One-on-one with Jens Lehmann: 'Mad Jens' and his gardening
To some, Jens Lehmann will probably be best remembered as a member of the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ that went through the whole 2003/04 season unbeaten, before Manchester United ended their 49-game undefeated streak the following year.
But many will also recall Lehmann's colourful character between the posts, which led to that rather apt nickname of ‘Mad Jens’.
It has been five years since he hung up his boots, but Lehmann’s candid character has not diminished one bit, as FourFourTwo found out when we sat down to have a talk with the former Schalke 04 goalkeeper.
In his time at Arsenal, Lehmann was known for his eccentric behaviour. A 0-0 draw with Manchester United left him taunting Ruud Van Nistelrooy with aggressive behaviour after he missed a spot-kick, while the goalkeeper also threw the ball at Southampton’s Kevin Phillips after the final whistle of a match in 2003.
He refused to lay low and was always viewed as a strong character by his peers.
But it wasn’t always like this, Lehmann shared, until he was given a starting role at Schalke, the club he began his professional career with in 1988.
I had some coaches who told me that if you played as badly as you did in the last game, you are out
“I wasn't strong, I became strong,” Lehmann told FourFourTwo. “When I was a child I was OK, but I got strong because I had to cope with pressure and I had a lot disappointments.
“(My character) is unique and it depends on your experiences. It was not like I came into professional football way ahead of everybody. I was a normal guy and I had some strengths which I could build on.
“I had some disappointments, I got injuries, then I wasn't playing, and I had to consistently work my way up, but it was good for me.
“When I started as a young player, I was immediately under big pressure because I was playing for Schalke 04 and we nearly got relegated and I had some coaches who told me that if you played as badly as you did in the last game, you are out. I was a young player, but I learnt how to cope with pressure then.”
Nonetheless, there were still moments Lehmann admitted made his stomach churn out of anxiety, though he would never have owned up to it at the time.
One such example was when he came out of retirement to play for Arsenal again, back in 2011. The Gunners were suffering from an injury crisis, with Manuel Almunia the only fit goalkeeper.
As the German was completing his coaching badges at London, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger signed Lehmann back on an emergency rolling contract.
As fate would have it, Lehmann made his 200th and final appearance for the Gunners against Blackpool on April 10, 2011 after Almunia injured himself during warm up.
“I was very nervous, but I couldn't show it because when I played there, I never gave them an impression of me being nervous,” Lehmann recalled fondly.
“They always thought 'Oh, the German strong machine is coming up'. Arsene Wenger said to me before the game, 'Jens, as usual', and I was like OK, but I was actually shivering inside. But they really probably couldn't sense that I was nervous.”
As we looked further back into his career, Lehmann admitted he only now felt the enormity of the feat the Invincibles achieved in 2004.
“When you become an Invincible, you don't realise at the time how big it was. But we now see how it big it is, because it has never been repeated,” Lehmann shared.
“The league was very strong then. We had Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. We were the underdogs.
“With the arrival of (Chelsea owner Roman) Abramovich, it gave Chelsea a financial edge, and they were perceived as becoming the champions, with Manchester also very strong. But we were the best team with character.”