Picture the mysterious world of the football fan in the days before the internet. In the 1970s, the curious supporter had to pore over an actual printed map to find the precise location of their team’s next opponents in Europe. It was not just supporters either – the odd manager, player and club official might have swirled a finger somewhere over Munich when looking for the team wielding the exotic name of Mönchengladbach. For the record, the city of that name lies in the west of Germany, some 40km from the Dutch border, and is not – and never was – a suburb of the famous Bavarian capital.
That said, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayern München did have much in common back in the early days of colour broadcasts. Both had gained promotion to the Bundesliga in 1965, and both were about to make waves at home and abroad. Yet while Bayern have remained giants on the continental stage, Borussia’s era of swaggering success was, by comparison, a flickering moment.
“BACK THEN, THE TEAM WITH ONE OF THE LONGEST NAMES IN FOOTBALL - A TONGUE-TWISTER FOR FANS OF CONQUERED RIVALS - WAS ON EVERYBODY'S LIPS.”
But what a moment it was. Winning five German titles to Bayern’s three during the 1970s, they reached five European finals between 1973 and 1980, the small provincial club punching above their weight as players including Allan Simonsen and Berti Vogts commanded fear and respect across a continent. And it is 40 years ago this month that they arguably reached their pinnacle, winning the UEFA Cup for a second time. Back then, the team with one of the longest names in football – a tongue-twister for fans of conquered rivals – was on everybody’s lips.
For Gladbach, that second UEFA Cup triumph capped a decade of achievement. Upstart achievement. Youthful achievement – to begin with, anyway. They had joined the elite with a team aged 21.5 on average, earning the nickname Die Fohlen (the Foals). That affectionate moniker soon felt misplaced. There was nothing clumsy about their first Bundesliga crown in 1969/70, nor their successful defence the following season, and they fully galloped to three straight titles between 1975 and 1977. Bayern, their powerhouse domestic foes, could not keep up.
Not bad for a club from a town of just 150,000 inhabitants at the time. But Gladbach’s golden age was also a story of great players, starting with right-back and captain Vogts, the man they called the Terrier. The magic, meanwhile, at least in the early years, came from Günter Netzer. A free-spirited enigma who said he “thought of headers as similar to handballs”, he sparked Borussia’s signature counterattacks with long, defence-opening passes.
Both, along with forward Jupp Heynckes, were members of West Germany’s UEFA European Championship and FIFA World Cup-winning sides of 1972 and 1974. With the likes of Uli Stielike, Rainer Bonhof and 1977 Ballon d’Or winner Simonsen also on the books, this was a squad dripping with talent – and one encouraged to express itself by coach Hennes Weisweiler. “Better to lose 6-5 than 1-0,” was his mantra, as Gladbach seduced neutrals across the nation. And having conquered the Bundesliga at the start of the decade, they now wanted to take Europe by storm.
They did, but only after losing their long-haired talisman. In a shock for supporters, Netzer left for Real Madrid in the wake of Gladbach’s defeat by Liverpool in the 1973 UEFA Cup final. He had packed his bags following a falling-out with Weisweiler, but the worst fears of the fanbase were never realised. In charge from 1964 to 1975, it was Weisweiler who had transformed the club – and he duly carried on leading his charges towards the continental limelight.
With Udo Lattek and Heynckes later following him into the hotseat, there was a Liverpool-like continuity on the sidelines too. Heynckes, who years down the line would guide both Madrid and Bayern to UEFA Champions League glory, now looks back with pride on Borussia’s heyday.
“We played total football,” he explains, and there was no greater expression of that than over the border in the Netherlands in 1975, the second of Gladbach’s four UEFA Cup final appearances. After a goalless home draw, Heynckes himself scored a hat-trick in a 5-1 second-leg demolition of Twente to secure the club’s first European honour.
Still a record win for a UEFA Cup or UEFA Europa League final, that was Weisweiler’s last act in charge. He believed things couldn’t get any better. The team he had built would prove him wrong. Former Bayern coach Lattek maintained the high standards, leading Borussia to the 1977 European Cup final, where they fell 3-1 to Liverpool. They then made the semi-finals in 1978, but again Liverpool barred their way. Frustrating, but that frustration would soon pass.
By 1979, Heynckes had become Lattek’s assistant. The pair went on to mastermind Gladbach’s last big European adventure, though it was not an easy year. Vogts was absent for nine months through injury, and it showed. The Foals toiled away in the bottom half of the Bundesliga that season, but, crucially, kept themselves alive in the UEFA Cup.
“Because of my broken leg,” recalls Vogts, “I only played in the second leg of the semi-final and the final. Without me, the team did well in Europe.” Indeed, having kicked off by dispatching Sturm Graz, they overcame Benfica after extra time in the second round. Simonsen’s hat-trick in Poland then helped them past Śląsk Wrocław, and Gladbach next overcame Manchester City in the quarter-finals.
Waiting for them – in their sixth European semi-final in seven years – were fellow Bundesliga side Duisburg. After twice fighting back to draw 2-2 away, the Foals cantered past the Zebras, cutting through them on the break at the Bökelbergstadion. Simonsen struck twice in the 4-1 triumph, before praising the impact of the returning Vogts. “His experience is priceless,” he argued. For his part, Vogts had an eye on the bigger picture: “Two points in the relegation battle would have been even better.”
Gladbach did eventually ease those fears, ending the Bundesliga campaign in tenth place – and now a shot at glory beckoned in the two-legged UEFA Cup final against Crvena zvezda. They had crushed the same opponents 8-1 on aggregate in the previous season’s European Cup, but this contest would prove much closer. Agonisingly so. In fact, they required an Ivan Jurišić own goal to salvage a 1-1 draw after Miloš Šestić’s first-half strike in the Belgrade opener.
This was Lattek’s swansong, and approaching the decider he urged his players to ignore their away-goal advantage and “attack aggressively”. According to Vogts, this was no simple task. Gladbach’s Bökelberg home was just too small for contests of this magnitude, and Lattek’s men had to welcome Crvena zvezda over 30km away in Dusseldorf’s Rheinstadion. “It wasn’t easy,” remembers Vogts. “We didn’t really have home advantage. There was and still is a rivalry between Monchengladbach and Dusseldorf.”
Despite the venue, Simonsen gave Gladbach an 18th-minute lead with his ninth effort of the campaign, converting from the penalty spot. The visitors, however, were formidable opponents, Aleksandar Stojanović excelling in goal and Slavoljub Muslin striking the crossbar shortly before the final whistle. Borussia had required defensive fortitude, and some luck, to solidify their place in history, as Kicker magazine noted by crediting “Fortune and Berti” in their match report.
Vogts himself could feel which way the wind was blowing. “Look at this trophy,” he warned, as he followed Heynckes into retirement. “It will be our last chance to do this for a very long time.” Gladbach returned to the final the following year, but their former captain was proved right as they lost to Bundesliga rivals Eintracht Frankfurt. With their modest-sized stadium, the Foals simply lacked the resources to perform miracles forever. “People still talk to me about those years,” says Vogts now. “I keep saying we’d have won more silverware with another stadium.” Without it, Gladbach’s grip on stardom was tenuous.
Four decades on, they do have another stadium – Borussia-Park, their home since 2004. Visitors there can relive the glory days at the club museum, and might find an echo of that gilded past on the pitch next door. After all, the pressing game and swift transitions in vogue today mirror the football that Borussia played all those years ago – the football that led more than a few to discover just where Mönchengladbach lies on the map.