When Robin Koch was born in July 1996, his father Harry was hardly in the best of moods, having just suffered historic relegation in a dramatic fashion. Less than two years later, the scenario had changed entirely, as he celebrated one of the most sensational championship triumphs in Germany.
The story of Harry Koch is quite remarkable from every possible angle. At the age of 25, he was still a totally anonymous centre-back, playing for a tiny amateurish club in the regional division. That club went by the name of TSV Vestenbergsgreuth, and even some native German speakers have problems pronouncing that. What were his chances of making any kind of headlines? It turned out they were higher than zero, and the rise was meteoric.
In August 1994, the mighty fighters of TSV Vestenbergsgreuth threw Bayern Munich out of the German Cup, totally ruining Oliver Kahn's debut for the champions. The blond keeper conceded one goal, whereas the minnows managed to keep a clean sheet against the likes of Jean-Pierre Papin, Lothar Matthaus and Mehmet Scholl. Harry Koch was at the heart of that defence on the night, and his phenomenal performance caught the eye of Kaiserslautern scouts.
A year later, in the summer of 1995, the Red Devils duly signed him – and the newcomer immediately became the stalwart of their rearguard. Koch was immensely popular with the fans. It was a love at first sight, and it's easy to understand why – he stood out thanks to his long curly hair and outstanding spirit.
His technical skills were limited in the extreme, but one could hardly find a more committed warrior. He took no prisoners, showed endless energy and leadership, and many strikers found – just like Papin – how outrageously difficult it was to get past him.
Kaiserslautern were a top team those days. A very proud and important historic club, they finished 4th in the 1994/95 season, and Koch thought he was going to fight for the title after joining them. Their defence actually improved – largely thanks to his contribution, and stats showed exactly that. Lautern conceded 41 goals in 1994/95 and just 37 goals in 1995/96. That was the second best record in the whole of the Bundesliga – even the champions Borussia Dortmund conceded more goals. And yet they also had the worst attack, and incredibly, almost unbelievably, Kaiserslautern went down for the first time in history.
You can only try to imagine Koch's feelings. He fulfilled his sacred dream of playing in the Bundesliga and had an absolutely brilliant season from a personal point of view. He even won a major trophy because Kaiserslautern lifted the German Cup. However, it all ended in a disastrous fashion. It was an amazing emotional roller coaster.
Few would have blamed Koch if he left that summer. He chose to remain, and was richly rewarded. With Otto Rehhagel on the bench, Kaiserslautern went back up in 1997 and became the only promoted team ever to win the Bundesliga championship title in 1998. Koch was at the very heart of that project. His name is written in golden letters in the club history, and the whole stadium wept in 2003 when time came for him to depart at the age of 33.
Seven-year-old Robin was on the pitch alongside his father that evening, hearing the applause, feeling the unique atmosphere. It was an inspirational moment. He was too young to remember the title triumph, but he heard everything about that legend. He knows that things that seem impossible can actually be possible. He is also not afraid to choose unorthodox paths of development, just like his father.
Koch moved to the modest Eintracht Trier in 2003, and that's where Robin Koch started his career. Instead of joining a top academy, he never went to a youth training centre at all. At the age of 15, he also started working as an industrial clerk. "My day started at 8 in the morning, and I came home at 11 in the evening – and just fell asleep in my bed", he later recalled. That might not have been the ideal route to professional football, but for Robin it was the best possible way. He chose it himself, as he always does.
"We have normal father-son conversations on private matters, but rarely talk about football. In terms of style, I prefer not to take his advice. I'd better do my own thing. Luckily, I don't have the curls he had, either," Robin said in a Sportbuzzer interview.
Indeed, he has always sported a short haircut. And while he is also a centre-back, his ball skills are infinitely better than those of Harry. Robin inherited grit and the physical strength of his father, but he is a ball-playing defender blessed with fine vision and remarkable passing range. Those qualities were noticed by Eintracht Trier coach Peter Rubeck who immediately promoted the 18-year-old youngster to the first squad in 2014. "He is going to play for the national team one day," Rubeck said. He was right.
And yet, shortly after joining the summer training camp of Trier, Koch stunned his mentor by declaring that he had to go on a vacation to Catalonia. It was booked a few months beforehand, and the defender didn't intend to change his plans. He was confident it wouldn’t hurt him in the long run – and that seems to be his motto. Koch doesn’t like to hurry. He takes one step at a time and knows how to enjoy the moment. He is level headed, calm and extremely self-confident – and such qualities help him to succeed on and off the pitch.
After one season at fourth division Trier, it was obvious that a big move was necessary, and numerous Bundesliga clubs made him rather lucrative offers. Koch chose second division Kaiserslautern instead, and not just because it made father Harry very happy. He thought it would be the best option for steady development, and even played for the Red Devils' reserve team in 2015/16. Then, after a single 2.Bundesliga campaign in 2016/17, he joined Freiburg, whose legendary coach Christian Streich is famous for promoting young talents and giving them wide education – including philosophy, psychology and politics.
Sure enough, the Black Forest outfit were exactly the right place for Koch to prove himself as one of the most promising and consistent young German players in his position, and the fact that the national team coach Joachim Low lives nearby and visits the stadium frequently didn't do him any harm. A year ago, he received his first call up, and made the big debut in the starting lineup in the 2-2 friendly draw versus Argentina in Dortmund. "That is the lucky ground for our family. I made my Bundesliga debut there", said the proud Harry Koch, adding: "I didn't always believe Robin would make it, but he has developed phenomenally".
He is going to play for the national team one day.Eintracht Trier coach Peter Rubeck
During the last season, there was a new twist to that development, as Koch was frequently used by Streich in central midfield. His distribution improved as a result, and he is now a more complete player. He is much more experienced now, and at the age of 24 it was time to start a new adventure.
There was no shortage of suitors, of course. Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Tottenham and Benfica all showed keen interest in the player who is bound to become a major figure for Germany in the coming years. Robin Koch has chosen a less obvious destination again by joining Leeds United. One must assume he knows what he is doing. He always does.
And maybe there is a romantic hint in this move too. Harry Koch won the title with a newly promoted team. Could Robin Koch accomplish the same feat? You can smile, of course, but think about it…