It is a year since I left Cologne after a long weekend spent, in the main, testing kolsch and integrating into the city and culture with my fellow travellers. A city which has never left me since, and for which my psyche harks at me to return at my earliest convenience. In the month’s leading up to that trip, we took the obvious choice of adopting FC Koln and keeping abreast of their present status – unfortunately, our trip was arranged the week following the final game of season 2010/11 and the Billy Goats had safely navigated their way to tenth place aided by the 30-goal haul of Milivoje Novakovic and Lukas Podolski.
A year on, black smoke engulfs the stands and the air of the North Rhine-Westphalia – through the smog “Poldi” attempts a somber farewell to the fans who have never doubted his love and endeavours during his two spells, while we await the white puff which will signal a new dawn.
The Billy Goats are so readily open house for negative press – some of which is brought upon itself – but it seems too easy to stand from afar and take pot shots at the wounded animal. In an attempt to readdress the balance, here is the remnants of the season from the heart of the club – the fans, the loyal inhabitants of the RheinEnergie stadion and the cities brauhaus’.
At times, they admit the responsibility of being a supporter, more akin to a soldier being drafted for war rather than a fruitful experience. Stormy Cologne – storms in the sky, in the stand and within the squad and boardroom. The atmosphere seemed toxic during some games. A number of fans grew restless and rebelled early on – fighting, behaving unlike followers of the club at away games and attacking opposition buses. What were they trying to achieve or furthermore, prove? They preempted the decline and reacted with an unnatural and uncharacteristic showing of hatred – they were not taking the “decline” well – Andy (45) noted the behaviour as outrageous. Köln need a fresh injection of life and spirit – they are forever being publicly dragged through the mud, the tyre tracks leave behind a debris of self-destruction and bad blood sifting through the very core. “Oda” – the fan who was the inspiration behind the story – doesn’t care about returning straight back to the top league if it’s not going to be progressive for the long-term ambition of the club.
Early November & in a break from my domestic blogging duties from the East End of Glasgow – the strong reverberations of departure surrounding the prodigal son of a German city not long visited, captures my immediate attentions. I dissect the players’ past, present & future and focus on the impact in Cologne and further afield, should this talk become a reality. To my amazement, the article is received well in many corners, including in Germany, where natives, fluent in both their own and English tongue, thankfully and graciously took the time to engage and review. Oda, became a regular crux during the season and her friends, now included, give their version of an eventful and eventually, exasperating campaign.
21.11.2011 Currently with sixteen points from a possible thirty-six – Köln are performing admirably if not inspirationally, as Jörn (41) reflects on a team spirit visible then, but totally defunct in 2012. The club is due to play at home to Mainz – when all other games have kicked off in the afternoon, I check the updates and am dumbstruck to find the match was postponed. The referee, Babak Rafatti, was found in his hotel room prior to the match, alive but in a desperate state due to an earlier suicide attempt. Even though it was such a heartbreaking and horrendous event, it seemed almost coincidental that it would happen to this team – Oda noted Rafatti is one of the more constant and favoured referees of the Köln faithful after the dust had settled.
Earlier that week, club legend and former West German international, Wolfgang Overath, bewildered the FC Faithful by standing down as club president along with his two vice-chairs. Not only was the scenario described to me as “haywire” – in the aftermath of the board meeting in which Overath had resigned, he described the “close working relationship” of Volker Finke & head coach Stale Solbakken, and his prediction of “future successes with this partnership.” At the time it didn’t add up, and reading the reflections of the fans, many of whom brandished the Norwegian as “stupid”, & “stubborn”, it seems to add weight to the rumours of internal disruptions which were crippling the infrastructure. Next up, Derby time against Gladbach!
25.11.2011 The fans are in mood for revenge – previous meetings do not bode well, and Köln are looking for retribution for last season’s 4-0 & 5-1 nightmares. But there is a strong sense of confidence and excitement in the Cathedral city air – despite the off-field disruptions, the Billy Goats must be due some good luck on it.
25.11.2011 (A few hours later) “Oh my f***ing goodness!” I received this e-mail halfway through watching a film starring Gina Carrano & Michael Fassbender in which the tagline read “They left her no choice” – much akin to what Oda was doing as she watched on in the stands. The title of the film has already been utilised in this article to describe the club’s season – its hard to disagree. The rest of the week was spent licking wounds – old ones not yet healed, but brutally opened again and doused in acidity as Monchengladbach inflicted their rivals to three of their best with little or no resistance.
She later describes “Micha” the goalkeeper, as again, “the poorest Bugger on the pitch” – I take this as double-edged, as he not only deals with the heavy burden when picking the ball from the net on many occasions, but also of playing behind a desperate defence, light on protection for their number one. The keeper himself comes out publicly, in hope of a reaction, to condemn the side and insist they have “no balls for the fight!” – it seems to have an adverse reaction.
From this period on there is a worrying lack of communication, with a heavy calendar in December before the winter break, it seems the virus working its way through the team has hit Oda. She doesn’t have the fight or reserves to maintain an outlook for outsiders never mind her own. The team itself musters up a recovery of sorts fearing an all out backlash from the fans with two score draws sandwiched between an impressive and out of character four nil resounding win at home to Freiburg – although few & far between, for a side with the history and reputation of FC, victories like these against teams newer to this environment should have been a necessity.
One last tie on the 16th of December & it was a seasonal gift come prematurely for Bayern Munich – who also received the crown of winter champion. Even with an early red card for Franck Ribery reducing Der FCB to ten, FC Köln refused to spoil their hosts finery and left the Allianz virtually untouched, keeping their paws away from the silver and leaving their advisories to sign off with a resounding three nil victory. The game never seemed in doubt & the psychological and physical edge an extra pair of legs gives a side seemed lost on a disjointed Köln side. Their fans left in small numbers, deflated and with no sense of pride left for their team. Things would need to change in the rueckrunde, attitudes especially had to be looked at, and the lacklustre performances had to be addressed.
This was the turning point for the article, if there was no further communication between now and the end of the campaign, this would be nothing more than an outsiders perspective on the season. I sent an e-mail with just under a week until the Bundesliga was underway again asking for the fans expectations for the remaining matches. Thankfully a response was forthcoming – the fans are now excited despite the start of the slump in form recently and hopeful of acquiring a mid-table berth come May. The faithful were also looking to next season, the development and introduction of a youthful set-up would be key to the long-term goals of the club. In May, the outlook although bleaker was of a similar belief – the short-term future of the team would be bedding in younger players with the drive and sheer determination to resurrect FC, also to fill in the positional gaps left through the departures of more senior and experienced players.
The narrow loss away to Wolfsburg barely seemed to register as the rumours surrounding the cities’ most famous son resurfaced again – this time from a far more unlikely source than previous stories had emerged. The frictions which remained between Russia & Poland – with Podolski being of Polish decent himself – seemed to suggest a move to the former USSR and the emerging oil wealth country, was a remote one. Poldi stayed in the news that week but unfortunately, Köln’s wall was now ready to crumble.
Despite opening the scoring for the team at the RheinEnergie stadion, the clubs number ten fought through the pain barrier for the majority of the Schalke match which neither aided the side in the short or long-term. The ’04 eased their way into the game & eventually ran out comfortable winners by four goals to one. The ramifications of this match shook the clubs foundations to breaking point as news of Podolski’s injury reverberated around the city – a month without their talisman beckoned.
Oda tried to remain positive, hopeful that the German internationals absence would be an opportunity for others to stake their claim for a start and for the rest of the team to begin taking more responsibility. Andy was fully aware and worried about the lack of responsible aptitude which was displayed throughout the campaign, with none of the players accepting their tasks – which was borne of a culture throughout the team where no punishments were forthcoming no matter the crime.
Again an away win against a truly desperate Kaiserslautern side did little to convince fans or onlookers of Köln’s resolve or ambition to remain in the top-tier. Oda admitted the three points were an almighty struggle to obtain, but she was still hopeful the team were willing to fight – perhaps the confidence which a win brings would carry some momentum.
18.2.2012 Fingers, toes and whatever else can be crossed, are, in the hope of back to back wins for the first time since late September as the Billy Goats travel to Nurnberg. In the cities’ squares, brahaus’ and beer gardens there is a sense of joviality as the carnival is in full swing. The previous evening, pictures circulated with Poldi and Köln native Michael Schumacher enjoying themselves with what seemed like, no troubles in the world. Under the surface, for many like them the festivities added only as a temporary distraction from what was becoming a fairly tumultuous period. On the bench for the Lautern tie was Jong Tae-Se – a Korean forward from Bochum – ,who was brought in not by the coach, but general manager Finke without even a consultation with the man seemingly in charge of footballing affairs. Georg (41 ) summed up Solbakken as a stubborn man, who acted like a child when he did not get his way – the manner in which this transaction was carried out would do little to suppress this.
In retrospect Oda and the gang were confident going into this match, the two one defeat although not entirely surprising, dampened the carnival atmosphere in the city. A group of the players perhaps also still in a state of bemusement, choose to unwind at a nightclub at the tail end of the weekends celebrations. The trouble which flared at this juncture was one brought on by underlying tensions not just with the players but the fans as well. At any other time this may have blown over harmlessly, the professionals would have acted in a manner which was apposite – the intoxicated supporter eventually seeing sense through a peacekeeping associate. As Andy (45 ) pointed out – the attitude which ran through the side was one of nonchalant disregard for the consequences – this was now becoming an off-field issue as well as a footballing one.
25.2.2012 The outlook of the regular FC fan for matches was now of the negative variety – there was no hope, no rituals or prayers which could turn things round. Positive thoughts & energies can breed positivity – the flip side, well, that doesn’t instill much confidence let’s say. The e-mail is titled – “In my head – defeated again” as Oda prepared to head to the stands for conscription No 12.
26.2.2012 Another defeat – truly devastated is all that is mustered, further review would only bring to the surface any rage or heartbreak which was locked away. The unrelenting ties which bind you to your football club are as strong as the padlocks which adorn the cities’ main bridge over the Rhein. The only three certain truths in life are your mother, father and football team Frank points out, no matter how bad they feel – they will live or die by their side, the red and white will always run through them.
1.3.2012 One of the first notable anxieties facing a fan worried about the drop, is despairingly waiting and hoping on other results going your way. It is already red alert in Köln before the one all draw in Hoffenheim, as Freiburg and Hertha Berlin record wins and with their extra two points, move FC closer to the lower seats. The subject line prior to the match was amended from “defeat” to “win” and despite the results elsewhere, the avoidance of a loss was good for morale within the fans, if not the team itself.
10.3.2012 The energy coming from the latest mail obviously reverberated to the pitch – the excitement hard to contain, perhaps nerves also played a part in the jovial pre-match notes. Back in front of their own fans, Köln faced their faced real six-pointer of the season against fellow relegation candidates, Hertha Berlin. The one nil victory was succeeded with a quite uncharacteristic outpouring of emotion from Solbakken as he ran onto the pitch, arms raised defiantly, congratulating his players and soaking up the adulation of the vehement support.
What followed that evening was a great surprise to the fans, but perhaps not to the manager as the man who brought him to the club, Volker Finke was sacked as sporting director. At the time I wrote an article in the aftermath of the events which dominated Köln’s weekend, noting the removal of Finke as a message from the board that they had nailed the colours truly to the mast for Germany to see, firmly putting their weight behind the Norwegian boss for the foreseeable future. No love was lost between the two since the normally friendly, calm & collected Stale Solbakken, arrived in the summer – he complained to the board about the amount of influence Finke was trying to have on his decisions, and also his eagerness to openly discuss in-house discussions with the all too involved press hounds. Later on I was commended for my piece with Oda adding about the change in attitude and direction that those recent 90 minutes had positively had on the fate of the club.
17.3.2012 One of the toughest trips of the Bundesliga season came with what would have previously been the not so daunting trip to Hannover 96 – Mirko Slomka and his Reds – up until the end of the campaign, recorded the only unbeaten home record in the German top division. FC kept with their coat tails for the first forty-five but ended up on the end of a four one demolition in the second half. Hopefully the players weren’t beginning to wave the white flag. Next up though, BVB, who were playing like an unstoppable bullet train, only stopping momentarily to discard the remnants of their most recent victim’s – and the next approaching stadium was the RheinEnergie Stadion. Hope you’re sitting comfortably…..
26.3.2012 Oda is living in a nightmare, which is being played out horribly by a cast of amateur actors – the last act was a train wreck, Dortmund weren’t in any mood to stay behind and clear up. They had done irreparable damage. She was lost, and still is, lost for words – a royal horror show, where we know who ends up with the crown and who is living off precious little scraps. Again, frustratingly, Köln make a more than decent showing for the first half – holding the league leaders a goal apiece going into the break. Now is the time for manager’s to make their impact – the half-time team-talk – forcing their displeasures, rules, admiration, crockery, and whatever else on their troops who are soaking up the instructions, gearing up and focusing on the 2nd part of the battle. The rearguard held out for not very long at all, as holes behind the defence were probed and prodded with little resistance as five Borrusia attacks were comfortably converted to leave the home fans dumbfounded and dejected.
In the last six home matchdays, the Billy Goats had went into the break either in an advantageous position or held the other side and only taken four points from a possible eighteen – nowhere near good enough for a side looking to maintain their Bundesliga status. As Andy described the season as a rollercoaster – the unpredictability and ups and downs the fans were even experiencing during matches themselves must have left them feeling like they were going through an emotional wringer.
Things on the home front in Paradise were not making my German friend feel much better – she wishes she had my worries, which were at the time coming to terms with a domestic treble dream ending in a League Cup final defeat to Kilmarnock, and losing out on the chance to clinch the league title on your greatest rivals backyard – not the greatest week in my own 2011-12 diary, but certainly not as desperate as facing possible impending demotion. Next Saturday she now bills as the most important of the whole season – to watch or stay below cover?
31.3.2012 FC Augsburg were not mathematically safe, but they had put themselves on a good footing with a series of impressive outings since their promotion last season. Would the pressure of a surely fired-up and desperate Köln eleven, be a bridge too far for the new recruits of the Bundesliga? Unfortunately for our FC faithful, Augsburg again performed admirably and without fear, winning two one and sending Koln to a third straight defeat. Our group of fans sit in disbelief – as they nurse their Kölsch’s – the thick air of despondency is broken with a rallying call, – “A New Game means New Luck!” – hopefully they were not running on empty.
07.4.2012 The fighting spirit which had been evident in the earlier part of the season, showed some resurgence at home to Werder Bremen. This was one of the things Jörn was proud of then, and a break from the listlessness he had endured in the rueckrunde was a nice change in this one all draw. The business end of the season is not referred to as such for no reason, the players need to roll their sleeves up and buckle down to ensure every blade of grass is disturbed and the paying public are assured the determination they put in is reciprocated.
10.4.2012 Pathetic. Lost for words. Sick. Disgusted. Disarray. Lack of discipline. Do these players want to stay here? Playing the big matches, paid handsomely, and enjoy life? Mainz – the carnival club – make a mockery of their visitors racing into a three goal lead before taking it easy in the second period and inflicting only one more dagger to the heart of this side – then again, perhaps that organ was not beating through the team? The fans have had their share and want out, but there is no early escape clause – we can’t fast forward to the summer and find out the result. As I said to Oda, whatever performances are produced, in these final stages of the season the next four games are vital – and the fans have to stay strong.
15.4.2012 The illness is spreading, we are in a critical state and Borussia Monchengladbach turn up to play, Marco Reus dazzling the tired and weary FC players with some succulent skills. Solbakken is gone – too little, too late? A new coach is brought in, but he is an old head and had been in charge before. I feel like saying that perhaps this decision should have already been taken, or left till the end of May – but what use is this, like teaching a fish how to swim.
21.4.2012 The new man in charge issues a defiant and strong call to arms – the club, the fans and the players need to stick together – a siege mentality has to be implemented. Oda admits her responsibility and heads to her seat for the penultimate home fixture of a tumultuous season. She would rather stay in bed, hear and see nothing. My fingers are crossed – Regards from – in every respect – stormy Cologne….
22.4.12 Home to Stuttgart – the team, the fans fought back positively. Gave place a lift and looked as though performance could kick-start a revival scene – the point was well deserved and the energies from the stands and players were relentless from the first whistle – the excitement is building for the trip to Freiburg with Köln sitting out of the bottom two but in the play-off position. A draw, I feel would be good as SC have a good record in front of their own fans – with Gladbach playing Augsburg, it is not impossible that FC could drag themselves out from the desperate situation they have played themselves into.
28.4.2012 The final whistle has just gone – all I get in my inbox : I AM FED UP! (There were more exclamations than that but it looked untidy.) It was a tough one to take, Podolski dragged his team back into the match in the second half but again, the defence was unable to absorb any penetration and they capitulated again. A win next week and FC avoid immediate relegation and have the saving grace of two matches against the third placed side from Bundesliga.2 who will be foaming at the mouth for the wins. As the carrot dangles for them, Köln have their own next week, at home to the runners-up in the league – FC Bayern Munich. They are due to star in the Champions League final and DFB Pokal showpiece finale after this last league game and have already been resting.some star players. These preparations stand Köln in good stead, but already on numerous occasions this season – the team have been guilty of shooting themselves in the foot.
05.5.2012 Not since matchday three, have Köln been occupying either of the automatic relegation spots – even now, in the thirty-fourth and final week, they are still in sixteenth position and two points ahead of Hertha. It’s them or FC, Kaiserslautern are long gone and awaiting their companion to ease the journey into the tough world of 2.Bundesliga. Wishing the day away, Oda has been contemplating life out of the top-tier all through the night – the many connotations and permutations causing her brain to not even allow the contemplation of sleep. The weather is in the home teams favour, Rain – which will make for an unpredictable surface and hopefully curtail the more gifted Bayern players and assist in evening out the playing field. But could the extra weight drown the already weary souls in white & red who have not at all points looked worthy of wearing the prestigious jersey?
A week later 11.5.2012 “……deeply upset. Devastated.”
As the fans dejectedly sift through the rubble, looking for any hope or salvation, they can be satisfied that they will still be in the stands however long it takes to return to the Bundesliga. Although a banner unveiled at the Bayern Munich game read – “Bye Poldi! We would leave too – if only we could!” – Oda, Jorn, Andy, Georg, Henrik, Frank and the thousands of other fans will all return next season and beyond, and travel to cities that previously they may never have heard of or knew existed. The reconstruction of Koln from board room level all the way through to the pitch, was already underway by the time I had begun this commentary, but hopefully the recovery is tread on a less treacherous path for all involved.