Berlin – At 22 years and 320 days old, Niklas Stark is still young for a professional football player. Although he has already made 135 appearances (79 for Hertha BSC), he played for the ‘oldies’ in a Hertha training game. Nevertheless, despite being in his third season at Berlin, the perception remains that the defender has only recently joined the club. “Of course I try to be a role model and lead. I know how difficult it is to always have to prove yourself as a young player in each and every game,” says Stark, who moved from FC Nürnberg to Berlin almost three years ago. The centre-back spoke to herthabsc.de about leadership qualities, the “wall of children” and the game against Schalke 04 (3/3/18).
herthabsc.de: Niklas, how surprised were you when you were selected to play in the ‘oldies’ team in training when you’re not yet even 23 years old?
Niklas Stark: I was a bit irritated (grins). But, first and foremost, it shows that a young and talented player is moving up at Hertha BSC.
herthabsc.de: You’ve stood out with your consistency and reliability at your young age ever since your transfer to the capital in 2015. Have you seasoned and developed into a role model in Berlin?
Stark: Whew, I don’t really want to evaluate my performance. It’s the coach’s job to assess where my strengths and weaknesses lie. I just try to become a better player in every area and the younger players should decide whether or not I’m a role model. Of course I try to be a role model and lead. I know how difficult it is to always have to prove yourself as a young player in each and every game – I’m still in that stage myself. In any case, I have to prove myself again and again. I can only say what distinguishes players who are leaders – they make the right decisions in the important situations, direct and steer their teammates, pool their strengths and use them to their advantage when it matters. Now and then they set an example on the pitch with a slide tackle or so.
herthabsc.de: There has been the odd change to the four at the back this season – sometimes due to injuries, sometimes due to transfers. However, you’ve kept it tight at the back in the second half of the season and have only conceded five goals in seven games so far. What do you put that down to?
Stark: I think we’ve earned a reputation as an unpleasant opponent in recent years. We’ve always managed to keep it tight in this time and not allow other teams any space. And of course it helps as a defender when the whole team puts in the miles when we don’t have the ball. It has to be our goal to keep this up.
herthabsc.de: This season, strong performances like the win in Leverkusen are always followed by poorer performances like in the home game against Mainz. Last time out, you were able to secure a point against Bayern Munich. How do you explain the ups and downs?
Stark: If we knew that, we’d put a stop to it immediately. The game against Mainz has been on my mind and irritating me. We missed a big opportunity there. It’s a bit strange – we do well and manage to keep a strong defensive line whilst still making runs and cutting through up front against the ‘big clubs’ and we often struggle to play our game against the supposedly weaker opponents. We want to get back control for the rest of the season.
herthabsc.de: You defended alongside Jordan Torunarigha again in the goalless draw in Munich. As a centre-back pairing, you’ve already managed to keep three clean sheets. Why does your combination work so well?
Stark: When there’s talk of Jordan and myself, people often speak of a “wall of children” due to our age. We’re determined to show the critics. Up until now, it’s been going well for us. Of course there are always situations we could have dealt with better, but we always want to deliver our best. It worked for us in Munich; not many teams leave there without having conceded.
herthabsc.de: The next challenging match is awaiting you and the team on Saturday (3/3/18) against Schalke 04. How can you beat the team third in the table?
Stark: Maybe it’s a good omen that we’re playing a strong opponent again. At first, it’ll be important to remain strong at the back, just as in Munich. We have to launch our attacks together as a unit and we have to concentrate fully on the game for the entire 90 minutes, nothing else. It’s an overused cliché, but we’re approaching each game as it comes.