Chaos at the Carnival Club

Jon Hartley takes a look at the turbulent tenure of Stale Solbakken at Cologne.

Not too long ago, Franz Beckenbauer said of the situation of the situation in Cologne, “Wolfgang Overath (former club President) has gone, Volker Finke (former Sporting Director) has gone, Podolski is likely to go. I ask myself, is the Goat still there?”. Now coach Stale Solbakken has also departed the club…thankfully though, the Goat is still around.

Lets not pretend that things were rosy in the garden of the RheinEnergie Stadium before the beginning of this season, but there was some genuine hope that Solbakken’s appointment might lead to a change in Cologne’s fortunes. The club fought hard to get him, so it was understandable that they left it this late to finally part company. The Norwegian had achieved great things with FC Copenhagen, he was awash with Danish titles and also credible performances in the Champions League. His stock was certainly high and he was due to take over as Norwegian national coach until Cologne came knocking. They must have been quite persuasive, not only financially, but also in terms of the potential of a club like Cologne. Sure, there has always been potential at Cologne, but it seems that turning potential into success is a very tough act to pull off in the Cathedral city.

There was little chance if instant success for Solbakken with the Cologne soap opera in full flow. There was Miso Brecko’s drink driving, Kevin Pezzoni’s Carnival punch-up, Slawomir Peszko’s run in with a Taxi driver, not to mention the Cologne fans stopping the team bus for a chat and smashing up another with Gladbach fans in. There has been a lot to deal with at the Geißbockheim this season.

Solbakken hasn’t always made life easy for himself. Pre-season dithering over the captaincy was not the best of starts, especially when it involved taking the armband from Kölsch golden boy Lukas Podolski and giving it to Pedro Geromel. While the coach may not have got off to a flying start with that move, he also wasn’t given great tools to work with. Cologne spluttered into 10th place last season, yet the nucleus of that side still remains. Summer signings from Volke Finke were few and far between and the only one of any note was Sascha Riether from Wolfsburg. Riether has proved himself as a good Bundesliga player but has also proved that he can’t change a team. Henrique Sereno and Ammar Jemal both arrived on loan to help bolster the defence, but this doesn’t constitute the overhaul needed at the club. One reason that the overhaul didn’t happen is that Cologne don’t have a lot of cash. They have big visions, that is true, but few funds to finance it.

Solbakken arrived with the reputation of playing compact and counter attacking football. Only on a few occasions has his concept really been realised at Cologne and that might have something to do with the coaching, but probably a lot to do with not having the squad needed to execute it.

After two disappointing defeats and a draw in the opening three games of the season, Cologne fans gave the coach and the team time to bond and that is credit to Solbakken’s personality. From the first day of the season he did his press conferences in German and he had to work very hard to achieve that. Even for a native speaker, it takes some bravery to explain your vision and defend decisions to the Cologne press pack, but as a learner of German it was very impressive. It was also done with great humour, which can only have helped his standing with the fans and media alike. This is of course the man who joked in a packed press conference when his phone rang, that it was his wife calling to enquire if he would have a job the following day.

The squad strength aside, Solbakken hasn’t had much luck in other areas either. A string of injuries mainly in defence, and some silly suspensions have played their part to put extra stress on the team. Some of those injuries have also hit the attacking options as well.  A two month lay-off for Milivoje Novakovic and a month without Lukas Podolski, have no doubt had an effect on the abilities of this threadbare squad.

Speaking of Lukas Podolski, his story will have played a part in Solbakken’s and Cologne’s poor showing this season. On the one hand he has been the Cologne saviour, having has scored 17 of their 36 league goals, yet the distraction of his transfer talks and outspoken (yet truthful) interviews can only have caused problems for the rest of the team.

The other elephant in the room has been the relationship between Solbakken and Volke Finke. It is safe to say that the two did not see eye to eye. This was all too evident at the end of the January transfer window with the signing by Finke of Chong Tese from Bochum. Solbakken had barely seen the player and didn’t agree with the signing, and that will have hardly improved relations.

So when the decision came that Finke would leave the club, it looked like Solbakken was the winner in this contest, and he would be the one to take the club forward. That was more evident when the blame was levelled at the team and not the coach after the defeat to Augsburg. One improved performance followed, but the 4-0 loss to Mainz was the last straw, and the club let go of Solbakken.

It wasn’t a decision that Cologne hierarchy really wanted to make. Having got rid of Finke, the last thing they wanted was another change, and more importantly another public failure. Given the trajectory of the club it was perhaps understandable, if a little late in the season, but what about the future and the next step for Cologne? Frank Schaefer is in charge until the end of the season and if he can work the same magic as last season while in charge, it is possible for Cologne to survive. But regardless of what division Cologne are in next season, this summer is the time that the club needs to put its house in order once and for all and capitalise on this potential for the long term. Both the fans and the club need to lower their expectations and look to the example of other Bundesliga clubs who have nurtured success with a blend of young talent and experienced heads. When that happens they should look for a coach just like Stale Solbakken…he would be a perfect coach for a stable and progressive club.

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