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By ESPN Staff

Theatre of the absurd

I have told you about the letter I sent Otto Rehhagel when I was 11 or so, haven't I? I guess it was during Euro 2004. (Me telling you about it, I mean, not me sending the letter.) The fact that he never replied when I offered him my services may have sown the first seeds of doubt in me as regards the competence of the people who, in one capacity or another, represent football clubs.

However, it took some time for this nagging feeling of scepticism to grow into the full-blown fatalism that would mark my later years as a football fan. That's because even professional cynics (read: aspiring writers) deep down want to believe that someone, somewhere knows what's going on. (Which also explains the popularity of conspiracy theories, but that's another story.)

And so I tried to come up with an excuse for Otto's negligence - my letter got lost, his reply got lost, he felt I was too young, and similarly far-fetched explanations - in pretty much the same way in which I'd later stand on the terraces and rack my brains to find reasons why our coach was bringing on this player, why our club had signed this coach or which of them had bought this player.

But those illusions die the more quickly the more often you actually meet the people you only used to watch from a distance or read about in the papers. I dare say that every professional journalist who's covered a certain club in anything approaching detail has lived through that dreadful morning, known in the trade as the 'point of no return', when you wake up and suddenly realise that your coach has no clue why he's bringing on this player, that the club doesn't really know why this coach was signed and that neither of them is sure what the idea behind buying this player was.

Graeme Souness signing a Senegalese international, who wasn't an international, based on a recommendation from George Weah, who wasn't George Weah? A Salzburg representative offering a contract to a Dutch plumber after having seen him in a kickabout at a camp site? Stuttgart's president signing Sasa Markovic on the strength of a video tape and coach Winfried Schäfer praising him as 'the new Marc Overmars' - only for both men to find out that moving pictures are very deceptive?

These are exceptions, we hope. But your capacity for repression has to be impressive to hope with much conviction, especially if you've been covering football for any longer period of time. Or if you've been to the theatre of the absurd that was the last Bundesliga week.

Between Wednesday morning and the wee hours of Thursday, three coaches were sacked and/or stepped down, the distinction being a bit unclear in the case of Jupp Heynckes at Gladbach.

Heynckes announced he was resigning from his post and then later told a newspaper there had been death threats. I'm not saying I doubt that, but as soon as the wire report of his resignation came through I thought back to what a colleague had told me on the second or third day of January. That was when we learned that Gladbach, rather surprisingly, had signed a new assistant coach, the Dutchman Jos Luhukay. My colleague said: 'If Heynckes doesn't win any of the first three matches after the winter break, Luhukay is the new head coach by February.'

I'll admit that I had my doubts about this prediction. Not because Luhukay had never coached in the German top flight before, nor because Heynckes is a Gladbach club legend. No, my doubts were much more pragmatic: why would Gladbach go into the long winter break, discuss possible transfers with Heynckes and have him prepare the team for the second half of the season, only to then sack him a few games later?

Wouldn't it make much more sense for the club, provided Heynckes' job was really so unsafe, to sack him in December and use the winter break to give the new man what new men always claim they lack - some time?

Well, stupid me. How, after all these years, could I still harbour the notion professional football has anything to do with pre-planning or pragmatism? The hours that followed Heynckes' resignation last Wednesday made it abundantly clear that football clubs - even famous and by and large well-run ones - don't care about such concepts.

First Bayern fired Felix Magath while he was conducting the morning training session. Oh, they have done more daring things at this club than sacking the coach when the team is in fourth place and about to meet Real Madrid in the Champions League. Otto Rehhagel (take that, you ignorer of letters!) was given the boot when he was in second place, only three points behind the leaders and about to play the UEFA Cup final.

But a mere 180 minutes after the end of the winter break and all that preparation? Where's the point in that? Especially if club representatives then face the cameras and proudly announce they have just phoned Ottmar Hitzfeld and gotten his okay to taken over the job.

Yes, it's nice to have such a good friend you can count on in a crisis. But what the Bayern people were in effect telling us is that they decided to fire a leading executive without any kind of Plan B up their sleeves. If Hitzfeld had turned them down, like he turned down Dortmund in December, they would have simply phoned the next guy in their little red book. Not to mention that Hitzfeld made it clear he will return to his state of semi-retirement in the summer, at the very same time at which Uli Hoeness hinted Bayern may have longer-term plans with him.

Later that day, we're still talking Wednesday, Hamburg decided Thomas Doll's time was finally up.

The first wire reports said that Huub Stevens was probably going to be the new coach. Then, on Thursday, a TV station announced Hamburg were in talks with Magath and that he was about to sign. But early on Friday, Magath turned down the offer, claiming Hamburg had already reached an agreement with Stevens and that he wouldn't steal a job from a colleague. A few hours later, Stevens was officially the new coach and hurried to Berlin, where the team was staying.

Now, what bothers me is not that Stevens-or-Magath thing. On Saturday, Hamburg's chairman Bernd Hoffmann told a reporter that Magath must have gotten something wrong because there was no finalised agreement between the club and Stevens and that he, Hoffmann, had to test the waters 'if somebody like Magath is suddenly on the market'. Sounds fair enough. But when did Hamburg have all those talks with Stevens, final agreement or not?

Whatever the precise chain of events, the club must have talked about a possible contract with Stevens ahead of the game between Hamburg and Cottbus on Wednesday evening. Hoffmann admitted that much in the above-mentioned interview, when he said he had informed Doll before said game that there would be consequences if Hamburg didn't win.

In other words: Hamburg stick with Doll for painful week after painful week, they have him oversee the preparation during the winter break and even sign new players. And then, after a 1-1 draw away at Bielefeld to kick-off the second-half of the season, they suddenly decide the next game is the one that counts and already get in touch with Huub Stevens?

If that makes sense to you, you should be running a professional football club.

  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

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