The life of a footballer can be a transient one. It requires an awful lot of mental fortitude, along with a healthy dose of adaptability, and the ability to make big life decisions with confidence. Few players know that as well as Berti Schötterl. The big German ‘keeper is back in his home country with Lokomotive Leipzig now, but at the age of only 25, he’s lived in the UK (twice), in numerous German cities, and played for 13 different clubs.
He’s experienced the professional youth systems in Germany and England, as well as the semi-professional game in both countries, and is well positioned to discuss the differences between the two. As footballers across the English top flight say goodbye to the Zwift bike and hello to the training pitch, there is still no resolution for our lower league players – not so in Germany. With Lokomotive Leipzig awarded the Regionalliga Nordost title on PPG, they’ll now play off against SC Verl, of the Regionalliga West, for a shot at 3. Liga, Germany’s first fully professional, and national, league. So, on the afternoon that Berti found out he was going into three weeks quarantine for those Play Offs, we sat down over a Zoom call, to discuss his career so far.
Born in Nürnberg in 1994, Berti was destined for a life between the sticks. His father, Herbert, was also a goalkeeper, and worked as a goalkeeping coach for local football clubs associated to 1.FC Nürnberg and Greuther Fürth. Despite early aspirations to play as a striker, by the age of five, the already tall Berti Jr was following in his dad’s footsteps and being trained as a goalkeeper. However, football was very much a hobby, just something to enjoy with friends, and it wasn’t until a few years later that Berti decided to pursue the chance to make it something a bit more serious. Whilst in the academy at Greuther, he also applied for a position at one of Germany’s elite sports development schools. Out of over 300 applicants, he was one of the 10-15 successful triallists who earned one of the highly sought after spots.
It’s at this point that we discuss some of the differences between the youth development system in Germany and England, and it’s very clear that Berti is more a fan of the English system. Indeed, it wasn’t until he arrived at Watford as an eighteen year old that he experienced full time immersion in football. At Watford, the younger scholars would train, play and attend school together, building team spirit throughout, however, in the German system, the youngsters attended different schools, and only met to train in the evenings. As Schötterl says, “it always just felt that the English system was more dedicated, more professional. Like your relationship with football development in the UK was more focused”. It’s certainly a different perspective from what we typically hear in the UK, where our youth development is often the subject of unfavourable comparison to that on the continent. If anything it was the school Berti attended which represented the most substantial development opportunity at the time.
It was also whilst undergoing his academic and football education in Fürth that Berti had a chance encounter, which would drastically alter the course of the next ten years. Whilst on a family holiday in Turkey, Herbert Schötterl was running his son through some drills (“we always picked holiday destinations with a football pitch…”) in preparation for upcoming national trials, when they struck up a conversation with a fellow holidaymaker from England. Who turned out to be Barnsley assistant manager Nick Daws, now at AFC Wimbledon. The Schötterls and Daws hit it off, and after many evenings discussing their mutual love for English football, Berti and Herbert were invited to Barnsley – nothing formal, just to have a look around the club. An excited fourteen year old turned up in Barnsley in the summer, with his father and grandfather for company. Laws gave them a tour around the club, invited them to a match, and even allowed Berti to train with the U16s. The German number one impressed so much, he ended up being thrown in for a session with the first team, alongside the likes of Luke Steele. What had been a friendly visit had turned into a job interview, and Schötterl was offered a three-year development contract. However, with his mind still on schooling, Berti turned the offer down, but left Yorkshire with a new determination to play in England one day.
Four years later, with his schooling completed, and having graduated with a degree from the Greuther Fürth development scheme, Berti began approaching clubs in England, and was invited to trials at a few – including Watford. After a successful audition, he accepted a year’s contract, and aged seventeen moved over to digs in North London, leaving his family behind. He quickly fell in love with English football, and contrary to popular belief, found a greater focus on development in his new environment than than last one. In Germany, Schötterl says, with relegation and promotion throughout the youth system, there is much greater pressure on coaches to win matches – so development can be less of a priority. In addition, matches are much more frequent in the English youth system, so improvement can take place at a more rapid pace.
However, Schötterl’s time in Watford last only one season, and ended shortly after the Pozzo’s took charge. When they closed down the U21s and downgraded to a Cat C Academy, it meant Berti and his teammates who were too old for the U18s had nowhere to play. A good relationship with Sean Dyche – “he loved me, and he was such a great guy” – meant nothing when Dyche was replaced by Gianfranco Zola, and in the summer of 2014, shortly before his 20th birthday, after unsuccessful trials with Fulham and Stevenage, Schötterl moved back to Germany, with. A handful of clubs followed over the next few seasons, before an opportunity arose at Inter Leipzig.
Now in the fifth tier, at the time Inter Leipzig were only three years old, with a bright outlook and clear purpose. Berti was enthusiastic and energetic about the prospects, but unfortunately an ACL injury impeded his progress. He lost almost a year to the injury, and subsequent rehabilitation, but came out the other side a fitter, stronger, and more knowledgeable player. Rehabilitation taught him how to look after his body, how to fuel it, and how to prepare it to withstand injury, and is an experience he looks back on with proud, if painful, memories. “I came out the other side fitter than I had ever been, with a better understanding of my body – that’s one of the things Fulham liked about me, and they wanted me to help the younger players in the academy to understand these things as well”.
Ah yes, Fulham. That post-Watford trial at Fulham would have a big impact for Berti, not that he knew at the time. Then-goalkeeping coach Martin Brennan became a friend, and every summer would arrange a goalkeeping camp in Portugal for professional keepers from various countries to share experiences and develop. In 2017, having recently recovered from his ACL injury, Berti was invited to attend, and met Fulham’s head goalkeeping coach, Vic Bettinelli (father of Marcus), who he impressed enough to be offered a trial at Fulham. Once there, his attitude and ability convinced the club that they wanted to keep him around, even if they didn’t have a real place for him.
At 23 years old, Schötterl was too old to play for Fulham’s U21s, and not developed enough for the first team, so it says a lot about the character he is that Fulham developed a different form of contract for him. Initiall a six month contract, that was then extended by a year. During that year, Fulham would give him accommodation, he’d train with them, and they’d find you a club where he could play on Saturdays. For a self-confessed anglophile, with a love of English football the opportunity was too good to pass up. Berti may never have turned out for the Cottagers, but his relationship with the younger generation of goalkeepers is testament to the impact he has had around the training ground. Speaking to England U18 international, George Wickens, it’s clear the regard in which Schötterl is held – “[He] was great to have around the training ground and I’m sure every other keeper would agree with me. It was my first season being in training full time, and he helped me massively with getting to grips with that, as it was tough. His work ethic was incredible too, always in the gym working on his extras and helped me appreciate how important all the extra hours you put in are.”
It was great for Schötterl as well. Not only was Fulham an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere, but it’s clear he holds Vic Bettinelli in an almost reverential light, describing him as an absolute institution at the club. It’s these two factors that Berti references when I ask him why Fulham are consistently turning out some of the best age group ‘keepers in England – family atmosphere, and one of the best goalkeeping coaches around. His time at Fulham also afforded him the chance to live in England, and to experience non-league football in England, as he was loaned to Dartford, Woking and Met Police.
First were Dartford, and a rollercoaster tussle for the National League South title with Havant & Waterlooville. Indeed, it wasn’t until the very last game that the Darts were pipped at the post, missing out on the title and eventual promotion by a single goal, which spelt the end of Tony Burman’s time as manager – “an absolutely brilliant guy to play for, and what a great team to be a part of. The was probably my favourite season. I’d have loved to stay there for three or four years.” Woking followed next, and it was there that Schötterl learnt a lesson which has stayed with him – to separate the personal from the professional. After a great opening 12 games to the season, Woking sat top of the table, with Schötterl instrumental to the team, well liked by fans and players alike. Next thing, he’d been dropped, with manager Alan Dowson bringing in Craig Ross from Barnet. Berti was on the move again, and found a new home at Met Police, under Gavin MacPherson.
At the Met, he thrived in what he describes as “another great family club, just like Fulham. The people there were just so nice, and everyone worked so hard for each other. It was such a shame when we lost to Tonbridge in extra time”. He’s referring of course to the Super Play Off Final, against Tonbridge Angels, where the Met were pipped at the post for promotion to the National League South. On the subject of lower-league football, England again compares favourably in Schötterl’s view – the league structure is more rounded, and fits together. In Germany, five different leagues, under five different federations, compete at Tier Four for promotion to one Tier Three league. It’s a glass ceiling, and means that only a very select (read: rich) few make that step. Our natural pyramid structure seems revelatory by comparison.
With the Southern League season over at Imber Court, there were other issues at play for Berti, with his contract at Fulham coming to an end, and another move on the horizon. There were offers in England, but with both his mother and father suffering with serious illness, he decided to move back to Germany, where he was offered a contract by Lokomotive Leipzig. Only two and a half hours from his family home, Berti grabbed the chance to be close enough to support his parents, both of whom were suffering with cancer. His father is now thankfully recovered, whilst his mother is making good progress. Unsurprisingly, this has had a big impact on Berti, who is clearly very close to his parents – but their support for him, and his career, has been a constant despite their own battles.
Lokomotive Leipzig are the phoenix club for VfB Leipzig, one of east Germany’s most successful clubs. Regular competitors in Europe during the 80s, but with the reunification of Germany, and subsequent economic disparity, east German football crumbled and numerous clubs suffered. In 2004, VfB went to the wall, like so many others. Even now, only Union Berlin and RB Leipzig represent the east in the Bundesliga. However, Lokomotive are on the up, and with an average of 3,000 plus fans, there is significant pressure to succeed. That pressure had a toll, and despite a good start to season (5 wins, 3 draws) Berti soon found himself out of favour, and having to consider the possibility of moving once more. Surely it becomes tiring, constantly having to uproot? “Absolutely. I’m not 18 anymore. I want stability, and so does my girlfriend.”
Schötterl accepts that he’s likely to be playing somewhere else next season, but first there is the small matter of a Play Off Final during a global pandemic. In the 4th tier, club finances are tight, and hotel bills for an entire squad for three weeks will stretch them even further, but the rewards are obvious – “it could mean up to €2 million to win promotion in extra TV revenue”. After Play Off heartache with both Dartford and the Met Police, Berti will be desperate to make it third time lucky against SC Verl, and hopefully win some stability for him and his family. After that, who knows – maybe even another return to England – Berti would certainly be keen – “my girlfriend and I loved it there, so if there was a professional opportunity, we’d definitely be keen.”