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This feature is part of The Masterminds: 10 Under 45

“Is it your birthday? No? Then you’re not getting it.” As the seven-year-old child glanced longingly at the table tennis set he had his heart set on, his emotions began to get the better of him. Seeing how distraught the little boy was, the older man softened and made his son a deal – if he could keep a ball up 20 times, he could have the table tennis set. “After that I did nothing else, just practised,” the boy recalled many years later. “I didn’t eat or drink, I cried, I smashed things up, but I kept trying – and in the end I managed 22 keepy-ups. My father told me I could achieve anything if I put my mind to it because I was ambitious; I was just born that way.”

That lesson Pál Dárdai learned on holiday at a hot spring resort in his native Hungary would be one that shaped his impressive career as a player and added the steel to his character as a manager. At the age of 20 he left his homeland to make a name for himself in Berlin; two decades later he has broken the appearance record for his club, suffered personal tragedy, won over 60 caps for his country and been hailed as a saviour. But how did he get there?

Memories of the Mighty Magyars still hang over Hungarian football, but the truth is that the standard set by one of the most gifted generations of international footballers has never been met since. Young players looking to develop invariably move on to more advanced leagues where they can find a higher level of preparation, training, coaching and opportunity, so when Dárdai signed for Hertha Berlin just after he left his teens, it was not so much of a surprise as Hungarian sports journalist Mátyás Szeli explains to These Football Times. “[Moving to Germany] is popular as it’s a way stronger league than the Hungarian top flight,” he said. “Even the 2. Bundesliga is better than our local league, and they also have a proven track record of developing talent. In general, the youngsters who go abroad are not considered disloyal as most people are aware that coaching and the overall circumstances are better in Germany, so it’s understandable they leave.” Despite these factors, Dárdai still needed to have a strong character to adapt to a new language and culture, and patience, as he was only given 18 league starts in his first three seasons.

Despite these factors, Dárdai still needed to have a strong character to adapt to a new language and culture, and patience, as he was only given 18 league starts in his first three seasons.

While his toughness guided him through a challenging period as a young player, the personal touch was something that he had already developed in abundance. His youth coach at Pécs, József Garami, is a figure who left a lasting impression on a developing Dárdai for his utmost regard for the value of family. Garami would never lunch with the players, always returning home to have a home-cooked meal with his wife instead; far from putting team bonding down the list of priorities, it showed Dárdai the value of family – as if he needed showing.

While Garami was his first major coaching influence, Dárdai had some impressive mentors throughout his career, none more high profile than Lothar Matthäus. The 150-cap German legend took charge of the Hungarian national team between 2004 and 2006 and was tasked with turning around their meagre fortunes. It was during his reign that Dárdai was named Hungarian Player of the Year (by that stage he’d become a permanent fixture in the Hertha Berlin midfield) but the player was not afraid to point out where his philosophy differed to that of one of the all-time greats. “Under Lothar we always trained well, you can’t fault him for that,” Dárdai revealed to Fifa.com. “His coaching methods were very good. But what he never did was explain tactical issues to us … perhaps he thought we were all big stars. With a small team, you have to organise the players properly and explain your tactics in detail.”

These words came from him while he was still three years from ending his playing career, an indication of the appreciation he held of his own footballing brain and skill set. It took the self-belief of a man who had carved his own career path by himself to question the approach of such a well-established figure, but as his coaching career would show, he was not misplaced in his convictions. “Whatever the case, he spent two years with us, during which people’s interest in Hungarian football picked up and a lot was said about him. I think he had a big impact on the press.”

The last comment was telling. Expectations in his home country were low, and when the Hungarian Football Federation came calling three years ago, there was a mixed reaction. At that time, he had never held a permanent senior coaching position of any kind, was only 38 years of age, and yet he was hailed by some as a potential saviour of the national team. After winding down his time on the pitch, he had taken over the role of Hertha’s under-15 team – where his eldest son, also called Pál, was a player – and had impressed with his preparation, as political analyst and Hungarian football follower Dániel Róna explains. “Dárdai represents professionalism. He introduced several tools to measure the performance of players, and introduced video analysis, and even hired one guy just for this.”

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While it may seem strange that only three years ago video analysis could be something revolutionary for a national team, it is a measure of both Dárdai’s superior approach and of the distance Hungarian football had fallen behind its European counterparts. “In the half-time break of every match, he showed his players a video analysis of their performance and showed them how they should have played. Tactical meetings were interactive; it’s not that he just told players what to do, but he asked questions. They were lively discussions. In Hungary it was very strange – he represented a new generation.”

To allow such democratic responsibility within team meetings, especially in an international squad setup where there is such limited time to relay theories and tactics, was bold. It was also a masterstroke – in his first game in charge he faced possibly the most intense challenge for a man in his position; against Romania, away.

The two countries have a slightly awkward history; although they were formally at peace at one point of both World Wars, Romania also twice invaded its neighbour over territorial disputes within months of both countries having been officially allied. Decades later, FIFA banned visiting fans from attending 2014 World Cup qualifiers to avoid violence, as well as for Dárdai’s managerial debut in Euro 2016 qualifying. The rookie head coach somehow managed to pull off an impressive 1-1 draw that softened the blow of having lost at home in the first match of the group to a late Northern Ireland double sucker punch, despite his side being granted a slim percentage of possession and chances.

A personal touch is something that Dárdai appreciates for many reasons, but none more so than one tragedy that befell his family. A couple of years after he had broken into the Hertha first team,  he was away on pre-season duty when commercial manager Dieter Hoeness pulled him to one side and gave him the most shocking news: his 21-year-old brother had suddenly died in the middle of a match after bursting an artery following a header. To make matters worse, Pál Dárdai senior, who was coach of his younger son’s Hungarian third tier side FC Barcs, was watching on from the sidelines as his child’s life was robbed from him.

Dárdai returned immediately to his homeland to grieve his brother’s passing, and upon his return to Berlin he was initially reluctant to resume active training and playing duty. His manager knew his player well, however, and understood that standing idle and wallowing in grief was not the healthiest course. “Huub Stevens helped me a lot,” Dárdai said last year as he looked back on the painful period. “When I returned from Hungary he said he wanted me to play, but I didn’t want to, I felt I needed more practice. Huub said: ‘No way, you come with us.’ It meant a lot to me.”

Paying attention to the person behind the player has been a key hallmark of Dárdai’s approach as a manager, just as he had been shown such well-judged care in his darkest hour. Salomon Kalou suffered the double pain of losing his father and aunt within a fortnight of each other last August, and when the Ivorian forward returned to the club, Dárdai took steps to ensure his player was saved the danger of falling into a downward spiral, just as he had been treated over a decade earlier. “Everyone mourns in a different way,” Dárdai continued. “When he got back, we sent him in because we knew what he was capable of. After his third goal against Mönchengladbach (his third match after returning), I took him off the pitch so the fans could applaud him. For him and the team as well, it was a wonderful night.”

Relationships with players on the comfort of the training pitch or team hotel is one thing, but to master the relationship with the media is something else entirely. The pressure of international management is enormous regardless of which country one hails from, but when you are almost young enough to still be playing and lack any concrete senior management experience, the task of winning over the press is even harder. In Dárdai’s case, he was helped by an overwhelmingly positive response to his appointment from the public, but he left nothing to chance. “It was a risk but the Hungarian FA had to do something,” Szeli explains. “The mood was quite dark. There wasn’t much time to look around for managers; I think at that point the most important thing was to find someone who could shake things up quickly and he did just that while laying down the foundations for our European Championship qualification.”

At his first press conference, Dárdai pre-empted any doubts to his experience by preparing a PowerPoint presentation detailing each player’s weaknesses and strengths, and how he intended to take the national team forward. His confidence to map out a plan of action in such precise fashion – which could so easily have provided ammunition to shoot him down had it not been realised successfully – won over most of the remaining doubters before a ball had been kicked.

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Nine months later, he had guided Hungary to a healthy playoff place despite only scoring four goals in their five matches. In that time his club had been looking relegation squarely in the face, and when Jos Luhukay was sacked in February, Dárdai was handed the reigns until the end of the season and tasked with saving Hertha from relegation. This he managed by the skin of his teeth, as goal difference separated them from the relegation playoff, but his initial objective had been accomplished.

In the summer he arrived at a crossroads. Both club and country wanted him to continue in a full-time capacity, but the Hungarian didn’t feel comfortable juggling the two. Given that he had been given an entire career for almost half his life by Hertha, he gave up his international role to focus on Die Alte Dame. This time, in his first full season, he was determined to improve on his practical style by adding a more attacking element to the team’s play.

A blend of youth and experience was added as Vedad Ibišević and Nicklas Stark, among others, were brought in to revitalise the playing squad. Within a few months, Hertha had risen to fourth place, with club captain Fabian Lustenberger even joking to the press after a typically efficient 1-0 win over Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim that they were now “only competing for Champions League places”. Such light-hearted mood had been in short supply less than a year earlier, but Pál Dárdai had woven his brand of mercurial magic and lifted the attitude – and results – to another level.

Lifting moods and success was becoming a trademark of his. “In Hungary you focus on the negative, on the mistakes; what you screwed up or should have done differently,” Róna explains. “Pál Dárdai has the opposite attitude. He focuses on the positive things, he encourages players and empowers them. Basically, he set many players’ minds free.”

A slump in form saw Hertha slip down to seventh, which was still enough to qualify for Europa League qualifiers. A disappointing 3-2 aggregate defeat to Danish side Brøndby ended the adventure before it had really begun, but reaching that stage at all after the parlous state of affairs in the German capital must be deemed an astonishing success. As if to prove that his Midas touch is real, this season Hertha are once again flying high, having been as high as third.

His prevalence for a highly regimented structure in midfield that prioritises solidity over free-flowing waves of attack is often misunderstood. When the time is right, Hertha show shades of Dárdai’s former manager Lucien Favre with their attacking instinct. More often than not he deploys three midfielders that are able to either rotate within the central areas of a 4-2-3-1 or convert into a more conventional 4-4-2 with one moving further forward. Exactly how he sets up his side depends on the occasion and opposition, but the end goal is winning first and foremost. His awareness of individual players’ suitability to adapt to different systems, and his demands on his players, have been noticed and appreciated by the squad. “It’s a demanding idea of football and we work hard so the automatic aspects function,” said defender Sebastian Langkamp last year.

While still not blasting away opposition in a flurry of high-octane goal-fests, the goals per game ratio is improving. During his first 15 games in charge two years ago, his side managed just 12 goals, whereas now they are averaging almost double that rate. Kalou equalled his second-best goalscoring return in a decade last season, and but for injury problems and his personal circumstances last autumn, would surely be on course to repeat the tally.

In such a short managerial career, Pál Dárdai has managed to inspire his players, his club and even his nation with a brand of personal attention and conviction of character. On paper, he has been fortunate to receive the opportunities he has had, given his age and relative lack of experience. “Football is always 30 percent luck,” he mused a few months into his permanent position at Hertha. If that is true, you can be sure he creates as much of that 30 percent as is humanly possible. Pál Dárdai cannot see the difference between a table tennis table or a Champions League qualifier – and therein lies his genius 

By Andrew Flint    @AndrewMijFlint