There are few names in European football which are as evocative as Borussia Mönchengladbach—and even fewer which are as long. The German team’s victory at Parkhead this week in the Champions League was a reminder of the Gladbach glory decade, the 1970’s, when they were one of the most successful teams both in the Bundesliga and in European competition.
They were led by their legendary coach, Hennes Weisweiler, who oversaw the team from 1964 to 1975, and was almost a German equivalent of Bill Shankly or Don Revie. Like Shankly and Revie, who respectively led Liverpool and Leeds from the English Second Division to top flight title wins, Weisweiler took over a side languishing in Germany’s second tier and within a decade had won numerous German and European trophies. And like Shankly (but not Revie), he laid the foundations for that trophy-winning glory to be maintained by his successors, at least for a few years.
Such was Gladbach’s success throughout the 70’s that they actually won more titles between 1970 and 1980 than the mighty Bayern Munich (five to Bayern’s four). What was even more impressive was that at that time Bayern provided the backbone—in the form of the magnificent Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller—of the great West Germany team that won the European Championship in 1972 and followed that up with a World Cup win on home soil in 1974.
Gladbach, of course, had a superb spine of their own, with the obdurate defender, Berti Vogts, the brilliant blonde midfielder, Günter Netzer, and the free-scoring striker, Jupp Heynckes. Allied to some star imports, notably the original great Dane, Allan Simonsen, they went toe to toe and title to title with Bayern throughout the decade.
It was only on the European front that they failed to match them. While Bayern won a hat-trick of European Cups between 1974 and 1976, the best Gladbach could manage was to reach the final in Rome in 1977. They lost to the great Liverpool side that won the European Cup for the first time, and retained it a year later. Nevertheless, there was some consolation for Gladbach in winning the UEFA Cup twice, in 1975 and 1979.
The UEFA Cup, unlike its derided successor, the Europa League, was not only worth winning but was arguably harder to win than the European Cup. At the time, of course, only national champions competed in the European Cup. The UEFA Cup, by contrast, was contested by all the other top teams (those who finished between second and sixth) in Germany, England, Italy and Spain.
Gladbach won admirers all over Europe for their brilliant attacking play and one fan in particular was so impressed by their style that he almost used it as a template for his own great attacking sides.
That fan was Arsène Wenger, who hails from the Alsace region of France, which is close to the German border. Wenger has always identified himself as being as much an admirer of German football as of French football. As a child, he was taken to Gladbach games in Germany. When they rose to prominence in the 1970’s, while he was eking out a fairly undistinguished playing career, he became an acolyte of Weisweiler.
Ironically, when he took over at Arsenal in 1996 his first competitive game in charge of the club was a UEFA Cup tie against Gladbach. Although Arsenal lost 6-4 on aggregate, in benefiting from Wenger’s implementation of the attacking ideas that he had learned from the German team, Arsenal would ultimately end up owing them a huge debt.
That win over Arsenal was inspired by the sublime Stefan Effenberg, who was worthy of inheriting Gunter Netzer’s mantle as a genuine midfield general. It was also one of Gladbach’s few highlights between the late 1970’s and their recent resurgence.
This has led to them playing in the Champions League for the last two seasons. Their debut season was relatively unimpressive, but they won at Celtic Park this week, courtesy of two horrendous Kolo Touré errors. With Celtic to play at home in their next match, Gladbach have a realistic chance of competing with Manchester City and Barcelona.
Even if that were to happen, however, there is no realistic chance of Gladbach ever returning to the glory days of the 70’s. Like so many other relatively small European clubs who achieved great success in that decade they have ultimately proved unable to compete with the “big boys”. Another outstanding example in this area would be France’s Saint Etienne.
Bayern have ended up monopolising most of the money and talent available in their home country. When Gladbach won their last league title in 1977, they were still ahead of Bayern on overall titles won, five to four. In the 40 years since, Bayern have won another 21 titles to Gladbach’s none. This makes them far and away the most dominant team in Germany. It has got to the point that the Bundesliga, like Serie A and Ligue 1 in recent years, has been reduced to the status of a one-horse race at times.
When they triumphed this week at Celtic, another former giant of the European game, it provided another reminder of the glory days. The reality of their relegation to also-ran status in Germany and Europe could be forgotten, at least temporarily. It was also an excuse to relive the memories of one of the great European club sides.