The Julian Brandt story so far: Liverpool track Europe's rising star
As a 5-year-old, Julian Brandt was more interested in picking the daisies off playing fields in Bremen, finding himself distracted in his first few training sessions. But his priorities quickly changed.
Brandt began his football career at SC Borgeld -- an amateur team in his home city -- and he immersed himself in the game as his talent quickly emerged.
Fast-forward nearly 15 years, and Brandt is one of the most promising talents in European football. Major clubs are tracking the Bayer Leverkusen winger's progress and have been doing so for some time.
This summer promises to be an interesting time for the German and his family. His father, Jurgen, acts as his agent and juggles time managing his son's affairs -- described as a 24-hours-a-day job -- and coaching SC Borgfeld's senior team.
Brandt has yet to make a decision about his future. However, there is one certain destination for the 20-year-old during the close season: a return to his former club, where it all began.
"He's very home-connected and a really smart guy," SC Borgfeld's long-standing spokesperson, Dirk Beckmann, told ESPN FC. "Once a year, we have a junior tournament here in Borgfeld -- the Karl-Schmidt-Cup -- and we see him every year.
"Every year he comes to this tournament -- but not as a star. He only comes with his friends because he has still the same friends he got to know when he was younger. Some of the little boys will know him and ask for pictures, and every time he's friendly.
"We will see him many times. If he has some free time, he will come back. Most of the people know him.
"You could see very early on that football was the only thing on his mind. He played with a heart, and I think he took his football to his bed in the evening. We are really proud to say that he's the best prospect SC Borgfeld have ever produced."
In a move that split rivalries and territories, Brandt left Borgfeld for rivals FC Oberneuland, the team in the next village. The move, however, did not involve any resentment. The ambitious youngster wanted to play at the highest level, even at that age, and switched clubs along with the majority of his peers.
"He is born in 1996, and we had an unbelievably huge group of really great players in Borgfeld, so we had two teams who at the same age -- one at the age of 1996, the other group was 1995," Beckmann said. "The problem was that only one team was able to play in the first junior league in Bremen.
"So in this case, the younger boys had to play in the second team in the league. Julian's father was also the trainer of him at this time. It was not very nice because, at the same time, the older side were more popular in the region. They were playing in tournaments against Bundesliga junior teams. It was a pity for us but good for him nevertheless. At Oberneuland, they got the chance to play in the first league."
The move to Oberneuland also benefitted Brandt, as it increased his exposure to German scouts. Representatives from academies were more likely to watch Oberneuland's game than Borgfeld's.
Werder Bremen tracked Brandt for a long time as an amateur, but it was Wolfsburg who made the strongest push. In 2011, Brandt agreed to join the team of his childhood idol, Brazilian midfielder Diego, whom he ended up training with from time to time.
"It was immediately obvious that Julian was a gifted player," then-Wolfsburg under-19s coach Dirk Kunert told ESPN FC. "Even though he was the only U17 player in our team, he was the best player."
In his two years at Wolfsburg, Brandt developed the defensive aspect of his game while building on his undoubted ability in the final third. Blessed with abundant technical ability going forward, Kunert initially had a battle on his hand to remind Brandt of his defensive responsibilities when on the right or left wing.
"His skills are just extraordinary -- good pace, very good control, good finish, good left foot, good right foot, amazing first touch. No matter how badly a ball was passed, he controlled it," Kunert said. "He had a solution for every situation -- and not just a simple one. He always did the special things. His greatest ability always was his coolness. Whether he is playing in front of 100 or 100,000 fans, he never gets nervous.
"When he entered the pitch, you felt that he was fond of football. Just the work in the defence was not his. You always had to encourage him to do it. Back then, I thought that this is the only thing that could cause problems on his way to the Bundesliga. But his offensive skills are just so extraordinary."
Plenty of teams were tracking Brandt's progress at Wolfsburg, and they stepped up their interest when it became clear that he would not be signing a new contract.
Among the suitors were a number of Premier League teams, Bayern Munich and Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund. But Brandt made a "gut instinct," according to Kunert, move to Bayer Leverkusen, with sporting director Rudi Voller and Michael Reschke -- now technical director at Bayern -- convincing him and his family that a move to the BayArena would be the best for his career.
He agreed to join Bayer Leverkusen in December 2013, with Wolfsburg receiving a nominal compensation fee in return. Brandt was elevated to Sami Hyypia's first team after a sole appearance for Leverkusen's second team, and he enjoyed regular cameos from the bench. His second first-team appearance came in the Champions League.
"I think Sami Hyypia had no hesitations," former Leverkusen assistant manager Jan-Moritz Lichte said. "But Sami knew that Julian was a very young player and had to develop, so it was Sami's idea to develop Julian step by step and help him to learn important things every day.
"If you look back, it seems that this was a very good way for Julian to improve to the level he is now able to play."
Brandt had no trouble adapting to a dressing room full of established players, some nearly twice his age.
"We had very good experienced players like [Simon] Rolfes, [Stefan] Kießling, [Lars] Bender and [Stefan] Reinartz," Lichte said. "They helped the young players to find their role in the team."
"Julian and I laughed a lot in the locker room," former Bayer Leverkusen teammate Sebastian Boenisch recalled to ESPN FC. "He's very open and makes a lot of jokes. It's not normal when you are as young as Julian that you are so self-confident like him in his age.
"I met a lot of players that weren't the same age like Julian, but they were not speaking, they were just sitting and being quiet. Julian is open for everything. He's communicative."
Boenisch, a defender who now plays for TSV 1860 Munich in the 2. Bundesliga, was often faced with the thankless task of dealing with the tricky Brandt in training sessions. However, Boenisch found an effective, experienced approach to combating his trickery.
"When he started training with the first team, you saw that there was not a lot of difference between the players in the first team," Boenisch said. "It took not a long time for him to be on the same level of the other players.
"He was not afraid of anybody. He took these one-on-one situations and solved them. You could see at the beginning that he's a great player and he would have a big career.
"Sometimes it was not easy against Julian. He's very fast, skillful and has a good pass, cross and shot. I had to give my best to stop Julian sometimes! Sometimes I stopped him with the ball, sometimes without if it was not possible the other way! I said to myself: 'OK, Julian or the ball, but not both.' I took Julian!"
Brandt has made more than 125 appearances for Leverkusen, earning five caps for Germany in the process.
"He just wants to play football," Kunert said. "Just take a look at his stats. He has been playing in the Bundesliga since early 2014. Back then, he could play at an U19 team for two more years -- you must not forget that. It is unbelievable how experienced he is in his young age."
Brandt remains a prime target for Liverpool ahead of the summer, with Klopp a huge fan of his. But the Merseyside outfit face stiff competition for his services.
Bayern Munich had an offer on the table just a few seasons into Brandt's Leverkusen career, but he opted to stay put. It appears that the Bundesliga champions' interest has not waned in the passing years.
Those close to Brandt explain what a level-headed boy he is, insisting that any potential transfer will be well-calculated, with career progression at the forefront of his thinking. Sources have told ESPN FC that the amount of playing time will be a significant factor in any potential transfer for Brandt this summer. He is not interested in being a squad player.
"Julian is very clear in his head," Boenisch said. "Sometimes players earn a lot of money, they buy expensive cars, watches, but Julian was not that kind of player when I met him.
"He really had both feet on the ground. I also know Julian's parents, and they also put him on the ground all the time. It's perfect the way Julian and his parents are working together.
"Julian is very young. He's thinking about it [moving in the summer]. He should deal with this. This is the normal way when you show good games and good performances. I think all good clubs in Europe think about Julian, for sure. Julian is one the biggest talents in Germany, and you are stupid if you're not thinking about Julian."
Glenn is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter: @GlennPrice94.