Footage of Steffen Baumgart screaming at his TV while watching his team from home has been doing the rounds of late, but the sight of 1. FC Köln’s flat cap-wearing coach showing his passion during a game is nothing new for viewers of the Bundesliga. In this week’s interview, we talk with Cologne’s tactician about his cult status with the club, his highlights of the season, and his vast selection of headwear.
Please complete the sentence: In my job as head coach at Köln, I currently most enjoy…
The team. How they work, how they deal with the situation, and the way we are seeing them develop.
As a head coach, you haven’t even been at Köln for a full season yet and you are already a cult hero. That must be overwhelming. Why do you think it is?
Things like that always happen quickly. You are always raised up quickly, but what matters most is that you don’t allow yourselves to fall quickly, too. That’s what I am working on. Not on the rise, but on staying solid and avoiding a downward slope.
What are your highlights in this season so far?
I don’t have any personal highlights. It’s not about this match or that match, it’s about a lot of small things that have come together to create points, because of the way the boys have worked.
Did you realise before the season what you could achieve with this team, or have you been surprised by your side’s development?
I was never the one that was talking about development and what is possible here, so on reflection, I think I am probably the one who is least surprised by it.
As an outsider you would be excused for thinking you are the epitome of an anti-Kölner: stoically north-German, rarely emotional, sometimes grumpy. Is that impression misguided, or does Köln just need a counterweight to its craziness?
No, I’m not Grumpy. What does grumpy even mean? Just because you don’t see photos of me grinning every day doesn’t mean I am grumpy. Even so, I think you must make sure that you are focussed and clear in your objectives, and you also don’t have to find every joke funny. I’m not a grumpy man. I like to laugh, and I like to sing just like people from Köln. I don’t love to sing every Köln song, because they are too black-and-white, too up-and-down, all heart and pain, but generally I am very polite, friendly, and in my opinion a very balanced person.
What frustrates you about the hype surrounding you?
I find it difficult. It is very positive at the moment, but I take it as it comes. When people don’t approach me, I can deal with that very well, and when people approach me because they want a photo or they have a question and want to speak to me, then I will do that too. I just don’t stand there and wave at them.
You rarely pick out individuals after matches and questions about Anthony Modeste scoring a brace have been known to frustrate you. What sort of questions would you like to be asked after wins?
No. I think you always have to look at the team’s performance. Regardless of whether Tony has scored two goals, or Marvin Schwäbe has made a last-minute save, or whatever else, you always need the whole team to win a match. That’s why I don’t think anything supersedes the team. You can still have individual special performances, but we have those at every position. That is why it isn’t only Tony, it is also Salih [Özcan], Flacko and the entire bench unit. Izi [Kingsley Ehizibue] as well, who has come back in for Benno [Schmitz], and so on. There is not a single player who hasn’t contributed in a significant way to our season, and I think you should always recognise that on an individual level. That leads us back to where we started and how this team has achieved success. They show that every week, every day and every match. It’s evident in how we win games, which players help us win games. I think I know what I am talking about.
How happy are you with the performances of some of the backups, who have worked their way into the side this season and developed well? For example, Thielmann, Lemperle, Hübers and Kilian have compensated well in central defence for Czichos’ departure.
We haven’t compensated for it, because Rafa [Czichos] was an important player for us and will remain that way, even if that sounds odd. In football there are always incomings and outgoings, but we know what we had in Rafa, on a human level, and we won’t forget that. Still, you have to say that Kili has done very well and that Hübi has done very well. We knew they would and were confident of that. Jeff [Julian Chabot]. Who came in from Italy, is doing a very good job even if he has only seen action in two or three matches. He plays an important role here, and this whole team has shown the value of the backup players. I don’t like to say backup players because we are one unified team. Everybody has their role, and everybody is important.
One player who is rarely focused on is Salih. How pleased are you with his development and his willingness to work hard for the team?
That is another one of those stories, where one player is singled out as having done everything for the team. Doing everything for the team is his job, and I can list off 20 others who do that too, just in a different manner and by playing in a different way. It’s another situation where I am sure that everyone didn’t share our confidence in Salih’s ability, even if they all say they did now.
There is just one game left, and the door to European qualification has been left ajar for you. Will this game be hard, painful work, or do you just have to try to enjoy yourselves to get the most out of it?
In football wins hurt. They have to hurt, because you have to work hard for them and that can be painful. You must go all the way and just because the door is open, doesn’t mean we are through it yet, and that is why we have to stay focused. We know that we have already had a successful season, but of course we want to hold on to this, and as always we face an opponent who wants to prevent that.
What do you need to do in the final match to make that a reality?
We just have to continue doing what the team is already doing. We want to play well, to perform well and to influence the result in a commensurate way. The toughest thing in football is winning, so I think it’s premature to say we will win both games, because it’s a long time since Köln have won four in a row. I think Mr. Gisdol won six or seven in a row when he first arrived, I’m not sure. We see in every game how tough it is to maintain those standards and I find it tough to talk about, because for me it’s about us wanting to have success in the upcoming games and to do that we need to perform well. We know how tough that will be. Wolfsburg won’t be gifting us anything, and Stuttgart even less so. That is why we must focus on ourselves, focus on being successful, and after the match we can see if it was good or not and if we were successful or not.
Of course, most people are hoping to finally see a shifting of the sands at the top of the Bundesliga, but what makes Bayern better than every other team?
The Bavarians work on that every day and know how to live up to their status and their reputation. They don’t just talk a good game, they do it too. To me, they are the team, or the club that most clearly represents titles and success. When they are knocked out of the Champions League, they are clearly disappointed, whereas with all the other teams I get the impression it’s a case of: “We’ll see, perhaps we would like to do well.” The Bavarians make it clear that for them it’s not a case of want, it’s a case of need. You can see every day that they work like that and that they consider that a given. There are enough teams now who have enough quality players. Bayern don’t have incredible quality individually; they have the best mental quality. At this stage there are four or five other teams with the requisite technical quality, but who don’t deliver as well when it matters.
Recently you have often taken to wearing a baseball cap, instead of your usual flat cap. Did the fan shop call and tell you the flat caps were sold out and they need to sell more baseball caps?
No, I wear my flat cap for every match and during the week I only ever wear a baseball cap, unless I’m on my own time, when I wear my normal flat cap again, which I had before. We have very nice caps at Köln, everybody is welcome to pick one up, there are lots of nice ones in the fan shop.