Ralf Rangnick's route to the top of the European game has been particularly wayward. Schalke's new manager has risen from such depths of obscurity that when he watches his team take on Manchester United on Tuesday he will surely become the first Champions League semi-final manager whose CV includes a stint coaching in Germany's ninth tier and a spell playing in England's.

His English experience came 31 years ago when, as a 21-year-old, he was studying for a degree in English and physical education at Stuttgart University. As part of the course he spent a year at the University of Sussex in Brighton; soon after his arrival he sought a trial with the local non-League side Southwick.

Gary Brown was a team‑mate and remembers Rangnick as an energetic midfielder. "He came down, had a couple of training sessions, liked it and stayed," he says. "He was a really nice guy and worked extremely hard. When you're training two nights a week, you have to pack so much into those two nights and he really used to give everything he had. You couldn't wish for an easier bloke to work with, as a manager. He was always interested in what you wanted."

Some 154 people watched as Rangnick made his debut against Steyning Town on 13 October 1979. "I think he found it a bit different when he first got here," says Brown. "In Germany they did proper warm-ups prior to kick-off but there was none of that in the UK: five minutes before kick-off the bell went and you lined up behind the captain and went out. I remember before his first game here he turned up a couple of hours before anyone else."

In his third appearance, an FA Vase encounter against Eastbourne Town, Rangnick suffered a serious injury – two broken ribs and a punctured lung – that ruled him out for three months. "There was no intent from my opponent," he said, "but I couldn't play for four months." Rangnick made 11 appearances, all but two of them as a substitute. But he remembers his time in Sussex as "one of the best years of my life" and credits Southwick with aiding his subsequent success.

"The most important thing for me was the amount of coaching we did on the pitch," the German says. "There was hardly a situation where we didn't spur each other on, doing some coaching among ourselves or motivating each other. That was totally inspirational for me and certainly moulded me."

Brown was not surprised by the comments. "We had five ex-pros in the squad, including myself and my cousin Stan, so you're going to get that. And it wasn't all rollickings and bollockings, it was encouragement. We had a good mixture of old experienced professionals and young players and the blend was really good. The team spirit got us through quite a few dodgy games and I think that's what rubbed off on him."