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Nov 13, 2011

Don't mention the score

We've all been there. Heading to school, the dread gnaws away in the pit of your stomach, because the ineptitude of your beloved football club or country means you will be the target of the playground jibes.

Now imagine being an English boy growing up in Germany in the 1990s and early Noughties when the Nationalmannschaft's honours read 'Euro 96 winners, 2002 World Cup runners-up', while England's could be boiled down to yet another penalty shoot-out defeat to the very country in which you were living.

"I was brought up English. My Dad was the main man in the family for football. We always watched England games, we wouldn't watch a German game instead of the England game. I used to get a lot of stick at school because I was English," said Lewis Holtby, the son of an English soldier and German mother, who could finally wear the new England shirt he would get every Christmas with pride when Sven-Goran Eriksson's men somehow swept five past Germany in Munich in 2001.

"I didn't watch it with my dad, I was at a tournament with Borussia Monchengladbach. After about 40 minutes in the second half, I talked to my dad on the phone and we were cheering and laughing. Those were the days when I was happy that England beat Germany."

'Don't mention the score' is certainly now the maxim for Holtby, as much bratwurst and sauerkraut as bacon and eggs, as he now wears the captain's armband of the German Under-21 side.

"At the beginning, because of the influence of my dad, I dreamed of playing for England. But as soon as I played for Germany, I really loved it. I was brought up in Germany, I'm German, too," said Holtby, whose English is flecked with the accent inherited by his Everton-supporting father, and who names David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen as his boyhood idols.

"From my point of view, when I start playing for one country, I don't want to betray or switch it like a club. I love playing for Germany. Being captain is a great honour, and hopefully I can play a World Cup with them, and maybe win it. But I hope that we'll never play against England in a qualifier or a tournament game, a friendly would be nice though."

Though Euro 2012 is likely to come too soon for the Holtby family's dual-loyalties to be severely tested, there is a good chance the industrious but oft-inspired midfielder will establish himself as a regular for Germany's senior side. Competition for a place in the squad - never mind the starting XI - is Rottweiler-esque in its ferocity , but the diminutive Schalke man's past suggests he has the strength of character and the patience to bide his time.

From his inauspicious start at Sparta Gerderath aged four - "I think my first goal was an own-goal," he laughed - Holtby endured "a really tough half-year" at Monchengladbach before rising to prominence at Aachen.

"The whole club was great for me," acknowledged Holtby, who was awarded the Fritz Walter Gold Medal in 2009, German football's highest prize for young players, beating Hannover's Konstantin Rausch and Leverkusen's Andre Schurrle in the Under-19 category.

"Many people helped me, especially Jorg Schmadtke who's sporting director at Hannover now. He had a major impact on my career. He trusted me, and I'm really grateful that he gave me my debut. He opened the door for me to come into the professional game."

Holtby has since - ever so artfully with his cultured left foot - kicked that door fully open. Following his 2009 move to Schalke, he had "an absolutely invaluable" character-building loan spell at perennial yo-yo club Bochum followed by a further apprenticeship at Mainz last season where he, Schurrle and Hungarian ex-Real Madrid forward Adam Szalai inspired their unfashionable employers to seven successive wins at the start of a season that ended with a jaw-dropping fifth-placed finish for a club as chic as Wigan.

"You can't imagine what it was like, I can't sum it up in words. It was fantastic. We had so many laughs, so many good games - a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Holtby, who attributed his impact on Mainz's season to the Bundesliga's youngest coach Thomas Tuchel, who is barely old enough to be a father figure at 38. "He really helped me. In the year I was there, he made me a much better player. I learned much more about the game, I understand it much better now. He's a brilliant coach."

That new-found knowledge has been a major boon for Holtby with his return to Schalke - "the biggest club in Germany along with Bayern Munich" - coinciding with tempestuous times.

On top of the magnificent Manuel Neuer moving to Bayern last summer, one-time University of Sussex student Ralf Rangnick stunned the squad - "a shock and a big blow," according to Holtby - by quitting as coach in late September citing exhaustion. On the pitch, too, the maturity and experience garnered elsewhere has served Holtby well as he literally finds his place in the Schalke side.

Rangnick, who had been determined to bring Holtby back to the club after his loan deals, converted him from the prompting playmaker he had been at Mainz into a 'number six' - a defensive midfielder in German footballing jargon - before his successor Huub Stevens gave Holtby greater licence to go forward with Jermaine Jones, now re-established in Gelsenkirchen after his flirtation with Blackburn, playing the classic holding role.

"I think the description of being a number eight is the best," said Holtby. "I had always played as a number 10 or on the wing like I do in the Under-21s. But I'm really happy to be playing in this position now. You start from deeper and have the whole game in front of you. My game is improving. I enjoy the position because I can run my socks off."

The sum of those parts has added up to Holtby helping steer Schalke into fifth place, six points adrift of leaders Bayern Munich but just a point behind second-placed arch-rivals Dortmund, whose sublime football on the way to winning the Bundesliga title last year led to much gnashing of teeth in Gelsenkirchen. The German team of the 1930s, Schalke have never won the Bundesliga title since the nationwide league was established in 1963. Their fans have shown saint-like stoicism, and continue to flood into the club's state-of-the-art stadium more in hope than expectation - Holtby believes the latter could supplant the former in the near future.

"There's always pressure here at Schalke. Everyone expects you to compete at the top end of the table, win things and do well in the Europe. I think we have to be a little bit patient," said Holtby.

"There are world class players like Raul, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Jefferson Farfan, but there are quite a lot of young players like [Kyriakos] Papadopoulos, [Julian] Draxler and me, youngsters who are trying to improve their game. If we can keep that team together for two or three years, then I think we'll be a really tough team to beat.

"We can maybe challenge to get some trophies. I have a lot of faith in the team that we can do that in that kind of timeframe. Of course, Bayern have a brilliant team this year. They've spent a lot of money - more than anyone else. Bayern have a strong side, but we'll try everything possible to prevent them from winning the title."

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