, but that’s a normal ‘work in progress’, and that’s where the boys need to learn and get the right things out of it.

“It’s nice when you play good football, when you create chances and everything else, but the bottom line is you need to have the three points. So, we worked on it, and it was better before we stopped, but we have a lot of things to do, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

 

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As a player, he was the driving force from attacking midfield, as well as wearing the captain’s armband along the way. Like many accomplished former players have found, though, stepping into management means no longer being able to simply lead by example with actions on the pitch.

Communication becomes crucial, though infinitely more complex when working in a language that is not your own. While easy single-word translations can often be found, languages are intricately complicated overall, and certain details just cannot be automatically transferred over.

Compatriot Christopher Franks would join Dennis’ staff as first-team coach last August, while wide player Bobby-Joe Taylor was one to attempt to help bridge the gap for the club’s German-speaking players by learning some of the language. It all adds up to making a difference, though even Jürgen Klopp speaks of not being able to fully express in English what he wishes to convey at certain moments, especially in a sport so emotionally charged.

“It’s very tough, because it’s not only the vocabulary,” Dennis explains. “You can use easy words and you can show in training sessions what you want to see, but when you talk in the changing room, it’s not easy in the beginning to find the right tone.”

“That was very complicated, and of course we had some misunderstandings as well, which is normal, because the boys sometimes thought I perhaps wanted to say something negative, but I tried to bring it over as a positive. I would say I improved over the months, and now it’s getting better and better, so that’s another reason why it’s going to be better next season.

“Sometimes I had so much more to say to the boys, but I didn’t say it, because I don’t want to say it in the wrong way. I started to learn and adapt as quickly as possible, because when you’re working day in, day out with the boys, you get used to many more things.

“I’m lucky as well because our CEO, Damian, I can’t find words for him, because he’s so helpful. All people at the club as well, Ed Miller with the media, I’m really lucky, because if you don’t have these open arms when you go somewhere, it’s much more complicated.

“Coming down here (to this level) as a German manager, if they don’t really want to have you here, they could easily cause problems, because you need help.”

Far from focusing solely on their output as players, forward Rakish Bingham credited his manager for the interest he had taken in their general wellbeing. Away from the club, he likes to carry on immersing himself in football by watching as many games as possible on TV, absorbing the studio conversations, interviews and commentary as a deliberate way to increase his grasp of relevant terminology.

It is one thing to talk a good game but there is already concrete proof in what he can do as a manager. Alongside that success attained back home, his measured and detailed approach since arriving in English football points to a great deal of promise for Ebbsfleet.

The former TuS Makkabi Berlin coach reached the third tier as a player, which he has in his mind to surpass as a manager. He could certainly never be accused of holding out for the easy option either.

“In Germany a few years ago, a team was bottom of the table, they had the winter break, and they asked me if I could take over for the second part of the season. They had four points and were seven points from safety; I said ‘that’s a challenge, I want to do it’.

“Everyone said to me ‘you’re crazy, you can’t do it, you will get relegated for sure’, but we worked so hard together and we didn’t get relegated. That was a very good experience for me, because it’s not always just about promotion, it’s about challenges and fighting for something.”

Contending with obstacles like being away from family, including a young teenage son in Dennis’ case, is difficult either way – it then comes down to whether there is enough enjoyment, support and happiness in what you have temporarily left it for. For as long as he and Ebbsfleet feel aligned, the association could prove a fruitful one.

The Fleet boss doesn’t come with wide-ranging, colourful interests away from football, though he will often step outside the beautiful game in search of an alternative dynamic and discipline that he loves.

“There is one other thing and that’s tennis. When I’m not watching football or coaching, I try to be on the tennis court.

“I love to play tennis because it’s completely opposite from football. You are alone, you have to make your decisions for yourself – you can’t pass the blame.”

Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A, and you can read Dennis’ here in part two

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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