The Monday after the last Rhine Derby was a miserable one in Cologne. With heavy rain and strong gusts of winds on a typically cold mid-November day, going out if you didn’t have to wasn’t an overly smart idea. Staying inside, and staying warm, seemed like a far more appealing proposition.
To the southwest of the Altstadt, away from the hustle and bustle of the centre of Germany’s fourth-biggest city, FC Köln’s session for the day took place just after 10am. In a quiet, tranquil location, their Geißbockheim training ground is picturesque; a few lush green football pitches and a bright white building in a wooded area, surrounded by trees and a nearby lake, it’s a great place to go and visit. Albeit, ideally on a far nicer morning than that one.
Unlike in many other countries, most Bundesliga clubs are happy to have their training sessions open to the public. If it’s on, you can go and watch it at your leisure. An interesting opportunity for anyone who likes the sport, given the restrictions and privacies upheld on such things elsewhere, and a particularly good chance for locals to see their idols up close in a more relaxed environment away from matchdays.
It wasn’t a full session that morning. Only a couple of different pass-and-move drills were performed over the course of an hour, and only eight or nine squad players took part in it. Naturally so – after an intense away game against Borussia Mönchengladbach less than 48 hours earlier on the Saturday, in which they got a last-minute goal to seal an important three points and bragging rights over their fiercest rivals, most of their players were deserving of a good rest.
But even for what most would expect to be a small training session, a good 30 to 40 people stood around in the rain watching from start to finish. Wrapped up with coats and scarves, and many holding umbrellas with the club’s logo emblazoned upon them, the fans applauded the players when they came out and met them for pictures and autographs at the end. Standing around in the woods for such a long time on a day like that is far from the top of anyone’s bucket lists. Regardless, they all wanted to show their adulation after a great result at the weekend.
While more renowned for its rich history, idyllic location along the river Rhine and the beautiful cathedral which overlooks it all, Cologne is a city that’s strongly passionate about football. The Rhineland is a huge area for the sport in general, actually – Leverkusen is just a short twenty-minute journey away, while an hour or so on the train from the Hauptbahnhof can take you to Dortmund, Gelsenkirchen or Mönchengladbach. Few places can boast such a concentration of great clubs.
Surrounded by so many other teams with bigger and more colourful recent histories, even despite the size of Cologne it would be easy for them to be swallowed up. In some ways, they have been. FC Köln were one of the most successful teams in Germany as a whole up until the 1990s, but after going down from the Bundesliga for the first time in 1998 they were bouncing between the two top divisions for a good fifteen years or so, enduring the pain of four further relegations since.
The most recent of those came in 2011/12. A 4-1 home defeat to Bayern Munich on the final day of the season sealed their fate after a dreadful campaign, with disdain from the fans leading to a pitch invasion and smoke bombs at the final whistle. Riot police fought back to try and contain the mayhem. Thick smoke engulfed the field. Chaos well and truly took hold. It was a dark day in their history, both for football and non-football reasons.
Fast forward to today, though, and the 50,000 capacity RheinEnergieStadion fortunately has a far more vibrant feel about it again. After being promoted as champions of the 2. Bundesliga in 2014, Die Geißböcke have successfully managed to retain their position in the top flight for a sustained period, finishing twelfth and then ninth in their first two years back. This season, they’re doing even better, and are currently fifth after 27 games: a final position that would see them qualify for European football and record their highest league finish since 1992. Things have gotten considerably better from the moment that Peter Stöger took charge nearly four years ago.
Their derby win back in November indicates that almost as well as the league position does. The historic 2-1 victory, courtesy of goals from star striker Anthony Modeste and Marcel Risse, was just their second positive result at Borussia-Park in sixteen attempts. A record that spans almost a quarter of a century. No wonder the fans were so ecstatic. Beat Gladbach at home on Saturday, too, and they’ll complete their first league double over their rivals since the 1989/90 season.
Given that Gladbach have been enduring a surprisingly disappointing year by their standards, FC Köln may even go on to finish ahead of them in the Bundesliga for the first time in a little while too. Die Fohlen qualified for the Champions League last season under André Schubert, eventually finishing third in their group with Barcelona, Celtic and Manchester City, but he was sacked just as the winter break began with the team sitting 14th and in danger of relegation.
Former Wolfsburg manager Dieter Hecking has since come in and steadied the ship though, and while still only being in ninth position now is far from perfect they’ve been picking up points at a better rate (1.82 per game) than they were all of last season since the Bundesliga resumed. It’s a marked improvement, and one that, combined with FC Köln’s own slight drop in results in the last couple of months, has seen the gap between the pair reduced to just four points. With the middle section of the league being so tight, a derby that was big enough already is likely to have even larger ramifications resting on it.
It’s set the game up very nicely. A win for Gladbach will take them within one point of their fifth-placed rivals, on top of significantly strengthening their European aspirations – which, if you asked anyone about back in December when they were narrowly above the bottom three, were close to non-existent.
And for FC Köln it’s a chance to cement their hopes of qualifying for the Europa League too. But not only that, it’s also an opportunity for them to make history. Get a good result and the club completing their best league finish for 25 years is even more on the cards than ever. If they do manage it, you can be sure that their players will get another great reception at training next week.
This article was written by Daniel Butler, the editor of The Tactics Room and the owner of the site's official Twitter account (which you can follow here).