“Just full throttle forward”: How 1. FC Köln drove over the Bundesliga

Not only on the Rhine do you rub your eyes: what happened to FC? Cologne has not been more successful and consistent than this season in three decades. For older fans, the unconditional offensive is like balsam. For the younger ones, it’s a promise.

By February, it was clear to Cologne’s football fans that something would be possible, as it had not been for a long, long time. The daughter of Steffen Baumgart, FC coach, posted a video on Instagram from the corona isolation: The recording showed her father shouting the opponent down in front of the TV and shouting his own players forward. The massive dog got up several times and probably tried to calm his furious master with all his paws. Proven in vain.

Even without their head coach, Cologne won 1-0 on the sidelines over SC Freiburg, a surprising candidate for the Champions League. And how: 19-year-old Jan Thielmann had passed the ball past new international Nico Schlotterbeck with his heel on the center line, ran from him, laid it across the penalty area to Anthony Modeste, who of course took the ball straight and circled it into the corner. It was a surgically effective counter. After this 21st match day, FC was only two points behind a place in the Champions League, just one point less than in the entire previous season.

What had happened to the club that had taken fire safety coach Friedhelm Funkel out of football pension the year before and kept the class with oh and nosh over the relegation? How could an almost identical squad suddenly be within striking distance of the football standards’ gold standard?

After the undeserved 0-1 defeat against Wolfsburg on the 33rd day of play – only a few times since the start of the investigation in the Bundesliga has a team had so many goals without goals – the Cologne team said goodbye to a possible participation in the Champions League. But the Conference League final is already certain, the Europa League is still possible if Union Berlin does not win against Bochum. The advantage of the Europa League would be to be able to start directly in the group, which means more games and more revenue. But, as can be heard from many corners of the fan base, it does not really matter; Europe is Europe.

FC has had a fantastic season. This can be put into simple data, because the club from Cologne’s green belt has set several records in recent times. The most important thing is that the club has scored the most points in 30 years. Yes, it is no mistake and no exaggeration. thirty years. At that time, FC number four ended; Jörg Berger was the coach, Bodo Illgner scored with the world champion, Pierre Littbarski bent his legs around the ball and Frank “Otze” Ordenewitz put him in goal. But then it went downhill, in 1998 the former regular guest at the European competitions took the elevator between the 1st and 2nd Bundesliga.

The beginning of the now concluding season was one like many before. There were doubts, but a faint hope that we could at least have a relatively quiet year in the Bundesliga. But all too often, new coaches, sporting directors or others were pulled up in Geißbockheim and boasted that everything would get better now that they would bring the club back to its old glory, of course with exciting football in the medium term. No one has managed it during a first division season. Baumgart does. For an entire season where the team delivers almost consistently, can pull through their own style almost independently of the opponent, even dominating against top teams like Dortmund or Leipzig on good days with pressure and constant pressure – this has not been seen in Müngersdorf for a long time. There is no restraint, there is only one direction, forward.

When Baumgart started in FC, he still had something to show for himself: He also distracted himself. “There is no quiet season in Cologne,” he said humbly, whether he was successful or not. It is simply a matter of acting as a unit with everyone in the club and “making the people of the city proud”. The longer the season lasted, the more often it became clear, in addition to the team’s new confidence, that the knowledge of human nature, the Rostocker had cast his anchor on the Rhine.

Baumgart recently gave an interview in which he responded in the way one can only do that when engaging with people. “In this city, the club is the biggest focal point,” he said. “We can talk about carnival, about the cathedral, but the biggest thing in this city is this club. And it also unites the city.” This is not the case everywhere, in fact all Cologne fans are here, even the dogs are named after the players. “And now people have the chance to see the club where they always wanted it to be.” No one talks like that, driving up to the training ground like some of his predecessors and then disappearing back to the chic Hahnwald or hotel.

What Baumgart released before the start of the season was an optimistic goal: not relegation is a good thing, but it should at least be offensive football and 12th place for Cologne. For this he was smiled a little more, perhaps even pitying with foresight. But above all, the man was treated with direct words with reservations and eyes. Had he not already tried it in Paderborn, so one of the objections, but had he disappeared directly back into the 2. Bundesliga with the flag waving? And, according to the other, how is he going to cope with the squad? In front, a decrepit Modeste and a semi-handicapped Andersson, who will score the goals?

In the last few decades, there have been plenty of examples of how big promises and plans have led to. One story in particular has often been told, but it is a sign of the mistakes of the past. When Michael Meier returned to Cologne as manager from Dortmund in 2005, he missed the “elite arrogance” of the past at Geißbockheim when the smell of previous titles reached the players’ locker rooms. Like in the late 1980s, when he won the 2nd championship with the upcoming Christoph Daum. Meier wanted to revive those times with expensive players, but was fired in 2010 due to lack of success. Volker Finke, the Freiburg icon, inherited a mountain of debt and was unable to assert himself with his long-term ideas for team development. And the elevator always called to the second division.

Then came relatively quiet years, when FC under sports director Jörg Schmadtke and coach Peter Stöger presented themselves stably in the 1. Bundesliga and emotionally qualified for the Europa League in 2016/17. The city dreamed of a more successful future given the team’s constant positive development. But at the time, a solid defense behind, Anthony Modeste helped in the best form of his career ahead and weakening competitors at the right time. Striker Modeste went to China ahead of the following season, Jonas Hector was injured early in the season and many more followed. Evil took its course, Stöger and Schmadtke were dismissed, Cologne was relegated and everything started all over again.

Baumgart had signed for both leagues last season, where FC could easily have been relegated. After the relegation, sports director Horst Heldt was fired – who reportedly initially wanted to sign a contract with Thorsten Fink, but was rejected internally – and Jörg Jakobs stepped in again, the squad planner, who is said to have played a crucial role in it. previous registration for the Europa Cup. Some say that the then sports director, Jörg Schmadtke, also failed because Jakobs did not have the backing in Cologne.

The closest relegation squad from 2021 held together this season, but on Heldt’s previous occasion, three key players were added for free: Mark Uth, a man behind the top with a view and a stable smell, the swirling Dejan Ljubicic, who at times reminds of e.g. Thomas Müller and he himself developed into an offensive universal weapon. Last but not least, Marvin Schwäbe was also signed on goal. Baumgart was confident from the start and never talked about a first team, but about the importance of each one. Significantly, he respected FC home-made Timo Horn’s merits in goal and made Schwäbe number 1 at the right moment. He played a big role in the excellent second half of the season – due to Cologne’s offensive style of play, opponents regularly appear in 1-on-1 in front of his goal. Schwäbe often remains the winner, thus saving points.

The emphasis on the importance of the whole squad is not just phrases that give Baumgart respect from fans and teams. The players regularly pay it back with decisive actions, most recently in the spectacular home win against Mainz, where three goals followed by a 2-0 deficit after a triple substitution. Also exemplary: The Transformation of Benno Schmitz. The right-back was for a long time hardly considered suitable for the Bundesliga, could be bought from too often and was only used due to lack of alternatives. Now he is called “Cafú” in FC circles because of his running and crossing. Speaking of which, it’s hard to believe, but: In the top five European leagues, no team has scored more crosses per game this season than Cologne. They top the rankings ahead of Manchester City, FC Barcelona and Inter Milan.

Taking the current season as a benchmark, there has obviously been a learning process in the management and in the club’s surroundings. Baumgart was offered the job following a selection process. The new combination of CEO Philipp Türoff and Sports Director Christian Keller was installed with great care and in advance. After taking office in 2019, President Werner Wolf – a former CEO of the business community – initially attracted attention with at least clumsy decisions. For example, in the bag of a new media director who was sawn off again before he started, or in the early contract extension of coach Markus Gisdol after a series of defeats. Everything seemed to be the same as always in Geißbockheim: short periods of rest were followed by an allegedly cleansing chaos. But stability almost never.

Baumgart fills a gap

But in light of the best season in decades, a similarly weak subsequent season as 2017/18 is hard to imagine. When Baumgart before the season finale in Stuttgart was asked about his route to the Europa League match, he replied: “Just full throttle ahead, that’s the important thing.” Words that really everyone understands. Of course, there is a lot more work behind it, but it does not take place on the microphone.

Those over 40 still remember the times when Cologne played for international places as a matter of course. For them, qualifying for Europe is also a balm for childhood and adolescence. The younger ones long to experience this for themselves: Baumgart “fills a gap that has existed for a long time here in the club and in professional football in general, makes gloomy statements,” says Stephan Schell, spokesman for Ultra’s “Wild Horde”. “It’s nice to have someone who can do it with simple means.” In addition to the countable success and energy on the pitch, this down-to-earth, simple speech by the coach has reconciled Cologne fans with their club. And lets them dream of a more sunny future. If they show a spectator the final table, they will almost ironically be able to say this summer: “We missed the Champions League.”

But there is apparently some realism in Cologne despite the success. “The Conference League is going to be so amazing,” was the headline in “Express,” the city’s largest tabloid, which is not known for its reserved headlines. And when journalists asked Baumgart how Kölner Bank in Stuttgart would relate to the chance of the Europa League and the intermediate results from the other stadiums, they were once again explained the Cologne game principle, which worked extremely well. “They can not interest us,” the coach said demonstratively annoyed: “Because we have to play forward.” That’s how easy it is now in FC.

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