‘He obviously saw football as a career option’ - Manchester United boss Ralf Rangnick's time in Sussex non-league
United will not be Rangnick’s first experience of English football, having played for non-league Southwick, just outside of Brighton, while he was a 21-year-old student for a year at the University of Sussex. Eurosport has tracked down one of his former team-mates, who remembers him as a player who took football extremely seriously.
Ralf Rangnick spent a year at Sussex non league side Southwick while he was a student
Adrian Batchelor would be lying if he said he remembers all the intricacies of Ralf Rangnick’s 21-year-old footballing brain. Being such a rarity, a German playing for a non-league side in Sussex, helps to recall some details though - like how seriously he took the game.
The 63-year-old has been confirmed as Manchester United’s interim manager until the end of the season, and it is now starting to become a bit more well known that his project at Old Trafford will not be his first experience of English football.
Rangnick was 21 when he spent a year at the University of Sussex while studying a degree at Stuttgart University in English and PE. He wanted to play football, and ended up at Southwick - a tiny town just a few miles outside Brighton and Hove. Previously only known as a place where King Charles II (apparently) stayed before fleeing for France, it has never had as much attention as it is getting now.
“He was quite serious, but in a very friendly way,” Batchelor told Eurosport, looking back at his memories of Rangnick.
He took his football very seriously, that's the standout thing for me at the time. The training, preparation and the matches, he took all those things very seriously.
“It's easy to think in today's terms of what he's achieved, and transport yourself back and say, 'wow, I remember that'. At the age of 21, I was just playing at the highest level that I had done before, I was excited and I just loved football - but it wasn't life.
Ralf Rangnick (front row, second from the right) while playing for Southwick
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“With Ralf - and I'm guessing a bit - but I think he came from a background where the football he played in Germany might have been more serious, and I don't know what level he played at the time.
“You think of what happened to him subsequently, and he obviously saw football as a career option for him, he must have done.
“There's a player profile on Ralf from one of the programmes, I've got a copy of that and what struck me is under ambition, it says 'pro football'. It doesn't say ‘I want to be a footballer’, or 'play professional football', it says 'pro football'. At the time he was 21. If you're not in the pro game by 21 as a player, you may have missed your chance - that's the case for the vast majority. What we know now is that he went on to be a pro coach only a few years later.”
Ralf Rangnick's player profile in a programme for Southwick
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Batchelor, who is now retired after working in the financial services industry, is the same age as Rangnick. He is having, as he describes, “15 minutes of fame” having played with the German, and says “my mum and my sister were so proud of me for being on News at 10 - that's the funniest thing,” but when thinking back to Rangnick’s footballing ability, there was nothing particularly special about him.
“A lot of my mates have been saying, 'was he really, really good as a player?' And I don't remember him being anything other than the same sort of standard as us guys. He only played 11 games in the first team, I played virtually all of them and Ralf played a few for us and for the reserves," he said.
“I have no memories of him being an outstanding footballer, streets ahead of anybody else to be honest, but he was a good player. He was a midfield player, he was very skilful, I certainly remember that about him. He was quite a sort of slim, slight guy, good on the ball.
“I think it was a few years ago when I saw him in the Champions League with Schalke, and I seem to remember talking to people saying 'I played with him!' and they were like, 'no!', but there can't be two Ralf Rangnicks.”
Ralf Rangnick made a £1000 donation to a Southwick crowdfunder in 2020
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Rangnick clearly looks back at his time at Southwick fondly and as recently as last year, he made a £1000 donation. The club has had a tough time in recent years - the previous leaseholders left their ground, Old Barn Way, in disarray. As a result of the mess that became of it, they were demoted a couple of divisions. The way forward has led to disagreements, and from the original club - now known as Southwick 1882 - a splinter AFC Southwick has formed, who play in the Whitehawk area of Brighton.
But Batchelor is part of big plans to make Old Barn Way - as he describes it - the “spiritual home” of non-league football in Sussex. He is a trustee of the Russell Martin Foundation, which has secured a 25-year-lease to transform the stadium in a project which could cost as much as £2m. Martin, the current Swansea boss, has strong links to the area - having grown up around Brighton and come through Brighton & Hove Albion’s academy.
In his message to go with the donation, Rangnick said: “Dear Wickers supporters, having played for the Wickers in 1980 was a great experience for me as a young student and player. This is why I would love to support your campaign and very much hope that the club can return to Old Barn Way in due course. Up the Wickers!”
Batchelor hopes both himself and Martin can tempt him back to Southwick before the end of the season, to help their campaign to raise funds for the ground: “United don’t play Brighton until May, but I hope whilst he’s over here we can get some of the old players out and come down here, meet Russ (Martin). He clearly loves England, he still has an affection for Southwick. We’d love to get him back.”