Vitaly Janelt began his football love affair while playing on a court around the corner from his house.
Fuelled by peach iced tea from the local supermarket, Vitaly’s tales of playing football with his friends until day turned to night are instantly relatable - even for those of us who can only dream of the heights he has since gone on to reach.
Vitaly has come a long way since those days. In fact, he’s come a long way in the last 12 months alone.
Signed from VfL Bochum in October last year, the 23-year-old admits he struggled to find consistency during his time at the Ruhrstadion. He has had no such problems since making the switch to West London. The powerful midfielder featured in 54 games in three-and-a-half years at Bochum - he made 47 appearances in all competitions for Brentford last term.
Having tasted Play-Off Final success at Wembley Stadium on 29 May, Vitaly flew straight to Hungary the next day to join Germany’s squad for the UEFA European Under-21 Championship. He would lift his second trophy in as many weekends on 6 June as Germany overcame Portugal 1-0 in the Final.
Vitaly’s stock continues to rise; he has looked at home in the Premier League and found the net during our memorable 3-3 draw with Liverpool in September. Whatever he goes on to achieve in his career, 2021 will be a year that Vitaly looks back upon with much fondness.
Let’s start right at the beginning! What are your early memories of playing football?
I would have been five or six years old when I went for a walk with my parents and saw some kids playing football. I watched them and I wanted to play. I was wearing a Bob the Builder cap and my parents told me that if I wanted to play, I had to take it off. I said, “No, I’m not taking it off, I want to train with them!” They didn’t let me play so I was crying by the time we got home. One or two weeks later I was allowed to join them and play!
I have three brothers - two of them [Vincent and Victor] now play in the Fifth Division in Germany. Growing up, we would play on a court near where we lived. The days were so long, particularly in the summer. After school I’d get my homework done and head straight to the pitch. We’d always go to the supermarket first and buy a peach iced tea for 50 cents, then we’d play from around three in the afternoon to seven or eight in the evening until the lights went out. Every time my parents would call me: “Try to be home at six but don’t be later than seven!”
During my childhood I played with so many guys who were older than me; from the age of eight I was playing with 15 and 16-year-olds. That was good for my experience, to train with some older people. From an early age it got me used to the intensity and the physicality of the game. It was good for me.
“After school I’d head straight to the pitch. We’d play from around three in the afternoon to seven or eight in the evening until the lights went out”
Let’s fast forward to your time at RB Leipzig. Their former Sporting Director Ralf Rangnick was recently appointed Interim Head Coach at Manchester United – a club that’s close to your heart. From your own experience at Leipzig, what do you think Rangnick will bring to Manchester United and English football in general?
I think he’s a very good coach. For him it’s football, football, football – he gives everything. Discipline is very important to him and he likes to develop young players. I think he’ll try to get them to press like his teams in Leipzig and Salzburg, but he’s working with different players and, as the head coach, he has only six months. He’ll still be around the team after that, though, watching closely and making sure everything is perfect. It’ll be very interesting to see how he does things in Manchester. He’s a very, very good manager. I heard [Jürgen] Klopp say recently that teams should be afraid because he’s there. We will see!
“A very good coach”: Ralf Rangnick, who was recently appointed Interim Head Coach at Manchester United, was RB Leipzig’s Sporting Director during Vitaly’s time at the club
It was at Bochum where you got your first proper taste of First Team football. How do you reflect on your time there?
We had an away game against Sandhausen in April 2017, I was brought on after 45 minutes and I think I did well. After that I played six more games that season - I was 18. I think these were my first steps into professional football.
In three-and-a-half years I had six or seven coaches, so it was very hard for me to find consistency at Bochum. A new coach would come in and want to play the experienced players. We were always around 14th to 17th in the table. Around the club, if everything’s not fine, the team knows. Everyone speaks.
I didn’t always get the trust from the coaches, I played some games and I was on the bench for others. I’d get small injuries that would keep me out for two to three months, and then another two to three months. Then I’d play well, then not so good. I missed consistency during this time.
In total I played 54 games – that’s not enough. But it was a very nice time. There are very good people around Bochum; the fans are amazing, the stadium’s amazing and the city is nice. I’m still in a WhatsApp group with six people from Bochum. The team itself was like a family, just like it is here.
While it clearly wasn’t always plain sailing at Bochum, your performances caught the eye of Brentford’s scouting department. How did the move to England come about?
I wanted to leave Bochum a bit earlier, but I was under contract and they wanted me to stay. I wanted to play. I have to play. I had to train and try my best, but then in the summer it was my time to move. The step from one second division team in Germany to another wasn’t right for me. I said to my agent - whether it’s Italy, France or England - I need a next step and a new beginning. He told me that Brentford was interested. It was a long process, but we got it done.
You enjoyed a fairytale ending to your first season in England as the Club won promotion to the Premier League at Wembley Stadium. Can you believe how well it’s gone for you so far?
No, it’s crazy. It’s unbelievable. When I first signed for the Club I was a bit nervous. It was a new country and a new language for me - I spoke a bit of English but not that much and not that well. I’d seen they’d lost in the Play-Off Final the year before and my thought was, ‘Why not this year?’ I joined on the fifth game day with no pre-season, nothing. I was a bit lucky that Christian [Nørgaard] was injured, so I got my chance early. In the end I played nearly every game. I couldn’t believe it when we won that game against Swansea. I still couldn’t believe it a month later.
Your attention then switched from club to country as, the day after the Play-Off Final, you joined the Germany Under-21 squad for the knockout stages of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship…
Yes, I got the call from Stefan Kuntz [then-Head Coach of Germany Under-21s who has since become Head Coach of the Turkish national team]. He gave me the choice. He knew I had the Play-Off Final on the Saturday, then Germany’s Quarter-Final game against Denmark was on the Monday. I couldn’t miss the tournament as I knew we had a good chance of winning it. In the end, we did win it. Two weekends, two trophies. In one week, I got promoted to the Premier League from nothing - I’d been playing in the Second Bundesliga before Brentford – and won a tournament with my country. It was crazy. I didn’t care that the tournament began two days after the Play-Off Final – I would have been so angry to miss out. I don’t go to parties too much and I don’t drink and I think that helped. I had a few cokes, went to bed and got on a flight at 8.30 the next morning.
Elation: Lukas Nmecha (left), Vitaly and Anton Stach (right) celebrate Germany’s European Under-21 Championship success in Slovenia
“Two weekends, two trophies. In one week, I got promoted to the Premier League and won a tournament with my country. It was crazy”
It’s been a memorable start to our first season in the Premier League. Let’s zoom in on the 3-3 draw with Liverpool in September – a game in which you scored. Thomas has said that he wants us to be an “asset” to this division. The team must have taken so much belief from that performance…
Just like winning promotion, I still can’t believe that game. It’s like it was yesterday. For every kid it’s a dream to play in the Premier League – it’s the best league in the world. To score my first goal at this level against Liverpool, at home, was the best way. As a team, to score three goals against them showed our quality.
It’s important to say that not all of our games are going to be so memorable. Against Everton, maybe we don’t play our best game, but in two weeks, or after the season when hopefully we’ve stayed in the league, no one will ask: ‘How did you play against Everton? Did you play s**t or good?’ We got the three points and that’s the most important thing.
From your perspective, what are the main differences between the Championship and the Premier League?
The difference for me is the quality on the ball – it’s the speed of thought. Everyone plays quickly in the Premier League, so you have to be switched on all of the time or you’ll be punished.
You already have your own song - you’ve become a fans’ favourite here in little over 12 months. Why do you think that is?
It’s a good question! I try to give 100 per cent every game, I think that helps. I had a lot of input last year in the Club’s first promotion to this level in 74 years, so I’m sure that helps too! The fans have been amazing with me and I love it every time I hear my song. I hear it every time. It’s special when you hear it and you know it’s for you.
It’s not just in the home games, either. I think back to the West Ham game, in a big stadium, and the away fans were just as loud as the home fans. It’s so important that they support us, whether it’s against Chelsea or Burnley. Every player, every member of staff, every fan - we are family, we are a team. We win, draw and lose together. If you don’t sign up for that, you’re in the wrong place.