Remembering the disaster of 1991/92, Bayern Munich’s worst season in modern history

Remembering the disaster of 1991/92, Bayern Munich’s worst season in modern history

Mention the words ‘Bayern Munich’ and what comes to mind? A teutonic powerhouse? One of Europe’s elite? Serial winners? The Bavarians are, after all, a team that has won the Bundesliga 31 times – when the first was only 55 years ago.

It is a team that has won the European Cup six times and includes such notable alumni as Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Sepp Maier, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Lothar Matthaus and Philipp Lahm. It is a world-famous brand that stands for excellence. Bayern Munich equals trophies and success.

But hard as it is to believe, they have endured ups and downs just like all teams – the difference being that a Bayern “down” is still normally what most other teams dream about.

But there is one season that will always live in infamy in Bayern history, a season during the 1990s when they were, frankly speaking, pretty terrible. Of course, terrible for Die Roten is relative – we are not talking about relegation here – but by their lofty standards, they turned into a mediocre team for 12 months. The season in question took place across 1991/92.

What’s more surprising is that there was no immediate sign beforehand of the slump to come. The 1986/87 campaign had seen an Udo Lattek-led Bayern win the Bundesliga, the manager whom Die Roten had dominated Europe under in the 1970s.

That proved to be his final season before being replaced by Jupp Heynckes, who ironically had also replaced Lattek when he became Borussia Monchengladbach manager in 1979. While unable to replicate the Foals’ amazing 1970s success, Heynckes did lead them to fourth-place finishes in 1985 and 1986, followed by third place in 1987 along with a UEFA Cup semi-final, putting him on Bayern’s radar. 

Heynckes’ debut season (1987/88) saw Bayern fail to retain their title as an emergent Werder Bremen secured glory under the stewardship of Otto Rehhagel. With strikers Karl-Heinz Riedle and Frank Neubarth, and a defence that conceded just 22 goals in 34 games, Bremen finished four points ahead of second-place Bayern, having beaten them 3-1 in a key week 26 meeting. But normal service was soon resumed as Bayern lifted the Bundesliga the following year while also reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup.

The 1989/90 season saw Bayern even more dominant, again winning the Bundesliga by six points while this time reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup, before falling to the AC Milan of the three Dutch masters. Looking at the squad that season, it is notable that there were no world-renowned stars. The strike duo of Roland Wohlfarth and Alan McInally, while efficient, were hardly names that would’ve had Baresi, Maldini and co worried. But it was still enough to dominate Germany.

As such, the summer of 1990 saw Heynckes strengthen the squad by bringing in Stefan Effenberg, Brian Laudrup and Christian Ziege. Of these, the signing of Effenberg was by far the most interesting. A player who throughout his career would be no stranger to controversy, he was asked about why he had decided to join Bayern. Sporting his blonde mullet, he replied, “Because the other clubs are too stupid to win the Bundesliga.”

It was a surefire way to place a target on your back for the season, a comment sure to have been posted on opposing dressing room walls, including Kaiserslautern’s. An early season league game saw Bayern hammer Kaiserslautern 4-0 at the Olympiastadion before the season then developed into a battle between both teams for the title.

Late March saw the advantage swing to Kaiserslautern as they defeated Bayern 2-1 at home courtesy of a late winner from Stefan Kuntz. That sparked a strong run from Die Roten and, with three matches to go, things were tight.

Bayern then travelled to Bochum to face little-fancied Wattenscheid – a team that played in the tiny Lohrheidestadion and who Bayern had beaten 7-0 earlier in the season. To the shock of a watching nation, Wattenscheid held a 2-1 lead as the game entered the dying minutes. Then, with just three minutes left, the ever-reliable Wohlfarth scored to save Bayern’s blushes. Or so it seemed.

Two minutes later, Thorsten Fink scored a shock winner for the team from Bochum to send 35,000 fans delirious – a defeat that opened the door for Kaiserslautern to claim their first Bundesliga title.

As if the defeat to Wattenscheid wasn’t painful enough, Bayern also suffered heartache in the European Cup. Once again, the semi-final curse raised its head, this time to Eastern European opposition rather than Italian. A strong team had emerged at Red Star Belgrade, who came to Munich and left with a 2-1 win in the first leg of their semi-final clash.

That left Bayern with a tough assignment in front of 80,000 rabid Red Star fans – flares burning in an intimidating atmosphere. But Die Roten rose to the task and the game was about to enter extra-time with Bayern 2-1 up when a freak own goal from captain Klaus Augenthaler in the last minute saw the Yugoslavs grab the all-important equaliser and move on to the final. 

So as 1991/92 commenced, Bayern came off disappointment at the end of the preceding season but had still finished second in the league and narrowly missed on a European Cup final appearance. It was a season that many teams would die for.

The squad development continued as Heynckes brought in players such as Jan Wouters, Oliver Kreuzer, Thomas Berthold and two Brazilians, Mazinho and Bernardo. But balancing that was the retirement of long-serving stalwart Augenthaler. Still, Bayern fans were looking forward to reclaiming their position at the top of the league while perhaps claiming a UEFA Cup title. 

The opening two league games saw an inauspicious start as Bayern drew at Werder Bremen before losing at home to Bundesliga new boys Hansa Rostock. They then travelled to Dusseldorf and came away with their first win, albeit only 1-0 thanks to a last-minute winner from Mazinho. Fans could start to relax ahead of a straightforward cup tie at home against minnows FC Homburg.

Homburg is a small town in the Saarland region of Germany and their local team had been relatively obscure for most of its history. But, in 1986, they had reached the Promised Land of the Bundesliga for the first time. Their fans enjoyed two seasons at the top table before being relegated and then returning immediately. And so, travelling to Munich, the team was a second-tier outfit who typically played in front of 8,000 fans, even when in the Bundesliga. 

Only 9,000 bothered to trek to the Olympiastadion to watch the tie, resulting in a strange atmosphere within the vast bowl. It took 27 minutes but Bayern grabbed the lead through a backpost header from Mazinho. So far, so good. But Homburg emerged in the second half revitalised and had the cheek to equalise via a powerful shot from Rodolfo Cardoso.

Worse was to come for Bayern as, with just 13 minutes remaining, a loose ball fell to Homburg’s Matthias Baranowski, who gladly accepted the gift. This was not in the Bayern script and could not be permitted. Unsurprisingly, while Homburg fans were still rubbing their eyes, Mazinho scored again. Enough of this nonsense.

And so the game went into extra-time when Bayern’s fitness would surely overwhelm the underdogs. But just five minutes in, Homburg’s Michael Kimmel jinked into the area and scored with a low shot. That pesky Homburg side just didn’t know when to lie down. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they then scored again four minutes later through Bernd Gries. Bayern were 4-2 down at home. That was how the game would end. A shocked Bayern had been eliminated in their first cup game by a lower division team in their own stadium.

Sometimes a cup defeat can be a blessing in disguise – at least now they could focus on the league and UEFA Cup. Maybe all was not lost yet.

Their league form continued to fluctuate and, after nine matches, Bayern sat in seventh place as they prepared to commence their continental campaign. A relatively easy first-round draw saw them due to travel to Ireland for a first leg against Cork City. As Bayern fans researched where Cork was on the map, the players flew over. 

Cork City had only formed in 1984, following the bankruptcy of Cork United in 1982. A second-place league finish in the previous season had seen the part-timers earn their spot in the UEFA Cup. In front of just 4,000 fans, it was time for Bayern to forget about the Homburg embarrassment and start a successful UEFA Cup campaign.

Dave Barry was a local who enjoyed a successful career with Cork County, playing Gaelic Football and winning two All-Ireland medals. But he also enjoyed regular football on the side and so turned out for Cork City as a midfielder. Ahead of the game, he had somehow come to the attention of Effenberg who, with his normal diplomacy, compared him to his grandfather.

Picked for the game against Bayern, he wrote his name into Irish folklore when, after just 26 minutes, Cork stole the ball from the advancing Bayern defence and Barry found it at his feet. Charging forward, the balding midfielder turned inside one defender before rifling a shot home. The fans went ballistic.

And so it stood until just before half-time when Effenberg finally brought parity to the score. Everyone then braced for the second-half whirlwind from Bayern, but it never occurred. The part-timers of Cork ended with a famous 1-1 draw against the German giants.

The second leg saw Bayern struggle once more. In fact, the Irish part-timers held out until the 71st minute before Bruno Labbadia finally spared Bayern’s blushes. A last-gasp penalty added a little more gloss, but at the final whistle, Die Roten had only just got over the line. Considering this and the Homburg result, all was most definitely not well in Bavaria.

Three days later, Bayern travelled to Stuttgart and were hammered 4-1 – not by VfB but rather by Stuttgarter Kickers. It was finally too much to bear and, three days later, Bayern announced that they were parting company with Heynckes.

The former striking great went on to enjoy a long and successful managerial career, overseeing teams in Spain, Portugal and Germany, including Real Madrid, Benfica, Schalke and his first love, Borussia Monchengladbach. He even returned to Bayern, becoming caretaker manager in 2009 after the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann before replacing Louis van Gaal in 2011 and leading them to a Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.

He then giuded Bayern to glory in 2013 by defeating Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund in the final, making Heynckes just the fourth manager to win the competition with two different teams, Real Madrid being the other. One of the all-time greats, his dismissal after the Kickers defeat was later described by general manager Uli Hoeness as “the biggest mistake I ever made in my business life”.

A meeting was set up with club legend Franz Beckenbauer in Munich’s Sheraton Hotel to offer him the position as head coach. But he declined, stating prior commitments made it impossible. And therefore Bayern turned elsewhere – with a somewhat surprising result.

Replacing Heynckes at the helm would be Danish legend Soren Lerby. A player who enjoyed three seasons with Bayern, during which they won two Bundesliga titles, he had only recently retired from playing at the age of 32. Taking the Bayern job represented his first step into management – a daunting task for experienced heads let alone a rookie. He didn’t even have the required coaching licence at the time of his appointment. It seemed a strange choice to most fans. 

His tenure started off shakily as Bayern lost successive league games against Dortmund and VfB Stuttgart to drop to 14th in the 20-team league, just three places above the relegation spots. Next up for Lerby was, ironically, a trip back to Denmark as Bayern had drawn Boldklubben 1903 in the second round of the UEFA Cup. If Lerby thought it would be an enjoyable trip home, he was in for a major surprise.

Not even the most hardcore Boldklubben fans can claim that their team had a grand history. They had won the league seven times, but four of those were before World War Two, while the most recent was back in 1976, before then merging with Kjobenhavns Boldklub in 1992 to form FC Copenhagen, who have enjoyed considerable success since.

They had only ever won two European ties and never made it past the second round. The visit of Bayern would represent one of the last games that Boldklubben would play before the merger. And what a game it was.

Over 14,000 fans packed into the Gentofte Stadion to see how their boys would fare against the German powerhouse. For 30 minutes the game was a stalemate, until Bayern snatched the lead through Mazinho. That lead lasted just five minutes before Michael Manniche tied the game. Tied going into the half-time break, there was little indication of the shockwave to come.

After 57 minutes, Boldklubben earned a penalty, which was duly dispatched by Danish star Ivan Nielsen. Four minutes later, the fans were in ecstasy as Kenneth Wegner made it 3-1. As the ground began to shake, the madness continued; just three minutes later, Manniche grabbed a second to put the Danes 4-1 up. The mighty Bayern had just conceded three goals in the space of seven minutes. And it wasn’t over yet.

Brian Klaus added a fifth before Peter Uldbjerg made it 6-1. No-one could quite believe what they were witnessing. Markus Munch pulled back a last-minute consolation for Bayern but, as the final whistle sounded, all eyes turned to the scoreboard: Boldklubben 1903 6-2 Bayern Munich. Bayern’s season had just truly imploded.

The return leg two weeks later saw Die Roten exit the competition with a whimper, winning just 1-0 through a late Mazinho goal. They had now been eliminated from the DFB-Pokal at home by a lower division side, from the UEFA Cup by Danish minnows and were sitting in 14th place in the league.

Given this start, it was no real surprise that Lerby was a dead man walking. He managed to stumble on until March when a 4-0 defeat away at Kaiserslautern saw Bayern, still stuck in the lower half of the table, finally wield the axe. It was to represent Lerby’s only stint in football management.

It was time for a third manager that season as Hoeness turned to a much more experienced hire in Erich Ribbeck. 

Ribbeck had started his managerial career back in 1967 at Rot-Weiss Essen before managing Eintracht Frankfurt, Kaiserslautern, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen. His stats to date were at best mediocre – the only trophy he won during that period was the UEFA Cup with Bayer Leverkusen in 1988 – but he had Bundesliga experience and so was seen as the man who could right the listing ship.

But Bayern by now were in a complete funk and so Ribbeck oversaw a final 11 league games in which they won five but lost as many as they stumbled over the finishing line, mired in mediocrity.

With the season over, Bayern sat in tenth, exactly mid-table. They had lost more games than they had won, including seven at home, and finished with a -2 goal difference. As usual, Wohlfarth was top scorer with 17, followed by Mazinho (12) and Effenberg (11). They had to sit back and watch while VfB Stuttgart, Dortmund and Frankfurt played out final-day drama to captivate the whole country.

All three teams sat on 50 points going into the final matchday and all three were playing away from home. Frankfurt had goal difference advantage and just needed to win, but shockingly lost to Hansa Rostock while having a clear penalty denied to them at 1-1.

Dortmund won at Duisburg and were two minutes from being Bundesliga champions before Guido Buchwald wrote himself into Stuttgart legend with an 88th-minute winner at Leverkusen – despite being down to ten men following the sending-off of Matthias Sammer – earning Stuttgart the title on goal difference. 

That summer saw Bayern spend big. In came Thomas Helmer, Jorginho, Mehmet Scholl and, most newsworthy, the return of the prodigal son, Lothar Matthaus. Laudrup and Effenberg were moved on to Fiorentina to help fund the rebuild.

It worked: Bayern finished second in the Bundesliga, just a point behind champions Werder Bremen and with just five losses and a +29 goal difference. Ribbeck had successfully steadied the ship and would soon retire, replaced by Beckenbauer before a disastrous spell as Germany manager from 1998 to 2000. But Ribbeck also left with the unenviable stat of becoming the first and only manager of Bayern to be in charge for over 500 days without winning a single trophy.

To this day, the 1991/92 season stands as a nadir for Bayern. Since the, Die Roten have only ever finished outside the top three twice, and have won 12 Bundesliga titles and three Champions Leagues. While 90s was often an inconsistent decade for Bayern – with players more often featured in the gossip pages rather than the sports pages, leading to the famous “FC Hollywood” nickname – nothing was as bad as 1991/92. 

Bayern will always represent one of the elite European teams and are the gold standard against which many others measure themselves. Moreover, they have enjoyed success without the huge external financial backing that some other European sides have enjoyed.

It has been argued by many that their recent dominance of German football has spoilt the Bundesliga as a spectacle, especially considering their ten successive. But it is refreshing to know that even teams like Bayern Munich can experience a season of woe. For that one year, they were actually human after all. And for that, VfB Stuttgart, Homborg, Cork City and Boldklubben will be eternally grateful.

By Dominic Hougham

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