In times of unrest, club slogans penned on an air of optimism can feel like badly misjudged gallows humour. Words once spoken in reverence at heroes of yesteryear take on new meaning as poor decision-making and circumstance conspire to seem as if the footballing gods are against you.
For Borussia Mönchengladbach, majestic banners of green, white, and black still unfurl to reveal the words “Gänsehaut gibt’s gratis” at Borussia-Park on matchdays. Put simply, the slogan translates to “Goosebumps come for free” and heralds back to a golden era of German football when the smaller Bökelbergstadion offered fans west of the Rhine an opportunity to experience one of the most exciting sides in world football.
Founded in a pub called the Anton Schmitz, the club’s name offers a reference to regional solidarity (Prussia) and the year that a first ball would be kicked in anger. Between the club’s formation in 1899 and 1912, Mönchengladbach gained notoriety at a regional level as they joined the Westdeutsche Spielverband association and progressed to the top division. The building of Bökelbergstadion had been interrupted by World War One, and by the end of the Second, it was being used as a space to repair tanks. In 1960, Gladbach won their first German Cup by beating Karlsruher 3-2. By 1964, a ‘new’ Bundesliga formed.
Initially starting a division below the top flight, a club without the financial backing of clubs from bigger cities was allowed to grow away from expectation. Like many great sides throughout the 20th century, Gladbach developed the players at their disposal, and – with the appointment of Hennes Weisweiler – created the first dose of heavy metal football before the dawn of the demonic fifth in ‘popular’ music.
Despite often giving the impression of a stern PE teacher tasked with controlling unruly schoolboys, Weisweiler showed a willingness to listen to his players and, when faced with teething problems, simply reiterated his desire for high-octane football. Whereas future rivals Bayern Munich seemingly fell back upon a stoic pragmatism, Weisweiler’s charges redefined counter-attacking football with an effortless pace that showed little regard for cynicism. Gladbach scored 92 goals in their first season under Weisweiler and upon gaining promotion were promptly dubbed “die Fohlen” by local journalist Wilhelm August Hurtmanns.
Weisweiler himself is a figure cloaked in the hypocrisy of legend. Born in Erfstadt-Lechenich, a picturesque town southwest of Kӧln, whose playing career amounted to just over 60 appearances for FC Kӧln, and whose illustrious time in charge of Gladbach was sandwiched between spells at the helm of the club he had previously played for. Weisweiler is lauded as Gladbach’s greatest ever manager: a man with the perfect tools for equine wellness that raised die Fohlen from naive abandonment to summery pastures spent grazing on silverware at the expense of much more fancied clubs.
In Gladbach’s first season in the Bundesliga, the side had an average age of just under 22-years-old. Among them stood a 20-year-old son of a greengrocer with strong sympathies to the socialist cause. Used predominantly as a playmaker that kickstarted phases of play with his unique vision and chipped in with a healthy goal return, Günter Netzer was a poster boy for the new era of Gladbach.
Carrying himself with as much swagger off the pitch as on it, the young German typified the rebellious nature of his side and of a wider, more radical Germany behind him. As success followed Weisweiler’s side, pundits would pit the rogue charm of Netzer as the antithesis to Bayern’s Franz Beckenbauer; the all-knowing Kaiser and bastion of rationality. Little did people care that Bayern homed Germany’s most controversial star, Paul Breitner: the dye had been cast and Gladbach represented the anti-establishment to Bayern’s oppressive rule.
In the 1969/70 season, die Fohlen won a first Bundesliga title, finishing ahead of Bayern by four points over 34 matches and despite the goalscoring exploits of Gerd Müller. The following year Gladbach became the first side to retain the title, this time two points ahead of the more controlled possession football from Münich, and there was a growing sense of anticipation of what could be achieved by this young side. In Europe that year, Gladbach had comprehensively beaten Inter Milan by seven goals to one and a watching Matt Busby waxed lyrical in praise of the German side’s “pace, power, and innovation”. It was a shame that the result would later be annulled.
In spite of a German Cup win at the end of the 1972/73 season, Gladbach lost their star player to Real Madrid at the end of the year. Fresh from success at the 1972 European Championships with West Germany and having scored the winner in the DFB Pokal final, Madrid tempted Netzer to become the first German to play in Spain, and for Weisweiler, an opportunity for introspection presented itself.
Much like several years earlier, the highly regarded master of die Fohlen opted to trust the players at his disposal in a rejigged system. Borrowing heavily from Dutch Total Football, Weisweiler implemented an attacking trident spearheaded by Jupp Heynckes’ complete forward play, complemented by the straight-laced Rainer Bonhof’s deep mastery of set-pieces.
Simonsen had been something of a misfit in his first two years in Germany. Seen as a bit-part player, his performance lacked the intensity of his teammates and he played a mere 17 matches before Nezter’s departure. Upon establishing himself as a first-team regular, Simonsen typified the trademarks found in Borussia’s best performances. Always looking for space beyond defenders and comfortable converting chances from a vast array of angles, the former Vejle BK player became a vital cog in the Mönchengladbach machine.
Following a treble of Bundesliga wins, a UEFA Cup victory and a European Cup final defeat between 1974 and 1977, Simonsen was crowned European Footballer of the Year in 1977. In doing so he became the first Danish player to win the award and like so many of his contemporaries, was being eagerly watched from Barcelona.
Henning Jensen – the third point of the trident – had a slightly shorter spell at Borussia Mönchengladbach but for all the right reasons. Playing as a deep-lying forward on the other flank to his international teammate, Jensen’s dynamism and acrobatics made breathless acts the ordinary. He stayed at Mönchengladbach until the end of the 1975/76 season when he too departed for the riches of Real Madrid. His four-year spell in Germany arguably signals Die Fohlen at their finest as the front three of Heynckes, Simonsen, and Jensen tormented defences with a headache-inducing persistence. When Jensen left, his trophy tally amounted to four trophies in as many seasons.
The first season trusting the trident in place of Netzer resulted in Bayern piping Gladbach to the title by a solitary point, despite Heynckes scoring thirty goals. The following season would arguably prove the best yet as Weisweiler’s Gladbach completed an unexpected double, finishing sixteen points clear of Bayern and nine points clear of local rivals FC Köln. The second trophy came in the form of the UEFA Cup as Gladbach self-actualised in a 1-5 second-leg win over FC Twente after a disappointing 0-0 draw on home soil.
Included in the five goals was a spectacular Heynckes hat-trick and a brace from Simonsen. Gladbach had its first international title but this was to be soured by the news that Hennes Weisweiler had accepted an offer from Spain to become manager of Barcelona after 11 years at the helm. When the nurturing father of Die Fohlen passed in 1983, he was mourned by fans of both Borussia Mönchengladbach and rivals Köln.
To say Weisweiler’s Spanish departure left no void would be untrue, yet, Gladbach still retained the Bundesliga title in 1976 and then again in 1977. In the first of those, Borussia finished four points clear of closest challengers Hamburger SV and a further point clear of Bayern. However former Bayern Munich manager Udo Lattek’s appointment had prompted a more cautious Gladbach with them scoring twenty fewer goals in his first campaign – six fewer than third-placed Bayern.
The following campaign saw Mönchengladbach beat Schalke 04 and Eintracht Braunschweig to the title by a single point. Their diminished attacking instincts brought fewer goals again, but a side coming of age tightened up defensively and conceded the fewest goals in the Bundesliga – a mere 34 to Bayern’s 65. Only third-placed Braunschweig came close to matching Lattek’s men defensively. Had Europe’s most dangerous side learned responsibility?
Where once Weisweiler’s men had attacked the opposition without the ball, Lattek tasked his side with pressuring opponents in situations deemed winnable. The logic behind these instructions being that his side would be less susceptible to unplanned movements through the lines. In practice, his side would force fewer mistakes from the opposition, which in turn reduced opportunities to score. Few would argue that it didn’t work and there was a growing belief that it would work in Europe’s top competition.
In Europe, a Madrid side containing both Netzer and Breitner overcame Lattek’s men in controversial circumstances. In a combative and close affair, Borussia tempers flared upon the disallowance of two seemingly legitimate goals. To add insult to circumstance, it was with a bitter taste that fans of Die Fohlen looked upon the achievements of Lattek’s old outfit, Bayern. With Dettmar Cramer at the helm, Die Roten went on to win their third European Cup in a row playing the kind of methodological football that fueled lazy stereotypes of the humourless German; devoid of wit and ruthlessly efficient.
Where Mönchengladbach had once been the tonic to Bayern, a longing to compete at the very top of European football required a more pragmatic approach. Lattek’s new side had the opportunity to prove their international credentials the following season when they came face-to-face with a club they had already met four times in Europe that decade and with which they shared a bond born out of frequency.
Borussia Mönchengladbach’s pathway to the final had dealt them a series of close encounters. After an impressive Bökelbergstadion victory advanced Die Fohlen beyond Austria Vienna, an away trip to Torino promised to be a sterner test. As the Stadio Olimpico di Torino bombarded the travelling Germans with a wall of sound, Lattek’s men gave one of their most professional European performances and ran out 2-1 winners thanks to a rare Hans Klinkhammer goal. In the second-leg, Gladbach again did what was necessary and progressed to face Club Brugge in the quarter-final after a goalless draw.
Both the quarter-final and semi-final were decided by a one-goal margin. Against Club Brugge, Gladbach were two goals down at home within the first half. Backed into a corner, Die Fohlen returned to their attacking roots to salvage the tie, and an Allan Simonsen equaliser in the dying embers of the match ensured the home side could still progress. Once more, the second leg in Brugge saw Lattek’s men play the perfect away match, expertly managing the home crowd before snatching a winner six minutes from time. A first European Cup final awaited them if they could beat Dynamo Kyiv.
Trailing by a solitary goal from the first leg in Ukraine, Borussia’s fate would be decided in front of a packed home stadium. Given their failure to score away from home, it was imperative that Gladbach did not concede and at the halfway point of the second-leg, the score remained poised at 0-0. Midway through the second half, Rainer Bonhof confidently converted a penalty given for handball. As it stood, the tie would be facing extra time. Die Fohlen tasted blood.
Eight minutes remained on the clock when Bonhof opted to cutely chip a free-kick beyond the static Dynamo defence to an onrushing forward. A mess of bodies squirmed to block the shot, and the crowd screamed for a penalty. There was no reaction from the referee and Dynamo cleared, but only for the ball to return at pace for Hans-Jürgen Wittkamp to head beyond the helpless frame of Serhiy Krakovskyi. Borussia Mönchengladbach were on their way to Rome where Liverpool awaited.
Although that final in Rome ended in a 3-1 defeat for Gladbach, the club from North Rhine-Westphalia and the red half of Merseyside turned what could have quite easily been the birth of a rivalry into a unique friendship with mutual respect for each other’s traditions. In 1991, Borussia fans donated approximately £7,000 to the families of the victims of Hillsborough and both sets of fans receive a warm reception upon visiting the other. The final itself provided a healthy dose of realism for a side trying to nurse their slightly injured top goalscorer Jupp Heynckes back to full health and the stark reality of their situation infected their play.
Despite drawing level from a goal down and seemingly being in the ascendancy, two goals in the last thirty minutes consigned Gladbach to defeat. Sweltering in the heat of a Roman night, Borussia had to accept that they were second best on the biggest night in the club’s history.
The 1976/77 season also marked the last time the club won the Bundesliga in that glorious era, bringing to an end Mönchengladbach’s golden phase. Once more inspired by Allan Simonsen who finished the campaign as nine-goal top scorer, the club would add another UEFA Cup in the 1978/79 season at a time when the days of delirium and the belief that anything was possible had ended. This is not to belittle the significant achievement of more silverware when surrounded by much more fancied sides, but hindsight shows the victory as the close of an illustrious chapter in the club’s history.
Like most of Borussia’s big European fixtures, their home ties were played at the bigger Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf to increase German attendance, and the second leg of the final was no different. Following a tense 1-1 draw in Belgrade, Lattek’s final match before departing ended in a 1-0 win courtesy of an Allan Simonsen penalty. Although Red Star Belgrade threatened to upset the manager’s leaving party, they were unable to break down a Gladbach side playing with a knowing and a discipline that had once seemed impossible.
There would still be plenty of occasions in which that muscle memory kicked in and arguably the most impressive result of the golden era came with Lattek in charge. The available footage from 28 April 1978, shows a side relentlessly pressing Borussia Dortmund into dishevelment. To this day there remains a tangible joy in witnessing the calmness with which this Mönchengladbach side cut through and effortlessly humiliated their opponent. Captained by Berti Vogts and with all 11 players kitted out in the latest Puma boots, Mönchengladbach convincingly won 12-0 and it could well have been more.
On the touchline, Lattek cajoled his side in attire more accustomed to a French post-structuralist attending a small dinner party, his hair stretched across the top of his head to cover creeping baldness, clearly delighted by the confident, twisting wing-play of Kalle Del’Haye.
Despite the aforementioned UEFA Cup and a second-placed finish, criticism similar to that which Lattek had faced in charge of Bayern began to engulf the now wantaway manager. How had a side once praised for innovation and vigour been allowed to bruise in the light of Europe’s watchful eye? The board and Lattek were guilty of a lack of continuity planning and the end of the ‘70s marked the end of Gladbach as a footballing force to be both feared and aroused by. They had become a side devoid of craft. A formula once exciting and genuinely innovative was no longer carried out to consistently high standards and appeared trite in comparison to clubs that had once been contemporaries.
The criticism of Lattek may seem harsh given that he would go on to manage both Barcelona and, in returning to Bayern, become one of the most successful German coaches of all time. He had won silverware with Gladbach and had provided fans with moments they could only dream of now, but he marked the end of the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s radicalism that permeated through everything Gladbach did as a team. Given the aftermath of Lattek, it is unlikely that a more expansive manager or style of play would have resulted in similar levels of success but we can still mourn for the passing of a truly great underdog side born out of daring and vigour.
His successor was the club golden boy, Jupp Heynckes. Having served his apprenticeship as an assistant to Lattek, Heynckes was appointed in July of 1979 and would prove a nearly man. Aged just 34, he was tasked with overcoming the previous season’s winners, a Kevin Keegan-inspired Hamburg. Having finished 10th in Lattek’s last season, Heynckes’ Gladbach side showed marginal improvement in finishing seventh, but a Bayern side dining out with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge began to dominate the airwaves. The following season told a similar tale.
The closest that Gladbach would come to winning the title again would be the 1983/84 season and they did so by finishing third on goal difference (+33) behind both Stuttgart (+46 goals) and Hamburg (+39 goals). There would be no fairytale ending to Heynckes’ time in Mönchengladbach and he would go on to have success with domestic rivals Bayern. He is still rightly regarded as one of the finest players to ever grace the club and the figurehead of an all too underappreciated team of yesteryear.
The 1970s belonged to German football and Borussia Mönchengladbach were the most entertaining of the lot. You can only imagine what modern fans of the West Rhine side would give to get goosebumps not fueled by memory, but an expectation that anything is possible when their team attack.