If nothing else, Cologne Football Club tends to offer supporters a wild ride. The season that began with joy at their overdue return to Europe has ended in shock relegation. But players and fans are rallying regardless.
The season started full of hope for Cologne. European competition was beckoning after a quarter of a century, the coffers were full after Anthony Modeste's club-record transfer to China, a yo-yo club with no business going anywhere near the second division seemed ready to cement its modern-era Bundesliga credentials, at last.
And then they went 16 games without a league win. In truth, Cologne were relegated before the winter break, the marked improvement that followed was simply too little, too late.
Saturday's game against Freiburg was a kind of microcosm of this campaign: Needing a win, Cologne slumped to a two-goal deficit, brought the game back to life in the latter stages, and were then floored by a sucker punch just seconds after missing a golden opportunity to take the lead themselves.
"It was a difficult game that was emblematic of our entire season," Cologne coach Stefan Ruthenbeck said after the game. "That last goal we conceded simply cannot be permitted in a relegation fight. That's the way you go down."
Cologne knew that even a win was unlikely to suffice in the end, but they came within inches of securing a week's reprieve
Ruthenbeck's opposite number Christian Streich, no stranger to relegation battles himself, was relieved to claim three big points and seal Cologne's fate.
"We got into the game very well. Late on, we conceded two awfully soft goals, and then everything was wide open again," Streich said. "Today, we had luck on our side."
Cologne might feel like that was not a one-off phenomenon. Lady Luck was not a frequent visitor to the RheinEnergieStadion this season. Cologne frequently suffered at the hands of refereeing decisions, not to mention overruled decisions by the video assistant referee.
Going down 'as a unit,' Horn says 'we'll be back'
"Of course today is really bitter for us," goalkeeper Timo Horn said, describing Freiburg's decisive late goal as "the cherry on the cake" of a nightmare season. "But I can promise you one thing: we will most certainly be coming back."
Horn also raved about the traveling fans, who sang a rendition of the club anthem — including a promise to follow the team "through the fire" ("durch et Füer," in the local dialect) — for the players after the fateful final whistle.
"It's amazing when fans thunder the Veedel song like that in front of you. The supporters' behavior can't be put into words. We are going into the second divison as a unit," the 24-year-old keeper said.
Unusually, that appears to be more than a platitude. Horn, who has already turned down past offers to leave Cologne, including from Premier League side Liverpool, has taken the unusual step of extending his contract and taking a pay cut to play for Cologne in the second division next season. The local lad has been with Cologne since he was nine.
Marco Höger has signed on for the 2. Bundesliga too, as has Jonas Hector— a player on Borussia Dortmund's radar who's all but certainly going to the World Cup with Germany. Usually with relegated clubs, it's a case of rats fleeing a sinking ship; with Cologne, the captain and crew insist on going down with it.
'Love knows no league' was one local tabloid's headline when Jonas Hector pledged to stay at Cologne in the second tier
Straight back up, for the fourth time?
Given the personnel (and the wage costs) Cologne are retaining, there can only be one goal next season — immediate promotion and preferably the second division title as a bonus. Cologne have managed to bounce straight back three times before — in 2004, 2002 and 1999 — but their most recent pair of stints in the 2. Bundesliga both lasted two seasons.
Tempt this man, Carnival Prince Poldi, back to his hometown from Japan and the second-division rebuild would be complete!
Double winners 40 years ago, and a permanent fixture in the top-flight Bundesliga for its first 35 years, Cologne now face their sixth relegation in two decades. Only Nürnberg, another once-storied team for whom relegation used to seem unthinkable, can claim more.
Cologne seemed on the verge of shaking this status as a "yo-yo club," but now they'll hope to bounce back up one more time before trying to put down top-flight roots yet again.
To rub salt in Saturday's wound, fierce local rivals Fortuna Düsseldorf sealed their promotion from the 2. Bundesliga on the same day, effectively taking Cologne's place in the Bundesliga.