Paul Scharner may not have played for the most talked-about Premier League clubs in Wigan Athletic and West Bromwich Albion, but there was never any chance of the Austrian fading into the background.
From his brightly dyed hair and quirky fashion sense to his strong opinions and eclectic array of hobbies, Scharner always stood out from the crowd.
James Morrison went as far as calling him a “bit of a weirdo” in 2010, but Scharner was standing out in the most important way too: on the pitch.
“I looked at football a bit differently,” he says. “I tried to optimise myself in every aspect of football.
“I wasn’t just looking at getting better with the right leg or the left leg. I was also training my brain and thinking more about football than just going on the grass and kicking the ball.
“For my colleagues it looked a bit strange, but there was never any problem with them. The good thing in England is that if you perform at the weekend it doesn’t matter what you’re doing during the week.”
Incredibly focused and driven, Scharner has known his own mind from a young age. Indeed, it led to the end of his time at his first club, Austria Vienna, when just months after winning the league and cup double, he fell out with future World Cup-winning manager Joachim Low.
“I played eight different positions at Austria Vienna, everywhere apart from striker and goalkeeper,” Scharner says.
“I thought after three years in professional football I needed to concentrate on one or two positions so I had a talk with Joachim Low. I was a regular in the first team at right wing but I told him I’d drop out because I couldn’t help the team in that position.
“He agreed, but after three weeks we had a very bad game against Graz and three or four minutes before half time Joachim Low called me over and said I had to play on the right wing again. I said ‘No, I’m not playing,’ because I’d dropped out of the team and now I was going back in the same position.”
Having burned his bridges at Austria, Scharner was forced to find a new home. He spent a few months at SV Salzburg before signing for Norwegian side SK Brann. He saw it as a helpful stepping stone to the Premier League, and so it proved.
“Many scouts from England were looking for players there. So that was my thinking, having a good season in Norway could open the door to the Premier League.
“We had a pre-season game against Birmingham City in the summer of 2005. Steve Bruce was the manager there and I played a very good game.
“After that he scouted me and watched me a couple of times in the season. He was very interested and it was a battle between Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic to sign me.
“I signed the contract with Wigan on December 23. I was so excited that the team doctor said he wasn’t sure about my blood pressure!
“I told him to measure it in one week’s time and then it would be normal. That day my blood pressure wasn’t normal because it was my biggest dream coming true. I always wanted to play in the Premier League.”
Looking at old player unveiling photos, there's some absolute gems.
Paul Scharner leads the way for most outlandish coat selection. pic.twitter.com/q3qPkQrwob
— Coral (@Coral) January 10, 2018
Scharner’s decision to choose Wigan, who had adapted well to life in the top flight, was vindicated as Birmingham went on to suffer relegation.
In contrast, the Latics finished 10th and reached the League Cup final, with the new arrival playing his part.
“When I signed for Wigan I was very focused on making an impression in the first couple of weeks. I was really looking forward to the first game, but I was on the bench.
“We played at home against Arsenal in the Carling Cup. I came on in the 33rd minute and scored the winner in the 77th minute, so it was quite a good debut for me!”
Although Wigan overcame Arsenal on away goals to make it to the final, they were soundly beaten by Manchester United at the Millennium Stadium. The firepower of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Louis Saha was simply too much to contend with.
“It was a very strange day,” Scharner says. “We went to Cardiff three days before the final and had a training camp under Paul Jewell. We were well prepared, but we had no chance at all. They battered us and we lost 4-0.
“I was so disappointed that I threw my silver medal into the Wigan crowd. At the end of the year I got a Christmas card from the fan who caught the medal. He said, ‘Thank you very much for the medal. You made my day.'”
The next season proved much tougher, with Wigan only staying up on the final day when they beat Sheffield United at Bramall Lane to send the Blades down in their place. Scharner was once more on the scoresheet in a big game, firing a shot into the bottom corner with his left foot.
Jewell left as manager after clinching survival and was replaced by his assistant Chris Hutchings. After a difficult run of 10 games without a win, Steve Bruce came to the rescue. Although Scharner had previously rejected Bruce’s offer to join Birmingham, they worked well together and enjoyed a couple of solid mid-table finishes as Wigan continued to punch above their weight.
“He was a very good manager. I had a lot of talks with him and he pushed me to another level, to be honest, because I went from midfield to centre back.
“We had two good seasons. I remember the second season under Steve Bruce we were sixth after Christmas, but we sold Emile Heskey and Wilson Palacios and that’s why we couldn’t hold the position.”
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Roberto Martinez took over in June 2009 and Wigan adopted a new philosophy, prioritising possession to a far greater extent. They were easier on the eye but more vulnerable at the back, and suffered some heavy defeats.
“He had a totally different style,” Scharner says. “I remember in Steve Bruce’s first meeting, he said, ‘We need to be the best team without the ball.’
“Roberto Martinez said, ‘We need to be the best team with the ball.’ You can see that they were far, far away from each other.”
Scharner spent one season under Martinez but was keen to play in midfield rather than defence so decided to leave when his contract expired. West Brom manager Roberto Di Matteo promised him a central role in establishing the club back in the Premier League.
The Baggies started well before sinking towards the relegation zone. Roy Hodgson’s organisational skills were called upon and he was able to steer the club away from danger. A year later they finished in the top half.
“Roy Hodgson is very strict in positioning and all about 4-4-2,” Scharner says. “It helped to establish West Brom and keep us in the league.
“The following season we did quite well. It was absolutely brilliant. The Hawthorns is a very nice home stadium and the fans were supportive. I really liked playing for the Baggies.”
A move to Hamburg followed in 2012, but Scharner was soon back in England – with Wigan again. Having struggled to make an impact in Germany due to injury problems and the club’s good form, he was then sent off on his full debut and couldn’t force his way back into the starting line-up.
“I looked for a change because I didn’t want to sit on the bench or in the stands. I got a call from Graeme Jones, the assistant manager to Martinez, and he asked me if I was ready to play centre back. I said, ‘Yeah, of course’.”
Returning to Wigan was a bittersweet experience for Scharner as he was able to help the club win the FA Cup but not avoid relegation. Their fate was confirmed three days after shocking Manchester City at Wembley when few gave them any hope.
“It’s all in the head,” Scharner says. “Imagination and belief in the impossible. I think it gave us a bit of extra energy being in Wigan before the final. Everybody believed in Wigan. From the youngest to the oldest, everybody was looking forward to it.”
Ben Watson scored the winner to give Scharner and so many of his team-mates the proudest moment of their careers.
As well as making more Premier League appearances than any of his fellow countrymen, Scharner is proud to be the only Austrian to play in an FA Cup final. Alex Manninger didn’t make it off substitutes’ bench when Arsenal won the trophy in 1998.
The curious nature of Wigan’s achievement was brought home by a parade that had been organised for the day after the final game of the season, when the club had already been relegated. Scharner couldn’t bring himself to attend.
“Relegation was catastrophic. I wasn’t there because I couldn’t celebrate after relegation. I went home to family in Austria. It was a strange season because the FA Cup final was before the league ended. It’s not the kind of thing you want to experience.”
Scharner chose to retire that summer after broken promises by the Hamburg hierarchy left him in limbo. When announcing his decision he spoke about how football was being damaged by financial interests – and he believes that the situation has only got worse in the last few years.
“It’s even more of a business now because there is more money involved. The main men in football don’t make decisions for the supporters and for the game. It’s more for business and earning money.
“That’s the modern way. Everybody and everything is thinking about money. So you can decide for yourself whether to leave this business, or this system, or stay in it and learn to live with it.”
Scharner went for the former option. He moved back to Austria to spend more time with his wife and five kids, which had been hard to do with such a demanding football schedule, and recently he has been working as a performance coach for athletes and sportspeople, giving them the support and motivation needed to succeed.
As if it was ever in any doubt, Scharner did not follow the crowd.
By Sean Cole