Cologne sealed their return to the Bundesliga with a 4-0 victory over Greuther Fürth. But question marks remain over the club's ability to stay afloat next season thanks to off-field instability.
"This is Markus Anfang's promotion," Cologne interim coach Andre Pawlak said after a 4-0 victory confirmed the club's ascent back to the Bundesliga.
The only problem was that Markus Anfang was nowhere to be seen.
"We brought it to the finish line, but the congratulations go to the players and the old coaching team,” Pawlak continued.
The "old" coaching team, led by Anfang, was ditched a week earlier after a winless run of four matches had seen the club fail to secure promotion earlier than expected.
Beneath the surface of the unmistakable joy at rejoining the Bundesliga, trouble brews at Cologne. This offseason will prove crucial in the club's plans to consolidate their top-flight status.
At the center of the storm is general manager Armin Veh, who must deliver over the next three months if Cologne are to succeed.
Veh has been quite prominent in his 18-month stint at Cologne. The 58-year-old was involved in an internal power struggle back in March, which resulted in president Werner Spinner's resignation, and then made his mark by sacking Anfang in late April.
The team's defensive fragility — conceding 41 goals in 31 games — was not befitting of a league leader and a perceived poor dressing room atmosphere reportedly sealed the deal.
"Despite the good starting position, there was a negative trend,” Veh said. "It was necessary to change things so as not to jeopardize our goals.”
The two power plays leave the club without a president — Spinner's successor is to be determined during board elections in September — and without a coach. Not ideal for a club planning to reenter the Bundesliga.
Veh's last two appointments, Anfang and Stefan Ruthenbeck, haven't worked out. Another false step and Veh's future will undoubtedly come under question.
"The important thing is not to be pressured,” Veh said. "I hope to make the right decision, but not under any time pressure.”
Bruno Labbadia, Pal Dardai, and David Wagner have all been touted as possible candidates, though they have reportedly all been ruled out one way or another. Regensburg's Achim Beierlorzer could be an option after impressing in his first coaching role in the second division.
But the latest name to do the rounds is Dieter Hecking. He is not an inspiring choice for a fan base which craves "good football," but a safe pair of hands which could restabilize the club and has a proven track record at Wolfsburg and most recently Borussia Mönchengladbach.
One thing's certain, the pressure is on Veh, and it does involve a stopwatch, no matter how much the general manager protests. The new coach has to be central to revitalizing the squad and preparing them for the rigors of the Bundesliga, for which there is some urgency.
On offense, there should be little need for investment. Cologne have scored a league-high 80 goals in 32 games, with Simon Terodde (32 goals) and Jhon Cordoba (21 goals) on fire in all competitions. While neither are proven in the top-flight, their goal scoring records suggest that they could finally step up in the Bundesliga.
Dominick Drexler has proved a successful signing as the side's playmaker — he has nine goals and 17 assists this season — and Anthony Modeste returned from a disastrous stint in China in January to net five goals in nine matches. Kingsley Schindler will also arrive from Kiel having netted six and assisted seven. The attacking stocks appear sufficient.
But Cologne's defense has been the biggest worry this season, shipping 41 goals and prone to spectacular collapses. Goalkeeper Timo Horn and captain Jonas Hector are of Bundesliga quality, but in central defense, the team needs reinforcements and appropriate coaching.
That's where Veh's next appointment comes in. Whoever lands in the hot seat, they need to have a clear game plan, identify where the squad needs reinforcements, and find a balance between attack and defense. That takes time, no matter how experienced or talented the new coach is.
Fans crave success
Cologne are desperate to return to the top echelons of the Bundesliga and banish their reputation as a yo-yo club once and for all.
Fans thought they had turned a corner with Europa League qualification in 2017, coupled with increasingly strong revenue numbers, a burgeoning club membership of 100,000, and average crowds of almost 50,000.
But relegation sent them hurtling back into despair. Another flirt with relegation is not an option.
"Never again, second league,” they chanted following the victory over Fürth.
They've had to tread this path six times now in 19 years and enough is enough. For a club with a solid financial base and a large, passionate fan base, merely competing in the Bundesliga isn't enough. This club wants to return to where they once stood in the 1970s and 1980s — challenging for titles regularly.
They want a team that can dominate games, score goals, but also a dressing room which fights for the city, for each other, and pulls on the shirt with pride. A bright future is within reach, but so much depends on this off-season and whether or not Veh can make the right calls.
With his contract expiring next summer in 2020, Veh's next coaching appointment and his work in the transfer market will decide not just his own future, but the club's too.