Julian Koch was one of the most promising talents in German football about ten years ago. However, the defensive all-rounder was seriously injured during a loan from BVB to MSV Duisburg – his lower leg almost had to be amputated. But Koch made the miraculous comeback before he had to end his career at 29 last year.
In an interview with Goal and SPOX Koch talks about the reasons for the early retirement as a player and his entry as assistant coach of the U17 at VfL Bochum.
In addition, Koch opened up for the first time in over five years to his serious injury from 2011 when his entire knee was destroyed on a cold Friday evening in Oberhausen.
Mr. Koch, you are now assistant coach of the U17 at VfL Bochum and also play in the district league B2 at your home club VfL Hörde. Is it true that you decided within a day last summer to end your player career after dozens of injuries?
Julian Koch: Yes and no. I really chose Bochum within a day, but the end of my career was more of a gradual process that started towards the end of my time at Ferencvaros Budapest. VfL’s offer therefore came at exactly the right moment.
How surprised were you when your old school friend called David Siebers and offered you the job at his side?
Cook: Extreme and a bit shocked, but with joy. He knew I would like to be a coach when I got day X. So he just asked. I’m from Dortmund, Bochum is just around the corner and a great traditional club, I can start in the U17 Bundesliga – I couldn’t have imagined getting started better.
This abrupt end sounds paradoxical when you consider that after your serious knee injury in 2011 your lower leg almost had to be amputated and you then fought vigorously to continue your career. What would have been your plan if Siebers hadn’t called?
Cook: Honestly: I have absolutely no idea. (laughs) The call just came at the best possible time. It was as if David had read my mind.
How are you as a trainer?
Cook: I thought it would be easier and I still have a lot to learn, because regardless of my professional career it is something completely different to be on the sidelines at once. There is so much planning behind it, as a player you have hardly ever questioned it. The topic of leadership is a completely new area for me.
Which coach shaped you the most?
Cook: The best coach of my career was Thomas Tuchel. What he broadcast professionally and taught us how he sparked the joy and passion with us every day was unique. I had a huge desire to start training with him every day because you knew you were learning something new.
Your career almost started in 2001 when you were discovered by BVB on “Talent Day” despite having scored an own goal and then switched to the Dortmund youth department. It was only in 2013 that you finally turned your back on Borussia after two Bundesliga games for the professionals. How do you remember the time under Jürgen Klopp when you were closer to the professional squad in 2009 than ever?
Cook: I still remember how I found it incredibly spectacular at the first training session to sit in the cabin next to all the stars that I cheered on as a young guy and ball boy in the stadium. Especially with my great idol Dede. That came pretty close to the dream come true. I was involved in professional training, but mostly played with amateurs. It was about learning and absorbing as much as possible in the units or at Klopp’s speeches. It was a bit problematic to commute between the two teams and not really listen anywhere. Together with the required practice, that was also the reason why I decided with Klopp to borrow to Duisburg.
Cook: As if it was yesterday. (laughs) We had trained in the morning. There Klopp told me that I would play from the beginning. I couldn’t believe that my first game at the Westfalenstadion would be against the big Real Madrid. Before the game, I was actually completely exhausted because I was on the phone all the time and really called every family member and buddy to announce the news
Your strength was still enough to make a “very decent” game, as Klopp judged.
Cook: I was so under adrenaline. When I left the catacombs on the field, I was completely in the tunnel. I didn’t really see the audience, I just noticed their roar. I was totally pushed and stood on the square with goose bumps. In the first minute I won a header duel against Ronaldo, which the audience cheered brutally. From then on, everything went by itself. It was an incredibly blatant feeling.
And then you were busy on the phone again?
Cook: Something like that. The congratulations hardly tore off. I then also noticed that I was seen differently from almost entirely football Dortmund. No one knew me before. Suddenly it was sometimes said: The cook over there on the right, maybe we can rely on him in the next few years.
However, it still took around seven months before you made your Bundesliga debut. The second and final assignment for Borussia followed a week later. Did you hope for more after the performance against Real?
Cook: I don’t want to lie: of course. I was young, did a good job – of course I wanted more. As a young player, you simply have to accept that nothing came of it. Even if it is difficult at this age to remain patient. I wasn’t Mario Götze, however, who constantly kicked at the Champions League level at 18.
At the time, your father was betting with a friend for a box of beer that you would play for Germany at the 2014 World Cup.
Cook: He made the bet with our then neighbor Uwe. After the real game, my father was naturally as proud as Oskar. He is an eternal Dortmund fan and still has his season ticket. Of course, he is also sad that it did not happen because he is still firmly convinced that I would have gone this way without the injuries. That’s why he never pulled the box off – and Uwe thought it was okay.
Before you were awarded the 2nd league for the MSV for the next season, you extended your contract with BVB until 2012. In Meiderich you were appointed vice-captain straight away and from the kicker to the winter break was classified as the best defensive midfielder in the league. So everything went according to plan, right?
Cook: Yes. It was also the best and best year of my career. We had a great team structure, I got on really well with coach Milan Sasic and we were really successful in reaching the cup final. I just recently felt back to that time when I was watching the sports film “Against Every Rule” with Denzel Washington with a buddy. There, too, an important player gets injured shortly before the season finale and has to watch his team on television. I had a few tears because I felt exactly the same way.
That would be February 25, 2011, a cold Friday evening in Oberhausen. In the game against RWO, after an unfortunate collision with Dimitrios Pappas, you destroyed your cruciate ligament, the outer ligament and the meniscus in minute 13. Have you ever been back to the Niederrhein stadium since then?
Cook: Yes, we had a test game there later with Fortuna Düsseldorf.
Cook: It was a very uncomfortable feeling that I hadn’t expected. The cabin was still the same, so of course it was easy to remember how I lay there in the shower and was treated until the ambulance came. It was all very emotional for me because ultimately my life there changed enormously.
Cook: Not at all so far, but I’m not angry with him about it. It was a scene that occurs a thousand times in football. Ultimately, a millisecond decided which of us was more likely to get the ball. Unfortunately, it wasn’t me.
How difficult is it for you to talk about it today?
Cook: I’m happy to make an exception here and you can ask me any question. But I have to say that I hardly ever talk about it because a lot comes up again and it is very stressful for me. Then it’s like going through it again.
It was only in 2015 during your loan from Mainz to St. Pauli that you first told this story publicly.
Cook: There were hardly any requests in this direction before and I didn’t do anything myself because I thought that nobody would be interested. When I spoke about it for the first time, it helped me to really reflect on the whole thing. I can still easily see the injury itself today and tell how it happened. But what really grabs me emotionally is the first time afterwards when I was in the hospital and met my family and friends.
Was it a conscious mechanism to sort of suppress the story with all its details and cruelty, so as not to break it?
Cook: I think so, and I’m just realizing that it’s still the same. I am reluctant to talk about it because it continues to stress me emotionally. It just remains an indelible part of my past. Despite the initially devastating diagnoses by the doctors, I tried to look ahead from the very first moment. This perspective probably saved me too. So I really did it again.
To what extent were you so stubborn that the thought of an early career end could not gain the upper hand?
Cook: It is quite possible. I just didn’t want to admit it, I just wanted to keep playing football. So that thought never occurred to me. However, if I hadn’t had the people around me and the great daily support in Dortmund and Duisburg, a comeback would probably have been impossible.
How did you cope mentally with your 20 years at the time?
Cook: I wasn’t offered psychological care, but I probably wouldn’t have accepted that anyway. After all, I didn’t want to talk about it, so I wouldn’t have let anyone talk to me. Sometimes I was really angry that family members asked me to think about what I would like to do without football. What always moved and drove me extremely back then was the suffering faces of my family and friends when they kept visiting me in the hospital room. I saw the fear in my parents that I was so badly injured and could have lost my leg. So I tried to be strong for them because I knew how proud they were of me.
You said that you were bothered by visitors because you always talked a little about your health and mood there. In what way?
Cook: I had a hard time showing pain. I don’t know how well I managed to do that, since I was mostly extremely painkillers. (laughs) I just didn’t want to show any weakness, but that pretty quickly put a strain on me. I called my father one night and wanted him to come to the hospital. I just couldn’t do it anymore because over time it was really difficult for me to be strong for everyone else. I cried out enormously with him. He said I should stop and allow my weaknesses to others. It had a very liberating effect on me and helped me to look ahead more positively.
If it hadn’t been for your father, you might have actually had your leg removed. It was he who insisted on going to the hospital after the first night because the blood was stuck above your knee and the lower leg was not getting blood. The original MRI appointment would have been in the afternoon.
Cook: I woke up in the morning with extreme pain. The knee was so thick that you could hardly see the outline of it. My father said that was not normal and he will now call Dortmund’s team doctor Doctor Braun. I showed him the bird because BVB was playing at Bayern that day and the Doc definitely had other things on his mind than a loan player like me. My father tried it anyway and reached him at half past seven in the morning. He said it would sound like a compartment syndrome, we’d better go to the hospital. We got there at half past nine and the emergency doctors immediately said that an emergency operation was necessary. When I woke up from it, the first information I received was that I would have lost my leg if we had only arrived at the actual appointment at 3 p.m.
Cook: When I arrived at my father’s house on Friday night, I still hoped that it wasn’t too bad and that I could play Cottbus in the cup semi-final in the middle of next week. When I heard the doctors’ assessment a day later, I was frozen. The first thing that came to my mind was that I wasn’t in the most important game of my career. I couldn’t believe it and cried bitterly. It was surreal to me.
And it remained surreal: in the first two weeks, you underwent seven general anesthetic surgeries. You were only on your back for four weeks, unable to go to the toilet, and had a pain pump over your bed that you could use to take a shot every eight minutes.
Cook: During this time, the leg was open almost every day, which was incredibly painful. I waited like an addict for the pain pump to work again because I couldn’t stand it. It was like losing my dignity. It took me a while to resign myself to peeing in a duck. Fortunately, when the leg was closed, the pain was significantly reduced. After the first three or four weeks, however, it felt like I had been in the hospital for half a year.
What does that mean exactly, the leg was closed?
Cook: Since my knee was swollen like a soccer ball, it was about removing the pressure. For this purpose, the lower leg was cut open from the knee down to the ankle inside and outside. This column was then contracted with each OP. I had felt a day recovered from the previous operation and I was under the knife again. Once it was the case that they had already closed their legs, but I didn’t feel anything after waking up. So the next operation immediately followed to open it again easily.
Then your rehab began, which lasted over a year. With the MSV, you missed the DFB Cup final in 2011 and when you returned to Dortmund for the new season, you became a double winner without a game. Was that at least a little comfort in the meantime?
Cook: No. It was almost shameful and still feels wrong to call myself a double winner. I didn’t contribute anything at all and didn’t even complete a single training session. I already felt part of the team, but I followed these two titles more as a fan than a player. I found the medals again when we moved to Budapest. At least now I know where they are. (laughs)
When did it become clear that the miracle would happen and that you would be able to play professional football again?
Cook: From mid-2011. After the time in the hospital, further ORs were pending. Some doctors didn’t really dare and thought that it was too complicated for them. I finally found a doctor who said we could do it so that I could kick again. It totally pushed me to hear that from outside.
In May 2012, BVB extended your contract until 2014 and then borrowed it again in Duisburg. How surprised was this proof of trust from Dortmund?
Cook: I hadn’t expected BVB to believe in me after this story. Of course I felt great gratitude. But it was also a signal for me, because it clearly showed that I was good at kicking. I thought maybe I would still prevail at Dortmund.
At MSV, however, you had to be operated on again shortly before the start of the season because of a meniscal tear.
Cook: The seam from back then broke in the very first game of preparation, which can easily happen under heavy loads. The meniscus was then partially removed. That pulled me down extremely in the first moment, since I was finally through rehab and was full of hope. I was able to play again after about six weeks. I therefore confidently sat this downtime, which was short for my standards, on one butt cheek.
You were back on the pitch for the first time in October 2012 and ran for the second MSV team in the Regionalliga West after 609 days. The comeback with the professionals followed a week later. How big was your fear at the time that something could happen again?
Cook: The long rehab, in which I ran a lot and kicked the ball, gave me great confidence in my knee and was not afraid from day one. Back then they looked at me in the first training sessions and said: Hello, what’s wrong with you? Go down a bit.
In Duisburg you delivered decent performances straight away, so that in summer 2013 you actually made the leap into the Bundesliga again and you joined 1. FSV Mainz under Thomas Tuchel. How did your first meeting with him go?
Cook: It was such a cool conversation that really blew me away. He was completely open to the world and explained to me what kind of person he is. He told a lot, also about things outside of the football world. I was pleased with how he perceived me and spoke about me. He watched me in Duisburg for the first year and wanted me as a personality and mentality player. When I walked out of the room with my adviser, I told him directly that I only wanted to see Thomas Tuchel.
What kind of person is he in your eyes?
Cook: I found him incredibly great because he spoke openly and above all honestly with everyone. Maybe some of them don’t get along exactly, but I really appreciated this honesty about him. He told you in the face how he sees you, where he sees problems – in a reasonable way, neither aggressively nor negatively. And he was so focused on details during training that it was just fun.
At that time, BVB secured a buyback option. What plan did Borussia have with you?
Cook: At that time it was not my intention to return to Dortmund as soon as possible. I signed long-term and wanted to take root in Mainz. BVB was simply arming itself for the positive case.
However, their bad luck didn’t stop in Mainz either – you suffered a severe metatarsal bruise in a test match. When you recovered, a shoulder injury occurred after a week of training, which put you out of action for another three months. Aren’t you desperate then?
Cook: It took me a long time, especially with the shoulder injury, to get over it. All these injuries have given me psychological preoccupation and were very annoying. It was never easy things like a bruise, but always bigger things that took a lot of time and had nothing to do with the history of the knee.
After only four Bundesliga games for the FSV, you were awarded to St. Pauli in the second division in January 2015. Was that when it dawned on you that it probably won’t be enough for the top?
Cook: Yes. I turned 25 this year and thought that if there isn’t a really good club anymore, it will be difficult. With Düsseldorf that was almost the case, because Fortuna was a very ambitious second division with the perspective of the first Bundesliga.
Mainz finally sold it and BVB did not insist on its buyback option.
Cook: A termination agreement was required so that Dortmund waived the right of repurchase. My services were no longer compatible for a club like BVB. It was therefore clear to both sides that it would never work out. A dream had already burst for me, but at some point I had to let go of this illusion.
At Fortuna, you were still second-placed captain and regular player in the first half of the season, you played less in the second half of the season, and half a year later you parted ways again. Why didn’t it work in Düsseldorf?
Cook: We got off to a very bad start in the first year, so the environment was extremely restless and coach Frank Kramer was finally fired. It came Marco Kurz, who changed a lot and also shaved me completely. I didn’t play a role with him anymore and just sat in the stands. It made me feel like I had been scapegoated for a lot of things. After 81 days, Kurz was history again and Friedhelm Funkel came. He integrated me again and I came on my assignments, but unfortunately not in the second year as I hoped.
Then it went in the winter transfer window to Ferencvaros Budapest to Hungary under Thomas Doll. How did the change come about?
Cook: I originally wanted to stay until summer and then think again. In the training camp in Malta my advisor suddenly called me and said that Ferencvaros was looking for a six and was interested in me. At first I couldn’t believe it and couldn’t do anything with it. Budapest was somehow deep east for me and not beautiful. But he said that I should call Thomas Doll on the phone and listen to it.
And then Doll overturned your buck?
Cook: Exactly, it was a really pleasant conversation. He had a great idea about football, talked about his previous successful tenure and made it clear to me that Ferencvaros is the Bayern Munich of Hungary. When my wife astonished me that we should try it, I could also imagine it. It almost failed because of the transfer fee, but within a few days I suddenly found myself in Budapest.
They had never been to the city before and were only flying to sign the contract. What was your first impression?
Cook: A disaster. On the way from the airport to the city we drove past many dreary prefabricated housing estates that were just so typical of Eastern Europe for me. I already thought: dear heaven, I will probably turn around again. When I got to know the city center and the training area, I quickly realized that I had made the right decision. It was two and a half wonderful, albeit sporty shitty years.
Because between February 2017 and May 2019, there were ultimately only 22 competitive matches. You celebrated the cup victory there in 2017 and the championship in 2019, but why weren’t you used more often?
Cook: Because further injuries went through this time. I injured myself on the other side of my shoulder in my first game, but was thrown back in after three weeks, so my shoulder was really broken afterwards and I was absent for two months. When I was able to play again, a tendon in the rear thigh broke in the derby against Ujpest, which was due to my big knee injury. After that healed, it ripped again and I was out a total of three months. In the first game after that, I suffered a broken face in the second minute after a collision with the goalkeeper in May 2018. And in September an opponent jumped into my left knee so that the meniscus also tore there. During the rehab he tore again and had to be partially removed. That was the end of the story. It was a really gross time for the head.
Her contract finally expired in summer 2019 and the club did not want to extend it.
Cook: I simply didn’t have the cost-benefit factor. I also got to the point that maybe it should simply no longer be. I still had some hope that there would be more offers for me, but my advisor said that no good offers can be expected anymore. I was over the pain of the knee for so long, but since we had a little daughter in the meantime, I realized that it would be better to stop one year early than late.
Was it easy for you?
Cook: Yes. Football was probably too far away for me, it didn’t feel real anymore. I didn’t even remember standing on the pitch regularly. It was a relief when I knew that I didn’t have to bother my body anymore. Now, as a trainer, I am always longing. When I see some of the boys that the last bite is missing, my heart bleeds. They all want to be something, but sometimes without giving everything. I would like to run to the square with them and go ahead.
If you googled your name with the addition “unlucky”, you get 127,000 search results. To what extent does this designation apply to you after everything that you endured?
Cook: I don’t see myself as unlucky and don’t struggle a bit with my fate, even if I’ve done it every now and then. It happened the way it did. Because of the injuries, I just couldn’t reach it. I know it sounds like a lie, but it really isn’t: I never really wondered what would have been if I hadn’t hurt myself so badly. Of course, I understand that outsiders think that the poor guy was shaken. Especially from a sporting point of view. In my private life, the long downtime also opened up other important aspects: I met my wife today in the hospital because one day she happened to have to help out at my ward. And I realized which friends I can really rely on.
The most important question at the end: How is the knee doing today?
Cook: There are days when I feel like an old man. I often have no complaints, but sometimes my knee bends away. I try to keep fit, ride a bike or go running. Long walking, on the other hand, is a disaster, walking is not so fun. Unfortunately, I will therefore have to end the story at VfL Hörde. As sad as it sounds, even the district league is no longer in it for me.