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Mar 30, 2013

Heynckes mellows to be record breaker

There is a chance that Bayern Munich will wrap up the Bundesliga title this weekend, with a stunning seven rounds of games still to be played. This could be an international record of sorts, at least for the big leagues. I recall Inter winning Serie A in 2007 with five games left, but seven is pretty hefty.

• Blog: Mueller shines, Neuer flops

In any case, the domestic record will probably fall, if not this weekend then on the next one or the one after that. Because it currently stands at winning the Bundesliga with four games left (Bayern set it in 1973 and equalled it in 2003). And even if it should miraculously not fall, there are still literally a dozen records Bayern are going to finish the season with. They already have set a few, like the longest winning run at the beginning of the season, and have their sights firmly set on many more, from most wins to least goals conceded.

But the record I like best is this: Jupp Heynckes will be the oldest coach to win the Bundesliga. He's 67 now and will turn 68 in early May, nine days before the end of the league season. For the past five decades, the record was held by Willi Multhaup, who coached Werder Bremen to the 1965 title at age 61.

The reason I like this record best is that it puts the finishing touch on the great Heynckes metamorphosis. Because the man we see today at the sidelines, in the press room or on television is not at all the Jupp Heynckes as we knew him until a few years ago. So powerful is his current image as a quiet-but-knowing, benevolent elder statesman that many people have completely forgotten about the other Heynckes.

In June 2003, when he was set to leave his beloved Spain and return home to take over at Schalke 04, his goalkeeping coach Walter Junghans told a newspaper: "He is a fantastic person. Outgoing, loyal, generous to the people he works with." This wouldn't be out of a place in a contemporary Heynckes piece, but back then, ten years ago, Junghans felt forced to add: "Totally different from his image in the media."

At that time, his image was that of a man driven by an almost unhealthy ambition, a man who was such a stern disciplinarian that particularly younger players almost feared him, a man who was both quick-tempered and distanced. So quick-tempered was he that one of his players at Mönchengladbach dubbed him "Osram", after the light-bulb, because Heynckes's head - fairly Fergusonesque at the best of times - would turn a deep red when he was angry.

And he was so distanced that he triggered a player revolt. That was in 1994. Eintracht Frankfurt had appointed him precisely because he was supposed to be some sort of slave-driver, as the club felt an excellent team was underachieving due to the players' lack of discipline or commitment.

There may have been something to it, because in early December Heynckes was so unhappy with the effort put in by his three star players - Jay-Jay Okocha, Anthony Yeboah and Maurizio Gaudino - that he punished them with an extra training session just for the three of them. The trio retaliated by refusing to play in the next league game, whereupon Heynckes suspended them indefinitely.

Okocha was eventually pardoned, but Gaudino was loaned out to Manchester City and Yeboah sold to Leeds United. The rift, though, never healed and only four months later Heynckes stepped down, saying he and the club were "ill-matched".

But these days are so long gone they have been all but erased from the public perception of Heynckes. "This stage is all ancient history," says Ewald Lienen, who was a player under Heynckes and later his assistant coach in Spain. "Today it's one of his biggest strengths to handle people the right way and get the best out of them."

The most obvious example is Franck Ribéry, who'd lost his form and even, it sometimes seemed, his love of the game under Louis van Gaal in 2011. But when Heynckes came in, Ribéry blossomed again. "He's almost like a daddy to me," the Frenchman said. A few weeks ago, he even suggested that Heynckes should become the national coach if and when Joachim Löw steps down after the 2014 World Cup.

Confronted with that statement, Heynckes said: "I have turned down the job of national coach three times in the past already, now I don't have any motivation whatsoever to do it." It was yet another suprising Heynckes moment, because until that press conference the media had known of only one such job offer - back when Berti Vogts had stepped down in late 1998.

Heynckes declined the offer back then because his wife was severely ill. Two years later, his father-in-law was partially paralysed. Around that time, in 2001, he said in an interview with the Welt newspaper: "So many people in this society complain about petty things. Everywhere, I sense discontent. But everything is put into perspective when you experience illness."

There were many similar moments of thoughfulness in that interview - he also lamented "egotism" in football, the way "people assign priority to themselves and their clubs but not to the whole" - but it seems Heynckes was not quite ready to translate a different outlook on life into his daily work.

In September 2004, he was fired at Schalke and once again one of the reasons given, in this case by Schalke's business manager Rudi Assauer, was that "the relationship between coach and team was not intact". Assauer also hinted time had passed Heynckes by: "Jupp is a coach from the old school and he categorically wanted to continue in that vein. We can't do more than offer help."

But even this condescending tone wasn't the lowpoint. That came a bit over two years later. At the club that is dearest to his heart and in the city where he was born, Mönchengladbach, Heynckes had to coach two Bundesliga games under police protection because there had been death threats against him. In late January 2007, he'd had enough and stepped down. Not only from this coaching post - he became a pensioner.

For all we know, the years of retirement were not easy for Heynckes. In interviews, he's mentioned "various operations" he had to undergo, he referred to "news that make you wonder if things will work out" and he also alluded to losing a friend. Maybe these strokes of fate brought about a change in his manner. Or maybe it was simply that he had put football behind him and had made his peace with the game.

In any case, when his good friend Uli Hoeness fired Jürgen Klinsmann in April 2009 and needed a coach for the final five games of the season, Heynckes stepped in - and suddenly, maybe for the first time in his entire managerial career in Germany, he looked like a man who was enjoying himself, and football, in a quiet, satisfied way.

A few months later, after he had taken over Bayer Leverkusen and was working wonders with young players, a reporter asked him: "Are you still driven by the desire for titles?" Heynckes smiled. "You know what?," he replied. "I don't need that anymore."

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