Peter Stöger leaves with his head held high at crucial juncture for Cologne | Andy Brassell - America News

Peter Stöger leaves with his head held high at crucial juncture for Cologne | Andy Brassell

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In a way it ended just as it was supposed to, with honour. As Peter Stöger took his final bow in front of the Köln fans who had travelled to Schalke on Saturday, doffing his cap, he was given the warm send-off his work over the last four-and-a-half years has deserved. Teenage defender Tim Handwerker wasn’t the only player wiping tears from his eyes as they said goodbye to the coach.

When the team coach arrived back at Rhein-Energie Stadion on Saturday evening, a throng of fans applauded Stöger off as he emerged. Quite rightly. Only the legendary Hennes Weisweiler – who gave his name to the club’s famous billy goat mascot – had been at the helm longer. When Stöger’s immediate replacement Stefan Ruthenbeck, who steps up from the under-19s until the winter break at least, said: “I’m not trying to fill his shoes” after Sunday’s training session, he was not overstating. “They are too big to fill, anyway,” Ruthenbeck concluded.

As Ruthenbeck starts the new week, there will be two training sessions on Monday as he attempts to galvanise the squad with a bit of tough love. For while Stöger’s last hurrah on the Effzeh bench was a worthy one – as they gutsily twice came back from a deficit to prise a point from Gelsenkirchen – and his name deserves to be cherished in the context of the club’s history, the new coach has a steep climb to negotiate.

Even after Saturday’s game against an in-form side, Köln sit bottom with no wins and only three points. No team in Bundesliga history has stayed up with such a low tally at the same stage. Seyrou Guirassy’s brace at Schalke is responsible for a third of their league goals, and statistically they have the worst defence (conceding 27) as well as the weakest attack. Given that Stöger’s team had the sixth-best defence last season, with 42 scored against them, their form at the back is perhaps even more concerning than their lack of punch up top. At least there’s an easy explanation for the latter with Anthony Modeste, scorer of almost exactly half their Bundesliga goals last season and of 40 league goals in two campaigns, having left for Tianjin Quanjian.

If this season had been about regression to the mean, that would be fair enough. The delirium of the club’s return after 25 years, wildly celebrated in this most optimistic of footballing cities, long kept scrutiny of the team’s domestic form on the back burner. Too much so, perhaps, as things have spiralled out of control. It’s great to see a team embrace the Europa League rather than moan about it, but when even at crisis point on Saturday, local attentions quickly switched to Thursday’s ‘decisive’ tie in Belgrade against Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade), you couldn’t help but ask if more attention to the home front might not be in order.

That is surely inevitable now, but it could be too late. This is a passionately followed club but a volatile one, where wobbles can quickly be followed by a descent into chaos. Sunday’s press conference to announce Stöger going was a nod to this, with president Werner Spinner and managing director Alexander Wehrle on one hand laudably frank and on the other perhaps too open about the doubt that has existed.

Sporting director Jörg Schmadtke went on 24 October, and Köln have appeared to drift ever since. Wehrle admitted they told Stöger they were looking at alternative candidates in early November, after the loss to Hoffenheim. In the days following another home defeat to Hertha, they let him know they were moving on – three weeks after initially marking his card.

The city’s newspaper Express, which broke the news of Stöger’s exit on Saturday night, also reported ex-Hamburg man Dietmar Beiersdorfer as the new frontrunner to replace Schmadtke after he was spotted in town. “Maybe he was here for the Christmas market?” Spinner suggested glibly.

Cologne’s Sehrou Guirassy scores during the draw.

This appointment is more than window dressing. In fact, the appointment of the right sporting director is arguably even more important than the next coach. Horst Heldt, Hannover’s Köln-born sporting director, had been expected to take over but his release couldn’t be negotiated. The new man, whether Beiersdorfer or someone else, is going to have play a blinder in this transfer window to give Stöger’s successor at least a fighting chance of staying up, because the current squad simply don’t look capable.

To (at least nominally) replace Modeste, Jhon Córdoba was brought in from Mainz. The Colombian has plenty of merit, but never stood a chance of matching the Frenchman’s goal output. The widespread perception was that the club had wasted €15m on a forward who had never scored more than five in a league season. Money was spent for the future, bringing in Jorge Meré and Jannes Horn, but the present looks bleak with so much confidence drained. In that sense, maybe European qualification could be a fillip rather than mere placebo.

The coaching search will not be straightforward either, with the club’s preferred candidate Markus Anfang (another Köln native) of Bundesliga 2 leaders Holsten Kiel apparently held to an enormous €10m release clause by the club’s president Steffen Schneekloth. Perhaps by default, Ruthenbeck has an opportunity to carve himself a future.

It’s extraordinary to think that, had the timing been slightly different, 51-year-old Austrian Stöger could have been in charge at Dortmund. He belatedly made BVB’s three-man shortlist to replace Thomas Tuchel – a list that has proved a kiss of death, with all three enduring difficult starts to the campaign. The talk in France was that Lucien Favre, Dortmund’s first choice in the summer, was set for the boot had Nice lost at Toulouse on Wednesday (they eventually scored twice in the last 10 minutes to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win). Peter Bosz’s own struggles are well documented, of course.

Stöger could well bounce back in time, and few would argue against that being a good thing. He pulled Köln up from the second tier, stabilised them and took them to the giddy heights of fifth last season, earning himself an impromptu champagne bath from his giddy players in his final post-match press conference of the season. It’s sad that it all fell apart, but those travelling fans at the weekend know exactly what he did, and will continue to remember the good times.

Talking points

• Bosz is still in work, with Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc saying after the 1-1 draw at Leverkusen that “we want to achieve a turnaround with Bosz,” but they really played with fire. The coach might owe Wendell a bottle of something bubbly after the defender’s red card for a dreadful tackle on Gonzalo Castro just before half-time helped stem the Leverkusen flow. Until then, it had been fortune and a magnificent display from the maligned Roman Bürki that kept Heiko Herrlich’s side to a one-goal lead. Andriy Yarmolenko’s equaliser gives Bosz something to work with, though the additions of Maximilian Philipp and Castro to a big injury list are added headaches before the trip to Real Madrid.

• Again, Bayern Munich extended their lead at the top – now six points – without excelling themselves. They had to battle to beat Hannover, but there were two big picture pluses for Jupp Heynckes. Thomas Müller was sublime on his return from six weeks out with a muscle injury, while Franck Ribéry also returned to make his 235th appearance, becoming the club’s leading foreign appearance maker. André Breitenreiter’s side could consider themselves a touch unlucky, denied an equaliser at 1-0 when Nicklas Fullkrug was harshly made to take a penalty again after scoring, before missing the retake.

Arturo Vidal celebrates after opening the scoring against Hannover.

• Bayern have Hoffenheim to thank for their cushion, with Julian Nagelsmann’s side excellent in dismantling Leipzig 4-0. They also did FC Hollywood a turn in beginning to get the best out of loanee Serge Gnabry after an injury-affected start to the season – the former Werder man scored twice, including a sublime chip from some 45 yards with Peter Gulacsi not even that far off his line.

• It was after the Lord Mayor’s Show for Mönchengladbach at Wolfsburg, where Dieter Hecking’s side fell to his old side and became the latest victims of the Bayern curse – the last nine sides to have beaten the behemoth in the Bundesliga have gone on to lose their following match. All credit to Martin Schmidt’s team, however, who were excellent and have now lost just one of 10 games under a coach not greeted by universal approval.

• Kevin-Prince Boateng’s beautifully struck late winner at former club Hertha helped his present one, Eintracht Frankfurt, establish the best away record. Three cheers too for Augsburg, whose win at Mainz – incorporating two fine finishes from Alfred Finnbogason – put them level on points with sixth-placed Dortmund. There was also more fuel to the campaign for Philipp Max to get a Germany call-up, after his seventh assist of the season from left-back.

• It’s now two home wins in two for Werder Bremen’s interim coach Florian Kohfeldt, with Max Kruse hitting a stylish winner to beat Stuttgart after quick thinking by Fin Bartels, who played him in from a free-kick. The points were even more vital after fellow strugglers Freiburg and Hamburg cancelled each other out in a tense goalless draw.

Results: Hertha Berlin 1-2 Eintracht Frankfurt, Wolfsburg 3-0 Mönchengladbach, Mainz 1-3 Augsburg, Leverkusen 1-1 Dortmund, Bayern 3-1 Hanover, Schalke 2-2 Cologne, Hoffenheim 4-0 Leipzig, Werder Bremen 1-0 Stuttgart, Freiburg 0-0 Hamburg.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Bayern Munich 14 23 32
2 RB Leipzig 14 3 26
3 Schalke 04 14 6 25
4 Borussia M'gladbach 14 -2 24
5 TSG Hoffenheim 14 7 23
6 Borussia Dortmund 14 13 22
7 Augsburg 14 5 22
8 Eintracht Frankfurt 14 2 22
9 Bayer Leverkusen 14 8 21
10 Hannover 96 14 -2 19
11 Wolfsburg 14 1 17
12 Hertha Berlin 14 -2 17
13 VfB Stuttgart 14 -4 17
14 Mainz 14 -7 15
15 Hamburg 14 -7 14
16 SC Freiburg 14 -16 12
17 Werder Bremen 14 -7 11
18 Cologne 14 -21 3

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