Philipp Wollscheid’s main problem at Stoke City was probably that he wasn’t Robert Huth.
The centre-back had played in 45 of 59 league games for Stoke between joining from Bayer Leverkusen and leaving on loan for Wolfsburg in a move that all-but ended his career at the age of 26.
In that time he helped Stoke secure two ninth-placed finishes and reach the League Cup semi-final, stepping up in Ryan Shawcross’s long injury-enforced absence in 2015/16.
Now he is back in the headlines with Peter Crouch’s reflection on a player who was different – and, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, affectionately remembered.
He always had big shoes to fill, big German boots vacated by Leicester City-bound Huth that only seemed bigger as Huth guided his new team to the Premier League title. It led to inevitable comparisons, even if they had very different styles.
Wollscheid could get angry – just ask Doncaster Rovers’ forward line in the half hour after he had taken a kick in the unmentionables in an FA Cup tie in January 2016 – but he was not the archetypal hard man like the all-time fans’ favourite he had replaced.
He inspired one of the most unlikely chants on the terraces, claiming he was “better than Zidane,” – so unlikely that Wollscheid didn’t realise it was about him and some supporters thought the killer line was “he runs like my nan”.
“I had not realised that the fans were singing about me or what they were singing,” he said. “They pronounce my name funny.”
But he was never short of confidence, telling German sport TV station SID: “I think a call up (to the German national team) would be justified – because I believe in myself.
“Of course I am ready for it and of course I have faith in own ability but getting back into the Germany team is not something that concerns me every day.”
When Shawcross was fully fit in late 2015, early 2016, the pair kept seven clean sheets in the 11 league games when they both played 90 minutes. Wollscheid’s performance next in the second leg win at Anfield, in particular, is still revered.
Shawcross himself said: “Philipp’s form has been brilliant and I don’t think you will find a better ball-playing centre half throughout the league. I really rate him.”
Nevertheless, the two were not able to recapture that kind of miserly record since Jack Butland was injured the following spring. Stoke conceded 24 goals in 10 games straddling the end of that season and beginning of the next, before Wollscheid’s exit to Germany.
Hughes acted to bring in Bruno Martins Indi, who became Shawcross’s 17th partner at centre-back during nine years, and Wollscheid was cut free and allowed to return home.
“(I was a regular at Stoke…) but then I wanted to have an injury treated in Germany,” he later recalled. “That was taken away from me by the club and from then on they wanted to get rid of me.”
Wolfsburg turned into a nightmare and Wollscheid ended up playing for their junior B side in the regional league, which he embraced wholeheartedly, before he returned to England the following summer.
A League Cup win over Rochdale was followed by a free transfer to Metz, who he left half-a-season later after just two appearances. A 1-0 French League Cup win Red Star Paris is not recalled fondly by Metz supporters.
Wollscheid returned over the border to Germany to join his mates’ successful futsal team.
It was almost a full circle.
He had come through the ranks playing for amateur clubs and playing in the garden with his dad rather than at the Academy of one of the big boys. It was helping Saarbrucken II to promotion from the sixth tier in 2009 that he caught the eye of Dieter Hecking, then at Nuremburg and the man who would eventually re-sign him as one of his final acts as Wolfsburg boss.
Wollscheid never lost sight of where he came from – in fact, he was appointed managing director of village club SV Morscholz in 2014 while he was playing for Bayer Leverkusen.
He is still only 31 and, over the winter, ran for office in the Saarland Football Association.
“Playing never really felt like a dream career,” he said.
“It looks like this from the outside because you earn a lot of money and get a lot of recognition. But for me it was just a job most of the time. I loved playing football… being on the road permanently, in training camp and away from partners, family and friends less so.
“It wasn’t the pressure. I didn’t mind that much.
“But the business in general is just wrong. One day everyone praises you to heaven, the next day you are no longer good enough. I never managed those ups and downs.”
He added: “If I could have played without emotion I would have probably continued for another six years. But I realised that I only went to work to make money – and then I said to myself that can’t be right.”