Gnabry on tears, tough times & realising his dream
Serge Gnabry cried when he wasn’t allowed to make his dream move to Bayern Munich as a child.
He was 10 years old and his father Jean-Hermann didn’t want the talented youngster entering the Bundesliga giants’ academy, a more than two-hour drive from their home in Stuttgart.
“I wanted to, it’s a true story,” Gnabry tells BBC Sport. “Back then, Bayern was already the best club. It took me another 12 years to come back here.”
Instead, he was made to wait until he was 12 before joining Stuttgart’s youth system. Within a further four years – in 2011, at the age of 16 – he was on his way to Arsenal and the Premier League.
“I’m glad with how it’s turned out,” says Gnabry, who has since returned to Germany and become a star at Bayern.
“The route I’ve taken made me what I am and who I am today.”
It’s snowy in Munich and Bayern’s ground staff have been working hard to clear the pitch for a morning training session at the club’s base in the south of the city.
No-one will be using the on-site beer garden in this weather. Gnabry and his team-mates are well wrapped up as they trot out, slowing down to watch the under-23s playing keep-ball on an adjoining pitch, which is beginning to cut up in the wet and cold.
By the time he sits down in front of the camera with BBC Sport after lunch, Gnabry has just about thawed out, in part thanks to his statement black-and-white print fleece. He can pull it off. This is a guy who counts rappers A$AP Rocky and Skepta among his influences, enjoys working with a stylist in his spare time and last year took part in a shoot with Germany’s GQ magazine.
“It comes from wanting to look good, wanting to be comfortable in what I wear when I step out. That’s my thing,” explains Gnabry.
“To be honest, it’s always still a bit weird for me to be in front of the camera and posing, because when you play matches you just kind of forget it. When you have a shoot, you know it’s only you. I am not really the best at it, but it’s fun sometimes.”
Gnabry, now 24, was back in the spotlight on Tuesday, scoring twice as Bayern Munich beat Chelsea 3-0 in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie. On his previous trip to London, he scored four goals in a 7-2 win at Tottenham in October.
It is a city the forward knows well. He spent four years at Arsenal before leaving to join Werder Bremen shortly after his 21st birthday in 2016.
“It was very exciting in the beginning. Quite anxious as well, because it was such a big world to get into,” says Gnabry of his £100,000 move to the Gunners that was agreed when he was only 15.
“The cultural effect helped me a lot and, maturity-wise, I have taken a lot with me from my time in London. As a 16-year-old boy, to leave your parents, leave your surroundings, it makes you grow a bit faster.”
Gnabry’s father travelled with him to London, accompanying his son on his footballing journey just as he did when he would drive him to training as a child and deliver strict, yet constructive, feedback.
But it was still a transitional time in the teenager’s life. He missed the rest of his family, his friends – and even school.
“I had hard times,” Gnabry says. “English football is a bit tougher I would say in the youth than back in Germany, so you also have to adapt to that.
“I think everyone who goes through a similar scenario experiences the same, but in the end it is an experience and it makes you grow.”
He was helped to settle in by Germany internationals Mesut Ozil and Per Mertesacker. Ozil was someone Gnabry had looked up to as a child and Mertesacker took the youngster under his wing, becoming a role model and teaching his compatriot “to take on responsibility”.
The pacy winger impressed boss Arsene Wenger and was given his senior debut having just turned 17. Arsenal’s attacking style suited him – a bright, offensive player – but 18 appearances during his first two seasons as a professional were interrupted by a knee injury.
Battling for fitness and first-team minutes, Gnabry was shipped out on loan to West Brom, where he made just one Premier League appearance. Manager Tony Pulis told the press he wasn’t ready for top-flight football.
Wenger didn’t want to let the youngster leave Arsenal. The Frenchman believed he could rebuild his confidence, but that disastrous spell with the Baggies convinced Gnabry it was time to head home.
In August 2016, he joined Werder Bremen – despite being linked with a move to Bayern – having sought advice from team-mates and former Bremen players Mertesacker and Ozil.
“Definitely it was after the West Brom spell,” says Gnabry of his decision to return to Germany.”I knew that I needed to play again at a high level, and I think Germany in the couple of years since I moved had progressed a lot.
“So I thought: ‘OK, take a chance on that, let me go back.’ I didn’t see a lot of game time at Arsenal the next season. That was the key factor.”
So does Gnabry feel he still has a point to prove to English fans when he heads out at Stamford Bridge?
“I don’t think it’s about showing other people what is happening. As long as I perform, people will know,” he says with conviction, knowing his last visit to the English capital silenced any doubters. Reacting to Bayern’s mauling of Spurs in October, and Gnabry’s starring role in it, his old boss Pulis said: “You can knock me over with a feather. When people show what they can really do, really knuckle down and become so good, as he’s done, it’s absolutely fantastic.”
Alexander Nouri was the man in charge of Werder Bremen when Gnabry arrived, impatient and eager to improve. Now interim manager at Hertha Berlin, Nouri remembers him taking balls to practise shooting with his weaker left foot after training sessions.
Gnabry scored 11 league goals in that 2016-17 campaign. It earned his move to Bayern, who paid a reported 8m euros (£6.6m). He was then sent on another season’s loan, to Hoffenheim, where he scored another 10 times in 22 Bundesliga games. It’s at Bayern where Nouri believes Gnabry has become a “complete player”.
The pair recently had a long conversation at the Germany team hotel while Gnabry was on international duty. He told his former boss what he’d learned from now ex-Bayern stars Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben: the value of practising outside your comfort zone and developing a winning mentality. Nouri also feels he has been working on the defensive side of his game.
“We had a long chat. It was really impressive what he told me,” Nouri says. “I figured out when I was talking to him that he was choosing an extraordinary way for his career.
“If you choose this way you need to commit to a lifestyle of how much effort you put in. You need to work and live for this way, and my feeling was he is totally committed to this.”
That commitment is continuing to pay off. Gnabry provided two assists and scored his 15th goal of the season for Bayern in a 3-2 win over Paderborn on Friday. And he remains hungry for more.
“It becomes a habit that you always want to do more, want to create more,” he says.
“It’s not being satisfied with how things are going and going into every game trying my best to score, to help the team offensively. I work hard in training for that and then hopefully in the game things will come.”
If things go to plan, this summer will provide Gnabry with another challenge – his first taste of a major international tournament. Germany are drawn in a tough group for the European Championship alongside world champions France, holders Portugal and a fourth team yet to qualify through the play-offs – Georgia, Belarus, North Macedonia or Kosovo.
On the back of finishing joint-top scorer at the 2016 Olympics, when Germany won the silver medal, and with old friends Ozil and Mertesacker’s glowing recommendation to head coach Joachim Low, Gnabry was handed his senior international debut in November 2016 and immediately made his mark with a hat-trick against San Marino.
His prolific form for the national side has continued since, reaching 10 goals in a record 11 games for Germany and scoring 13 times in 13 appearances in total.
Low had wanted Gnabry in his 2014 World Cup-winning squad and even travelled to London several times to watch the teenager in action for Arsenal. But he was ruled out by a knee problem and a succession of injuries also saw him miss out four years later.
“I am definitely looking forward and hoping I can make it this time,” says Gnabry, keen to help his country bounce back from a poor showing at the World Cup in Russia two years ago.
That failure to progress beyond the group stage sparked a cull of veteran players in the squad, with Low telling Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller they would no longer be selected. The head coach has instead rebuilt his side around the likes of Gnabry, Bayern team-mate Joshua Kimmich, 25, and 23-year-old RB Leipzig forward Timo Werner.
“We have an exciting team, a great spirit, lots of young players, and we can aim for a lot,” adds Gnabry, who will turn 25 two days after the Euro 2020 final at Wembley on 12 July.
Perhaps because of the route he took to Bayern, the club where it almost all began 14 years ago, Gnabry is aware of his privileged position with the Bundesliga champions. He remains humble and knows what it means to represent one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
-Read full report here