Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Carnival Cologne in search of a game face

Borussia Dortmund celebrated their first Bundesliga title since 2002 last Saturday. The reason why they claimed the championship so soon was partly because their nearest rivals Leverkusen lost to their local rivals 1. FC Köln on the same day, thereby losing their footing in the title race. Meanwhile, Köln’s 2-0 victory was the latest twist in a tumultuous season, even by their own chaotic standards.

According to the inestimable Uli Hesse, it wasn’t that long ago when Cologne was a Borussia Dortmund city. Despite the city’s own club winning the inaugural Bundesliga title in 1963. FC Köln’s territory was marked by the big bear that is BVB - one of Germany’s best supported clubs which is a couple of hours' train ride up the road.

However, the club has done a magnificent job in building a new fan base. The RheinEnergieStadion regularly sells out at 50,000 spectators and most Köln fans have developed a reputation for good humour and self-deprecation. At times, the supporters have needed that well-developed funny bone given the team's inconsistency on the pitch.

In recent years, though, they have tried to shake off the tag of being something of a yo-yo club.

Fans of English clubs couldn’t be blamed for marvelling at the idea of a club with such high attendances that couldn't be anything other than a stick-on top flight outfit, but the economics of the Bundesliga are different to the Premier League. Affordable ticket prices and conservative spending has shaped a culture where clubs like Köln are considered quite small, relatively speaking.

Moreover, the City of Cologne is a party city and 1. FC Köln is labelled a carnival club and its supporters have a profile to match. However, in recent times there have been signs that the consensus is breaking. This season there has been some decidedly random behaviour within the club leading to two coaching changes within the space of the season and death threats aimed at the latest coach by people claiming to support the club.

The season began on a note of cautious optimism. Coach Zvonimir Soldo, a former Croatian international and Stuttgart legend was looking forward to his second full season in charge. The team, under his charge, had had a difficult season and they were far from the easiest on the eye but there was no reason to think that Köln would not enjoy a comfortable third season back in the First Bundesliga. Unfortunately, by November, the team had mustered only two league wins and both Zoldo and his boss, Sporting Director Michael Meier, had left the club. Frank Schaefer was bumped up from the Under-23s and club President Wolfgang Overath went in search of a new man to oversee the revival of the club.

That man was 63-year-old Volker Finke, something of a legend with the Black Forest club Freiburg. He was manager there for 1 years and when the call came from Köln he was working as Sporting Director for the Japanese club Urawa Red Diamonds in the J-League. Finke promptly handed his in his notice and by February his feet were under his new desk at the RheinEnergieStadion.

Meanwhile, Schaefer started to work his mojo on the team. The new boss was popular with the players and Schaefer encouraged his team to be more aggressive going forward, giving his players the confidence to score more goals. After the winter break, results picked up pretty quickly and The Billygoats went on a seven-game hot streak in which they only lost one. This run included a rip-roaring 3-2 win against Bayern Munich.

Some players who were key to Köln’s revival were:

New goalkeeper Michael Rensing (left), who was released by Bayern Munich for, in their eyes at least, failing to fill Oliver Kahn’s mighty gloves and being out of contract. Köln signed him last December and he's put in some match-saving displays

Centre Forward, Milivoje Novakovič (right) - slow, clumsy, disinterested and generally rubbish under Soldo but with Schaefer he was fast of mind and body. Most of his 14 goals this season have come under Schaefer’s watch

19-year-old Christian Clemens (left) who has broken into the first team this season and will almost certainly be attracting the interest of some bigger clubs in Europe very shortly.

Then of course there is Prince Poldy himself, Lukas Podolski (right). The Prince returned to Köln at the beginning of last season after an unhappy period at Bayern Munich. He is a player who confounds his many admirers and like Miroslav Klose, the suspicion is that he is a German player first and a club player second. However, during Köln’s run he was superb. His main weakness, in my opinion, is that his play is too reliant on the team system and he seems unwilling or unable to adapt when circumstances change on the pitch. Consequently, when Schaefer organised the team better, Poldy responded.

Köln were winning. They seemed to have a management team that worked and their fans could look forward to closing out another tough campaign and restarting the next one after a full pre-season with a new young coach.

At that point, everything started to go wrong. After a 6-2 thumping at Hamburg, Köln mustered a 1-0 win over Nurnberg before shipping twelve goals in three games. Having risen to a position of relative security, the club were sliding back down the slippery slope. Things got out of hand after a small group of fans issued a crude death threat to Schaefer in the form of a banner at the club’s training ground to that effect. Within days, Schaefer had resigned as coach, citing personal reasons, however it began to emerge that Schaefer was unhappy with what he perceived as interference from his boss, Volke Finke, and that he had quit out of frustration. The relationship between Sporting Director and Coach, despite the prevailing attitude in England, works fine, but once that relationship breaks down there is usually only one outcome.

So Köln are back without a coach until the end of the season. At least that’s the official story. Finke has reluctantly agreed to take control of first team matters for now. However, if it is true that he overstepped his mark with Schaefer, perhaps he intends to epitomise Admiral Kirk in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and take over the centre seat for good. He’s certainly got off to a good start with that win against Leverkusen.

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