The date atop the newspapers read 28 April 1978. On their back pages, the latest Bundesliga table told of a campaign 33 rounds old, just a day from its conclusion, whose two foremost protagonists would head into the home stretch still locked together on equal points. At the league’s summit stood FC Köln while beneath them, by virtue of goal difference alone, sat Borussia Mönchengladbach, intent on making it four Bundesliga titles on the bounce.
Both teams had spent almost the entire season trading exhibition-worthy exploits in the long-since mastered art of goalscoring. Die Geißböcke’s contributions had been led in no small part by the prolificacy of German forward Dieter Müller, while Die Fohlen were spearheaded by a duo of similar potency in Jupp Heynckes and Allan Simonsen. But with point tallies level, it was goal difference that separated them and that vital difference, with just a single game remaining in which to part the two rivals, pointed in favour of the league leaders by 10 goals.
In their final game of the season, Köln journeyed north to St. Pauli knowing that a win against the already-relegated cellar-dwellers would all but secure their third German title. On the same day, Gladbach hosted Borussia Dortmund, praying for an unlikely Köln slip-up and knowing that without one only an implausible win by more than 10 goals would give their fading dream life.
Having found themselves on the sore end of a 5-1 hiding in their opening fixture of the season, away to Fortuna Düsseldorf, winning the league could hardly have been the further from the minds of Köln fans making their first of many homebound car journeys.
However, despite evidencing an unredeeming fragility at times on the road, rolling over far too easily at the homes of FC Saarbrücken, HSV, Duisburg and VfB Stuttgart, supporters warmed to the idea of a legitimate title assault once more as the concept grew in plausibility. A slew of high-scoring victories – 7-2 against Werder Bremen, 6-0 against Eintracht Braunschweig, 5-2 away to Gladbach and 6-2 versus 1860 Munich – helped to carry Köln into the new year at the top of the pile.
Gladbach, meanwhile, hadn’t fared quite so impressively during the early Hinrunde. A patchy start had dampened expectations and let the helium out of a great many party balloons laying in anticipation of yet another back-to-back championship win. Come the season’s halfway stage, though in second place and just a solitary point behind leaders Köln, courtesy of an impressive five-game winning streak that had significantly warmed their winter blues, Gladbach had work to do.
Out of the traps and into the Rückrunde with reckless abandon, Köln exorcised their earliest of demons in beating Düsseldorf by a single goal but found title-worthy form impossible to sustain from there on out. For every characteristic crushing of an unworthy opponent – their 6-1 win against HSV, the 5-2 victory over Duisburg – Köln could also reluctantly lay claim to avoidable losses to mid-table meanderers Schalke and Frankfurt. The chink in their armour was slight but still apparent.
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Even so, Köln picked up sufficient points to remain seated on their throne throughout the entirety of the season’s latter half, and with just two games to go looked set to continue in the same fashion.
Gladbach’s grand entrance into the Rückrunde was similarly far from glamorous, as they welcomed in the new year with consecutive losses to Hertha and Duisburg, bookended by draws with Bochum and 1860 Munich. But having climbed free from their pitfall, Die Fohlen passed up the opportunity to sit around licking their wounds down in fifth place and instead set about closing the gap on Köln. Nine wins and two draws from the subsequent 11 fixtures did exactly that, and with just two games remaining, the points gap was a thing of the past.
Over the course of the season’s penultimate weekend, both sides underlined their credentials in contrasting styles. Köln welcomed fourth-placed Stuttgart to the Müngersdorfer Stadion and send them home again having beaten them 2-1, requiring a vital winner just 10 minutes from time in order to do so. Meanwhile in Hamburg, Gladbach rattled half a dozen past their opponents in an impressive 6-2 away win.
These two victories left both championship chasers on 46 points; Köln top with a goal difference of +40 with Mönchengladbach a place behind them on +30. The recipients of the league title would be decided on the season’s final day.
“We went into the game to win,” recalled Gladbach midfielder Horst Wohlers. While his statement provides limited insight into the inner workings of the Gladbach squad or the manner in which they approached this unique venture in their careers, the simplicity of his quote reveals the team’s resolute mentality. There was nothing he or his teammates could do beyond simply trying to win the game and win it well. Köln’s advantage at the top afforded them the opportunity to tell Gladbach to jump; in response, Die Fohlen’s players were ready and willing to respond “how high?”, then jump even higher if required to.
For their final game of the season, Gladbach joined their opponents Dortmund on the road as both sides set off for the Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf. Renovations were underway at the so-called “home” side’s own Bökelbergstadion, preventing the game from being played in Mönchengladbach, and so Die Fohlen were forced to relinquish their home advantage when perhaps they needed it most of all. Undeterred, however, Gladbach took no time at all to settle into their unfamiliar surroundings. In less than a minute, Udo Lattek’s title-chasers had opened the scoring, along with the floodgates.
After Heynckes’ far post header had tarnished Dortmund’s clean sheet within 60 seconds, he and his teammates appeared hell-bent on sullying it beyond recognition. On 12 minutes Heynckes grabbed his and his team’s second. A minute later, the head of Carsten Nielsen had made it three. Their lead was four soon after 22 minutes when Kalle Del’Haye lashed home a flowing counter-attack, and 10 short minutes later Heynckes wrapped up his hat-trick and extended the lead to five. Before the referee’s half time whistle could save the Dortmund players from themselves, Herbert Wimmer’s deft finish had already registered Gladbach’s sixth goal of the half.
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Gladbach returned to their dressing room 6-0 to the good, to be greeted by tinny chatter blurting from the handheld radios clutched tightly to the ears of their fans reporting Köln’s advantage away at St. Pauli to be just one goal strong.
As it stood at half-time, Köln’s goal-difference was +41 and Mönchengladbach’s was +36. Though it remained no small undertaking, if Gladbach could score another six goals in the second half, without reply from Köln 400 kilometres away in Hamburg, they would be crowned champions.
Dortmund emerged from the tunnel into the second half determined at the very least to avoid a historic loss. Though a defeat of any magnitude could do nothing to threaten their top-flight status, they wished not to be made the laughing stock of the Bundesliga. Sadly for der BVB, that wasn’t entirely within their control. They lasted some 14 minutes before goal number seven brought the stadium to its feet once again and reestablished the pattern of the game.
Heynckes’ fourth goal of the afternoon was swiftly followed by yet further punishment for Dortmund. Nielsen struck with his side’s eighth, Del’Haye delivered their ninth, with Heynckes again on hand to score the goal that ticked their score over into double figures. Before the night was over, Ewald Lienen and Christian Kulik had got in on the act with goals 11 and 12. With the scoreboard literally full from top to bottom with Gladbach goalscorers, the record for their league’s highest ever margin of victory was theirs. Gladbach were history-makers. Only, they weren’t champions.
While it had rained goals for Gladbach in Düsseldorf, it had also begun to do likewise in Hamburg, the late downpour beginning around the hour mark and continuing until long after Gladbach’s title aspirations had been washed away. Though only a single goal had parted Köln and St. Pauli at the break, by the time the game was over the disparity had grown to five. Gladbach’s remarkable final day showing against Dortmund had raised their goal difference to +42 but they had done so in vain as Köln’s own emphatic response had elevated theirs to +45 – and their reward was the Bundesliga title.
Borussia Mönchengladbach returned to their city to find its streets filled with fans eager to voice their admiration and affection for their team, despite the loss, the experience of a thrilling race fresh in their hearts and minds. Köln returned to their city, greeted by a similar sight, only they did so with the Bundesliga trophy gripped tightly in their hands.
To those watching on from the sidelines it seemed hard to believe the game hadn’t been illegally orchestrated in some way. On the very day the title challengers had needed a landslide victory most of all, playing against a team with seemingly nothing to lose, their prayers were answered and their faith was rewarded in the form of the highest margin of victory in the league’s history. Coincidence?
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It was just that, according to Dortmund right-back Amand Theis. “It looked as though the match had not been played fairly,” admitted Theis, “but there was definitely no fixing.” His elucidation of the day’s events, and his team’s unlikely capitulation, pointed instead towards a complete loss of desire. “In the end every shot was a hit and we eventually gave up. The shame has accompanied us for years.”
Herbert Wimmer, for whom the 12-0 annihilation proved to be the final game of his career following 12 years of loyal service with Gladbach, even stated that he was slightly relieved by his team’s failure to win the league title on the back of their record victory. “That would have only given the speculation more evidence. But there’s nothing to be said about [the match being fixed], certainly not.”
It was initially suggested by the supervisory committee of the German Football Association, in the days following the 12-0 victory, that the match had been fixed by the two sides. But, having made their own enquiries, involving interviewing each of the Dortmund players, the German FA saw no evidence of any wrongdoing and chose not to press charges. They did, however, discipline the losing team on account of their unsporting behaviour; their giving up, more specifically.
After the game, Dortmund manager Otto Rehhagel was openly ridiculed, with a selection of national tabloids even dubbing him Otto “Torhagel” (“tor” the German for “goal” and “hagel” meaning “hailstorm”), and the landmark loss would prove to be his final game too. Rehhagel was given the boot by Dortmund the very next day.
A similar fate also befell the occasion’s most misfortunate soul, Dortmund’s goalkeeper on the day, Peter Endrulat. Endrulat had been informed on the morning of the game of his club’s decision not to renew his contract at the end of the season. But when the opportunity came to remain in goal in place of his side’s most commonly relied upon custodian, who was still chasing full fitness, in order to cherish one last game in Dortmund colours, Endrulat took the chance. He was left wishing he hadn’t. “When I think about it today, I realise I should have left the field at half-time.” He had defiantly dismissed his manager’s suggestion he may wish to be substituted during the interval to save himself from further embarrassment. “Then, at least, Horst Bertram would have let in six of the goals.”
Those at the top of Dortmund’s hierarchy also ensured the rest of the squad were not to escape punishment for their role in the debacle, as they were each fined a few thousand Deutsche Mark in order to refund every one of their traveling fans the cost of their match tickets.
As for the two teams tussling at the summit of the league table, Köln would dearly cherish their league title; four decades have passed since and they’ve yet to collect another. Borssia Mönchengladbach, meanwhile, have also become accustomed to the feeling of missing out on top spot, having failed to finish as high as second in any campaign since. Nevertheless, though it wasn’t enough on that fateful day in April 1978, the record for the Bundesliga’s greatest ever win is still Gladbach’s to keep – and there’s every chance it will be for another 40 years too