IT IS PROBABLY FAIR TO SAY that wealthy Bayern Munich’s recent, all-encompassing domination of German football has wrongly eclipsed the achievements of some of the Bundesliga’s other, less well-known sides. Indeed, over the course of the 2014-15 season, the likes of Bavarian side Augsburg and former heavyweights Borussia Mönchengladbach both experienced levels of success that may, relatively speaking, even surpass the trophy-laden exploits of Pep Guardiola’s title winners.
Yet, while fifth placed Augsburg’s qualification for next season’s Europa League was nothing short of miraculous, it is the case of the latter that beguiles and intrigues in equal measure. The historic North Rhine-Westphalia club Borussia Mönchengladbach, led by Swiss tactician Lucien Favre, is one of German football’s greatest institutions, and this season defied the odds to finish 3rd and qualify for the 2015-16 edition of the Champions League at the expense of traditional participants Dortmund and Schalke.
Founded at the start of the 20th century as Borussia VfL1900 Mönchengladbach e.V, the Foals rapidly ascended the German football league pyramid, achieving promotion to the Bundesliga in 1966 season. An unqualified period of success followed as Borussia reached the pinnacle of the German game in the 1970s, regularly competing with rivals Bayern Munich for domestic honours while also challenging Europe’s elite in the European cup, in what was a golden age for the club.
Although Die Borussen’s first national honours came in 1960 – after a 3–2 victory over Karlsruher SC in the final of the prestigious DFB-Pokal – it was the championship wins in 1970, ‘71, ‘75, ‘76, ‘77 that really propelled the club into the spotlight, both at home and on the continent.
Under talented local coach Hennes Weisweiler, a young, vibrant, attack-minded Gladbach side won plaudits for an entertaining style of play that garnered fans not just from the locality, but also far-flung parts of the country. During the mid-to-late part of the decade, Weisweiler’s side went toe to toe with main rivals Bayern, winning three straight titles in a remarkable flourish that established the club as Germany’s best.
Mönchengladbach may well have lost the 1977 final of the European Cup to a star-studded, Kevin Keegan-inspired Liverpool, but the club maintained a substantial presence in continental competition, making waves with UEFA Cup wins in 1975 and 1979, and also losing on two other final appearances in the 1973 and 1980 seasons. The club’s fleet-footed brand of pacy, offensive football earned them the nickname Die Fohlen, however Borussia’s success fizzled out as the 1970s reached its conclusion.
Aside from an immensely dramatic four-way title tussle with Bayern, Hamburg and Stuttgart that ultimately saw the club miss out on the Bundesliga title on goal difference, the next decade was relatively barren for the North-Rhein Westphalians. In the same season, Mönchengladbach also lost the DFB-Pokal final to Bayern Munich on penalties, with star men Lothar Matthäus and Norbert Ringels both missing in the shootout after the game finished 1-1.
In what was to be a defining moment in the modern history of the club, Matthäus then joined victors Bayern for a record fee of 2.25 million DM, effectively ending the competition between the two sides. Several years later, Mönchengladbach suffered the ignominy of relegation, dropping down to 2.Bundesliga in 1999.
Gladbach’s current incarnation as a successful, well-supported Bundesliga side – the club boasts an impressive 60,000 members, making them the fifth best supported side in the league – is very much based on solid, financially-prudent foundations, with the opening of 54,000 capacity Borussia Park in 2004 and the January 2011 appointment of Favre catalysts for an improvement in fortunes both on and off the pitch.
The experienced former Hertha Berlin coach miraculously kept the team up via the playoffs in 2011, having been appointed in a last-ditch attempt to ward off relegation. Since then Gladbach have gone from strength to strength domestically, finishing eighth in 2013, sixth in 2014 and, most importantly, third this year.
Most of the credit for this remarkable upturn in fortunes has to go to the brilliant Favre, whose canny use of the transfer market and intelligent recruitment – the club’s current wage bill is believed to stand at a meagre £28 million – coupled with acute tactical awareness culminated in an awe-inspiring run from February 14, where the Foals picked up 33 points out of a possible 42 to overtake Bayer Leverkusen into the much-coveted third and final Champions League qualification position.
“The season after [Favre arrived] was simply incredible – after all those years of mediocrity. They lost key players in Dante to Bayern, Neustädter [to Schalke] and Reus to Dortmund – in fact, one would say that was the axis of the success that season – at the end of the season and it only took them one more season to get people to replace them. So clever scouting is certainly one of the reasons behind the current success,” notes Borussia expert Bastian Thielmann.
“Take Yann Sommer for example; they used the money they got for current Barça goalkeeper ter Stegen so wisely. His replacement, Sommer, has got outstanding stats, while Favre has made Patrick Herrmann (a player from their own youth academy) progress every year to the extent he is now a regular fixture in the Germany squad. Even if Max Kruse – Borussia’s second top scorer last season with 11 goals – goes to Wolfsburg at the end of the season, I think they have already got some ideas what to do next.”
Led by the Swiss mastermind, Gladbach’s brand of fast-paced, high-energy, possession-based football will look to take the next logical step and achieve regular Champions League qualification, as well as making it out of their group in Europe’s premier club competition.
This, of course, would be no mean feat, as Europe’s elite have duly noted the Foals success, and the vultures have started to circle with regards to 2014-15 Manager of the Year Favre – wanted by Bayern, according to the German media – and current stars like metronomic midfield general, Granit Xhaka.
Clearly, resisting the overtures of the continent’s top sides will be the biggest test of Borussia’s top-level credentials, yet few would back against the side from Mönchengladbach beating the odds once again while director of sport Max Eberl and Favre remain at the helm.
Last November, Eberl poured scorn on the media-peddled suggestion that Gladbach are still “sleeping giants” of the Bundesliga: “I don’t think it is asleep anymore. I think we have awoken from our pleasant dreams, and I think that they have partially become our reality.”
Hopefully, with a bit of luck, Favre and friends’ nous, and a dynamic young squad, the reawakened Borussia are here to stay for good.
By Patrick Boyland. Follow @Paddy_Boyland