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Two venerable clubs chart divergent courses out of crisis

FC Cologne and Borussia Moenchengladbach are both off to disastrous starts in the Bundesliga. One has panicked and fired its coach, the other plans to stay the course.

Cologne manager Frank Schaefer

Schaefer is the new man in the Cologne hot seat

In the Bundesliga, if you go six straight games without a win, or have only one three-pointer to your credit nine games into the season, you are liable to get fired. Like Stuttgart's ex-coach Christian Gross before him, FC Cologne's Zvonimir Soldo learned that lesson on Sunday.

The billy goats parted ways with their Croatian coach of a year-and-a-half at roughly the same time that they landed in last place, courtesy of the former cellar-dwellers Stuttgart's win over St. Pauli.

Now, news of a last place club sacking its coach rarely comes as a surprise, but when viewed alongside the goings on at another presently hapless club, Borussia Moenchengladbach, Cologne's move to let Soldo go seems rash. Perhaps Cologne can learn a lesson from their old rival.

Gladbach is one rung higher up the Bundesliga ladder than Cologne at the moment, with six points from nine matches, but that doesn't really tell the whole story. The foals are, if anything, looking even worse than Cologne at the moment.

The awfulness of Gladbach's defense is threatening to take on historic proportion. With 27 goals allowed thus far, they are very nearly on pace to break Tasmania Berlin's record of 108 for the season - a record that has stood for 45 years, and one that most assumed would never, ever be broken.

Still, Michael Frontzeck is not out of a job. The coach is scarcely even looking over his shoulder, and the fans are standing behind him.

Deep-running roots

Michael Frontzeck as a Borussia Moenchengladbach player

Frontzeck (r.) has been a loyal soldier at Borussia Moenchengladbach

That he is sitting as pretty as he is, even in the midst of Gladbach's ugly form, is mostly down to his roots. Frontzeck's managerial record - not only at Gladbach, but in his prior stints at Aachen and Bielefeld as well - has been patchy. But he was born in Moenchengladbach, played nine seasons in three stints with the club, and understands how much Borussia means to its fans.

Frontzeck showed guts, and demonstrated how well he knows his club, after Saturday's humbling home loss to Bremen. Gladbach's hardcore support was baying for blood after the 4-1 loss, and many a manager would have tuned the jeers out and headed for the locker room. Frontzeck, though, saw an opportunity to circle the wagons, and climbed into the stands to hold an impromptu 15-minute question-and-answer session.

Afterward, he told reporters that it had been a "comfortable conversation," and not at all one where fans were "just looking for someone to blame."

“We all agreed that we can only get out of this situation together,” he said. “That the fans are standing behind us is a good feeling.”

Frontzeck talks to fans

The tiny bald head in the middle of this picture? That's Frontzeck

The contrast with Cologne could not be starker. Soldo came to the club as a rising managerial star, on the back of a Croatian title with Dinamo Zagreb, but also as an outsider - one who seemed miscast from the start, in that he never seemed to care about the club's history or understand the club's special relationship to its fans.

History's burden

Perhaps more than any other clubs in the Bundesliga, Cologne and Gladbach supporters are obsessed with history. That's because it's just about all they've got.

Gladbach's rich past is well-known. They won five league titles in the 1970s, and made it to another five European finals in that golden era for German football. For many years, though, Cologne too fielded a consistently good team. In the first quarter-century of the Bundesliga, the billy goats won the league twice and finished in the top eight all but four times.

Then, in the 1990s, things began to fall apart at both clubs. Cologne finished second in 1990, and made it to the German Cup final in 1991. Gladbach won the cup in 1995. Since then, no titles at all, for either club. Moreover, Gladbach has been relegated twice, and Cologne four times in the past 13 years.

Cologne and Bremen in the 1991 DFB Pokal final

The haircuts show it's been some time since Cologne were in a cup final

Falling so far, so fast, and so hard has brought on a certain delusion among both sets of fans. The older ones still think of their club as big and important, and the younger supporters have grown up in their elders' echo chamber, weaned on the glories of yesteryear and expectant of a return to glory any minute now.

Both clubs attract tens of thousands of fans to home matches irrespective of the side's current form, and both are followed assiduously in the local press - who are only too happy to talk up a finish in the European places after two wins in a row, and call two straight losses a crisis.

The fishbowl atmosphere can overwhelm a coach who's not prepared to play along, as the aggressively mild-mannered Soldo never was. But for a coach who's "one of their own," like Frontzeck or Christoph Daum in his recent run at Cologne, it's a perfect fit - even if they don't win anything.

Holding fast

Supporters seem to have determined that the base price of entry to coaching at their club is genuflection at the altar of tradition, a sort of fundamentalist fandom that seeks to purify the club of corrosive outside influence.

Frank Schaefer is unveiled at FC Cologne

Schaefer's Cologne bona fides are unquestioned

In this respect, Cologne's interim coach Frank Schaefer is off to a stellar start. He has never led a senior side before, but fan darling Lukas Podolski pronounced his onetime youth team coach "a Cologne man through and through." (It's true - the 46-year-old Schaefer has been working as a youth or reserve team coach at Cologne for 20 of the past 26 years.)

For good measure, Schaefer himself opened his maiden press conference by stating that he was "a Cologne lad and FC guy too." He also chose as his assistant coach Dirk Lottner, a Cologne native who played six seasons at the club and has worked with Schaefer in the youth system since retiring in 2007. Cologne's local tabloid Express cooed that "you can't get much more Cologne than that!"

The club says it's not ruling out a higher-profile hire, but holding onto Schaefer for a while at least has to be the best play at the moment. The fans want Cologne natives on the touchline, and so they shall have them. Let's hope they can coach a little as well.

Author: Matt Hermann
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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