AS TIRED tiki-taka falls to Teutonic efficiency and mighty Germany sweep stuttering Spain aside and march towards Champions League glory (and to mark my own commitment to recycling) here’s another chance to see a previous epidode of retrospective navel-gazing from last summer…. on Boro, “the German” and what might have been.
As previously discussed I am a keen admirer of the German game – indeed, a founder member of the feared tongue in cheek ultra group the “Teesside Krauts” – so must declare an interest. Last time I mentioned that I was denounced as Middlesbrough’s Lord Haw Haw and told to go back to Berlin. LOL, as I believe the young people say.
So I don’t do that “two world wars and one world cup” or “ten German bombers” thing. I grew up in Germany and used to go and watch the mighty DSC Arminia Bielefeld. They like us. They don’t reciprocate that “bitter international rivalry” we have with them. They save that for the Dutch. And hey, stereotype fans, they have a good sense of humour!
There are a lot of similarities between the two nations and two games (something the English do not like to admit ) except in German they can also boast safe-standing, a vibrant terrace culture, strong governance and fan ownership. It may hurt to admit it but for us at least, there is much to learn. Read on…
SIX years ago, in the wake of Steve McClaren’s timely exit, Boro found themselves locked in a bitter war of words with the League Managers’ Association over the appointment of badgeless boss Gareth Southgate.
Gareth is now a respected TV pundit dissecting the tactical machinations of teams in international and Champions League games and has enjoyed a spell as FA supremo of all FA youth development programmes so must be considered to have passed his exams – although his on the job training at Boro wasn’t entirely successful.
Many will still point to his troubled tenure as the starting point of long sickening slide backwards for Boro that has taken the club from the glories of Eindhoven to treading water in the Championship.
But the time to knock Southgate is long gone.
I only raise his stewardship because apart from Southgate – and Martin O’Neill who couldn’t agree terms and conditions or a transfer kitty with Boro and was keen to persue his ambitions at a big club – one of the other candidates for the job was “the German.”
Teesside was buzzing as news spread that a top German coach with an incredible CV but had put in a written application for the Riverside hot-seat citing his desire for the challenge of managing in England.
The German, who it was whispered had won the Champions League, was setting out a battleplan to transform Boro – then on the back of a recent trophy win and successive years in the UEFA Cup – into a major European power. How exciting was that? It was like an episode of Dream team. But it was TRUE.
The name was never publicly revealed back then. It was widely rumoured at the time to be Ottmar Hitzfeld who had won the European Cup with both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern and no-one in the club would deny this. Or confirm it. They just obliquely referred to “the German.”
Boro big wigs later told us in passing that “the German” was in fact Felix Magath, an experienced and successful coach with an unimpeachable record. He was a Bundesliga winner with Bayern Munich who had run out of steam in Bavaria and was under pressure from above and from the fans – and the players were said to be not to keen on his old school discipline and emphasis on athelticism either. He was actively looking for a new club and a new challenge.
And we was seriously considering Boro. He had plans. Ambitions. He wanted to test himself in the Premiere League. He thought he would be a good match. It never came off and instead he went to Wolfsburg – one of German’s middling clubs outside the Magic Circle – and guided them first into the Champions League then later to the title.
For a second a radical departure was possible – but Steve Gibson promptly back-heeled the move and chipped the CV into the wastepaper bin. He said he didn’t want to turn the club into “Middlesbrough am Rhine” with an army of German speaking Teutonic coaches and nutritionists and scouts invading Hurworth and reshaping Boro along continental lines just as the Academy was starting to hit top gear.
“I looked at a German coach,” said Gibson. “He wanted to bring in a German fitness coach, German masseur, German players. We were going to become Middlesbrough-on-Rhine. It didn’t feel right. We had all these kids coming through from our academy. An outside manager might not recognise that, but Gareth knew.
“He is a good man, with integrity and fantastic football experience. He will make mistakes as he’s inexperienced, but he has the intellect to learn from those mistakes. That is why we went for Gareth over more experienced people.”‘
You can see the chairman’s point: a individual club culture is a fragile construct full of nuance and wholesale importation of an alien approach has rarely worked. At Chelsea under Mourinho maybe. And at Liverpool under Benitez maybe. Both both were backed with vast wads of cash. Boro were just entering a period of belt-tightening and it was unlikely that an experiment would be backed with the resources those two clubs could muster when it came to recruiting the players the new boss wanted.
But watching Germany’s steady revival on the international stage to Under 21 titles, and in the last World Cup and Euros with a young team playing precise penetrating football to an atheltic and attacking template, and watching their club sides slowly inch towards ascendency in the Champions League again you can’t help wonder ‘what if?
Germany failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the Euros in 2000 and immediately the national federation launched a nuts and bolts radical review of the entire structure from club academies up and instituted far reaching changes in youth development (similar skill-centred moves were afoot in Spain at the same time) which were taken seriously, backed by a determined FA and taken up right across the Bundesliga.
German football has been on the up since then with a fresh crop of hot-housed talent sweeping England aside first in the Under-21 European Championships and then the senior squad at the 2010 World Cup. Now German club sides look set to usurp Spanish and English clubs in European club competition. Watch out.
“The German” would have arrived at Hurworth with that cultural revolution in full swing and fully aware of the burgeoning talent in his home country.
If you squint a bit you can just see a scenario where a re-engineered Boro may have signed the likes of Schweinsteiger, Ozil and Podolski. Kroos or Gotze. Or if not them, starlets of similar ability, attitude and athleticism.
Sigh. Where could we have been if we had taken a different route away from the debris of Eindhoven? That’s the kind of thing I muse about while watching the Euros and Champions League on the gogglebox..
The English – or at least the patriotically blinded and proudly parochial one – may hate to consider this, but we have a lot to learn from Germany, and not just on the pitch.
German football has community and fan-based ownership models and strictly regulated governance models at clubs that ensures a Portsmouth or a Blackburn couldn’t happen.
Yes, they have their big clubs and the “50+1 ownership model” is not perfect – dominant Bayern are a Manchester United juggernaut financially and culturally and are similarly widely hated among ‘real’ German supporters nationwide – but the football economy is not completely distorted. It is a competitive league that has produced a string of different winners in a spell when the Premiership has become a closed cartel that has priced out ambitious challengers.
And it has a vibrant fan culture with engaged groups involved in club affairs, with massive safe standing terraces in well designed and engineered fan friendly new stadiums that help create a real atmosphere. As opposed to an opaque, unaccountable structure that freezes supporters out of all but the most trivial areas of the game. Sit down, shut up and give us your money.
And even at the top they have affordable pricing structures – and integrated free matchday transport systems – that do not price out ordinary supporters. Much in the German model is to be admired. And emulated. Certainly it has far more progressive elements within it that the current English model of naked profiteering by clubs eager to milk alienated fans of every penny possible, a model seemingly beyond control.
And with a little twist of fate Boro may have been ahead of the curve.