Michael Bailey: The rise of Zimmermann – Norwich City’s genuine Christoph miracle
Christoph Zimmermann spent 18 months intrinsically linked to ‘the fourth tier of German football’ – and now he’s set for the Premier League. MICHAEL BAILEY pays tribute to a real Norwich City leader of success.
It was like a scene from a Hollywood sports biopic, which is probably why it has stayed in my mind for so long.
The game was done; all 120 minutes of it. The stadium was empty; all 60,000-plus seats of it.
The only remnants of that Wednesday night's atmosphere were the echoes of almost 9,000 Norwich City fans on the breeze, as well as the Emirates roar that greeted Edward Nketiah's extra-time winner – a bitter Carabao Cup exit at the hands of Arsenal.
And there was Christoph Zimmermann, standing still and quiet on the touchline – ready to leave, but not until he had absorbed exactly where he had just played. Where his career had already taken him too. Lingering his gaze on the empty stands and thick Premier League air.
I can tell you another thing. He wasn't happy, or in awe. He was frustrated at a chance missed. When you have travelled so far and come so close to jacking football in altogether, who knows when another opportunity like that will pop up in front of you?
Our first chat however, came at the very first opportunity – City's 2017-18 pre-season friendly at Lowestoft Town. A man happy to be given a chance; openly talking about expecting to see another centre-back arrive and in turn, slipping Zimmermann down to fourth in the queue.
Even those building the Canaries' squad were capping their expectations there.
Now two years on, we all know Christoph Zimmermann's story; the journey that has taken him so far from his starting point, both geographically and in terms of playing level.
But don't let that trick you into down-playing it.
First Zimmermann was given a new contract within months of arriving as a free agent – to make sure his almost ridiculously modest initial deal became one more comparable to that of a first-team player.
The way he adapted over the course of his first season was hugely impressive. But it is dwarfed by how he has ironed out those occasional bad, bullied games and developed into a captain, leader and pivotal cog in a side that has been so phenomenal at the top of the Championship.
The last half an hour of the 2-2 draw at Bristol City and Nottingham Forest's dramatic 3-3 Boxing Day visit to Carrow Road – they are the only minutes Zimmermann has missed since making his first league start of the season, you've guessed it, in the 1-0 home win over Middlesbrough in September.
There are so many words available to describe it – and yet, for some reason they all feel slightly inadequate.
“I think calling it a fairytale would be underestimating it,” smiled a clearly emotional German defender, as Championship promotion started to attempt sinking in.
“I remember a good friend texting me after I signed for Norwich saying it must feel like winning the lottery, and it did – not just playing here but playing so much, and now making it to the Premier League.
“It's way more than all that, way more than I expected and ever dreamt of. Call it a miracle, a fairytale, a wonder, whatever – I think all these definitions might be right.”
Zimmermann's face as he uttered the words was a picture – the perfect example of why this Norwich City squad has captured so much good will and empathy from its supporters, when across the country clubs are battling an increasing disconnect.
The greatest day of his footballing career? “I think you could call it the greatest one, yeah. Definitely.”
His personal gain has been one thing. His team captaincy quite another.
From directing his team-mates to leading by example, there is no shying away from Zimmermann's impact his season – and his words, in the midst of pure euphoria, were as good as his actions.
“I'm very grateful for the people here, that they believed in me and that in certain ways I could pay that back,” said Zimmermann.
“The players in this squad have been outstanding and I need to say very big compliments, especially to Jordan Rhodes and Grant Hanley, with how well they have dealt with the situation they've had to face this season.
“I know how it has been, not playing the first six games of the season, and I'm sure I wouldn't have been able to deal with it as well as those two have.
“They are just one example of why it has worked because everybody knew we were following one big dream and everybody has been committed to it whether he was playing, on the bench or not even in the squad.”
Last summer I had another chat with Christoph, asking what preoccupied him in preparation of his second season – the straight answer was how he was going to improve.
This time, the level around the big German will be going up another notch entirely.
“Even though we had only two games against Premier League sides in the League Cup this season, at Cardiff and at Bournemouth we were well competitive,” he added.
“I do believe in the strength of our play and quality of the squad, and I also think it's going to be a massive boost to us and our self-confidence to achieve this promotion in the circumstances we did.
“We haven't played against Premier League sides on a weekly basis, but we've shown we have the potential to be competitive.
“It's for others to decide what to do in personnel terms, but I just hope we can keep most of the squad together because we've had a great team this season – and the bond has unbelievable.”
As has City's number six – a genuine Christoph miracle.
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