Cologne return to the big time with a point to prove


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The Hohenzollern bridge that extends from virtually the foot of Cologne cathedral and across the Rhine is covered with padlocks of every shape and sort, unique tokens of affection attached by loving couples.

After a two-year separation, the Domstadt's football club will be attaching a padlock of its own as its love affair with the 1. Bundesliga is back on.

It is great to have Cologne back in the top flight.

As much as clubs like Eintracht Braunschweig have given the highest level of German football in terms of freshness and colour - who doesn't dig a yellow shirt? - they are no match for a heavyweight like 1. FC Köln, one of the original founding members of the Bundesliga and a club steeped, like the city, in history.

And besides, they have a real goat as a mascot, and you cannot have too many live animals parading round Europe's football grounds, if only to prevent fully-grown adults from disgracing themselves in costumes.

Next term, Hennes VIII, so-called as he is the eighth goat named after the legendary coach Hennes Weisweiler, who won the double with Cologne in 1978, will again see top-grade football at the RheinEnergieStadion, the stage on which Cologne clinched promotion and the second-tier title with the 3-1 defeat of Bochum in front of 49,100 last Monday.

Hardly surprisingly for a city world-renowned for its Karneval, the achievement was celebrated fittingly by the club's fans.

The squad, coach Peter Stöger and the behind-the-scenes crew, led by sporting director Jörg Schmadtke, also enjoyed themselves on Tuesday in the VIP boxes of their own stadium.

But while the champagne was being sipped, Stöger and Schmadtke must have already turned their thoughts to the task facing them this summer: that of building a side capable of holding their own among the big boys.

Their defensive record in the second tier suggests they already have a (sufficiently?) solid foundation. Austrian Kevin Wimmer and Dominic Maroh, who I felt was impressive enough when Cologne were last in the 1. Bundesliga but was never really given a proper chance, have been formidable at centre-back.

With Miso Brecko, another survivor of the last top-flight campaign, and Jonas Hector, who helpfully signed a contract extension through to 2018 earlier this season, excellent at full-back, and Timo Horn solid in goal, Cologne have conceded just 16 goals this season.

Surely the 2. Bundesliga record of 26 shipped in a campaign will be topped with just three games remaining.

Hector's emergence has been particularly impressive. The 23-year-old may have taken his time to come through, but as Schmadtke remarked he has "uncanny consistency" for his age, and with Germany still in need of a quality left-back that can provide high-level performance time and again, could Hector be the answer for the Nationalmannschaft if he can produce the same or better displays next season?

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At the opposite end of the pitch, Patrick Helmes will surely be determined to prove that he can still score goals at the very highest level - how he must regret that kickabout with friends in 2009 that left him with a knee ligament injury that has so badly damaged his career! - while Marcel Risse and Anthony Ujah will hope they can build on their promising seasons having stepped down a level after struggling to establish themselves at Mainz.

It is, of course, a big step back up, though, and while Schmadtke ponders the necessary potential reinforcements, notably Daniel Van Buyten, the sporting director and current squad will surely not be the only ones asking themselves questions.

'Aufstöger! Aufstöger!' yelled jubilant 1.FC fans in the city's streets after Monday's win, a play on words with the club's coach's name and the German word for a promoted team ('Aufsteiger'), but Stöger's ability to raise his own as well as his side's game remains unknown.

Barely heard of outside of his native Austria, for whom he is one of their most-capped players, Stöger won the Austrian title with Austria Wien before moving to Cologne - eschewing a Champions League campaign in the process - for the relatively high transfer fee of 700,000 euros last summer.

That shows the Cologne board have faith in him - a luxury many of his predecessors have not enjoyed - but he is entirely untested at the highest levels of European football. Sounds eerily like Ståle Solbakken.

Stöger does, at least, seem to have the cool-headedness and silver-tongued eloquence to handle the increased media pressure.

When he was asked about whether it was fair for him to leave Austria Wien having guided them to the title, he replied: "We only talk about morals when good people want to better themselves despite existing contracts. We don't talk about morals when coaches are - in spite of contracts - fired."

Stöger has bettered himself and Cologne in the year he has been there. He still needs to do much more, though, if he doesn't want to test the moral fibre of the Cologne board.

By Ian Holyman - On Twitter @ian_holyman

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