BY KEVIN O’NEILL
For the modern generation of football fans, imagining Manchester City scraping around the transfer bargain basement seems a preposterous thought.
Having been rocket-launched in to a select group of the richest and most ambitious clubs in the world in recent times through major investment from the Middle East, City have become able to attract some of the game’s best coaches and players. And this summer alone, they set a new world record transfer fee for a goalkeeper, paying £34.9million to acquire Ederson from Benfica, having previously kicked-off an expected bumper summer of Premier League spending by signing Monaco’s creative Portuguese star Bernardo Silva for another £43.6million.
They joined a squad already brimming with high cost, high quality players like Sergio Aguero, David Silva and the precocious Brazilian, Gabriel Jesus. These days, money is no object for City and in some cases they can get who they want, whenever they want.
As a result, they have become annual challengers for domestic trophies, winning the Premier League twice in the last six years. And though UEFA Champions League glory has not yet followed, it’s true that Manchester City’s transformation in the last decade has been quite staggering, especially considering the club played in England’s third-tier in 1999.
In the lead-up to City slumping to such depths, their financial health was nowhere near as sound, meaning that for much of the 1990s they had to root around for hidden gems to aid regular fights against relegation from the top-flight.
In the case of Georgian playmaker Georgi Kinkladze, the policy worked a treat. He was regularly mesmeric to watch; a master of jinking past opponents and a real pleasure to see in full flow.
But mainly, City had far more misses than hits when scouting around Europe for talent, particularly in a period during the 90s when they shopped extensively, and cheaply, in Germany. These expeditions were not, however, to sign the cream of German talent, as City have managed to do in more recent years with Ilkay Gundogan and Leroy Sane. Rather, they were merely rummaging around for waifs and strays that might turn out to be surprisingly good bargains.
Sadly though, this low-cost and relatively low-risk transfer policy never worked out too well. Instead, they usually came away from Germany with damaged goods; some of whom were never quite up to scratch in the first place, and others that once looked ripe and in their prime but had clearly passed their sell-by date before arriving at City’s famous former home, Maine Road.
Of course, no story relating to the relationship between the blue side of Manchester and Germany is anything without mentioning the legendary goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, who was the first ever player (and the best ever) to arrive at City from the home of the four-time World Cup winners. The Bremen born goalie’s story remains a remarkable one, and has been much told, for having served as a paratrooper in the aerial warfare branch of the German Army (Luftwaffe) during World War II, Trautmann was captured by British forces towards the end of a brutal and bloody war. He was incarcerated at a prisoner-of-war camp in Lancashire and having turned down the offer of repatriation, was released from captivity in 1948 to try to settle in to life in England. Trautmann subsequently found work on a farm and joined St. Helen’s Town Football Club (now members of the North West Counties League), where his impressive performances soon caught the attention of Manchester City. Despite much disgruntlement at the prospect of City signing a former paratrooper, he joined the club in late 1949 and his acquisition would prove one of the club’s shrewdest ever. Trautmann won the Football Writers’ Player of the Year in 1956, the same year that he played a substantial amount of time in the FA Cup Final win against Birmingham City with an injury later confirmed as a broken neck.
Indeed, Trautmann’s tremendous legacy at the club – he played over 500 games in a 15 year spell – ensured that German football has an unbreakable bond with Manchester City. However, in the lengthy period of time between his departure from Maine Road (1964) and the more recent exploits of countrymen Gundogan (regardless of an unfortunate injury plagued debut season at City) and compatriot Leroy Sane, City had very mixed fortunes when it came to employing the services of German players.
For while their supporters still rightly celebrate the efforts of Trautmann, and the one real sound German investment in the 90s, Uwe Rosler, there is also plenty of scope for criticising and even ridiculing some of the other Germans to pitch-up around the same time as the striker who was signed from Dynamo Dresden in the 1993/94 season.
For example, it’s not with any great fondness that City supporters remember the input of midfield player Steffen Karl, acquired in the same season as Rosler by manager Brian Horton, whose ailing side were struggling to find anything like consistency near the foot of the Premier League.
And yet, despite making only six appearances in the sky blue shirt, Karl can claim to have played a fairly substantial role in keeping City in the top-flight in 1993/94.
For having signed on-loan from Borussia Dortmund, where he was more or less a reliable fringe player in a four-year spell, he joined a City squad lacking real creativity in midfield, as they went through several options to atone for losing the hugely promising Paul Lake to a catalogue of injuries from 1990 onwards (although Lake was still part of the set-up until officially retiring in 1996). The very experienced Steve McMahon, a winner of multiple honours in his Liverpool days, had been brought in by former manager Peter Reid to add steal and knowledge in the middle of the park, but he was often partnered in the 93/94 season by young pretenders like Garry Flitcroft, Steve Lomas and Fitzroy Simpson. Even David Brightwell, a limited defender by trade, could be used in midfield from time to time, illustrating City’s difficulties in that area.
The hope was that the signing of Karl would offer a bit more guile in the engine-room. And despite not making an outstanding impact, he did come into the side as City’s sketchy form had started to pick-up. Indeed, it was a late winning goal by Karl at Southampton in early April – his only strike in a City shirt – that went a long way to ensure eventual survival, as a somewhat rejuvenated City side lost just twice in the last 14 league games. The upturn in form could not really be attributed to Karl, absolutely no way. But that winning goal at The Dell, created after magnificent work by veteran McMahon, would prove crucial after City had been bottom of the table by mid-February (1994).
That had been a terribly worrying period for City, who had previously more than held their own in the Premier League under the tutelage of Horton’s predecessor, Peter Reid. However, Reid departed the club early in the 93/94 campaign, as City suffered a slow start and his relationship with chairman Peter Swales, whose own tenure was coming under increasing scrutiny by City fans vexed by a lack of investment in the team, reached the point of no return.
Horton, who previously managed Hull City and Oxford United, had been a surprise choice by the board to replace the popular Reid, and Horton didn’t endear himself to City fans by trading their trusted attacking stalwart David White for Leeds United’s David Rocastle. The sadly deceased Rocastle, a former Arsenal star, had lit up Highbury for almost a decade but failed to live up to expectations at Maine Road. It just never worked out for him at City and he soon moved on to Chelsea. But a trio of Horton’s other transfer dealings in March 1994, seen at the time as panic buys to pull clear of the drop-zone, turned out to be majestic – in the short-term anyway – and included the capture of Uwe Rosler, an unheralded centre-forward who progressed to become a cult hero for the Blues.
Aside from Rosler, City also signed the outrageously skilful but often frustrating winger Peter Beagrie from fellow strugglers Everton, and former Liverpool attacker Paul Walsh from Portsmouth. But ironically, while Beagrie and Walsh played key roles for the next while, it was the lesser known Rosler who went on to establish himself as a bona fide hero among the loyal City support.
Rosler was 25 when he joined, following an abysmal spell with FC Nurnberg, where he completely failed to replicate prior form at Dynamo Dresden and, in particular, at lowly FC Magdeburg where he initially made his name. Yet, despite winning five caps for East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, its fair to say that Rosler’s career, before moving to England, had barely taken off.
Even though Rosler had to come through a trial to earn a contract with City, it wasn’t long before it became abundantly obvious that his tenacious style and aerial prowess was greatly suited to the English style of the time. With Beagrie supplying crosses from the wing, Rosler was soon able to put his bustling style to good use, netting five times in 12 appearances before the end of the 93/94 season, ensuring that his goals, and overall playing style, claimed most headlines as City stayed in the division by three points.
“Rosler was brilliant with Paul Walsh in Horton’s wildly attacking, yet defensively unstable team”, recalls David Mooney, host and producer of The Blue Moon podcast.
“He was always exciting when the ball was in and around the box and his goalscoring record was pretty good for an inconsistent Premier League team”, Mooney adds.
Indeed it was. The Altenburg born forward managed an average of a goal for every three games in just over 150 league appearances for City, including a fine return of 22 goals (in all competitions) in his second season (1994/95). That confident streak of goal-scoring included a four-goal haul in one match, against Notts County in the FA Cup, making Rosler the first City player to manage that particular feat since 1953.
By then, the unpopular Peter Swales had been replaced as chairman by former club hero Francis Lee, but City’s basement battle continued apace under Horton in 94/95 despite Rosler and Walsh playing well for most the campaign, as the combination of the former’s physicality and penalty-box nous and Walsh’s boundless energy ensured City never had many problems putting the ball in the net. But they struggled enormously at the other end of the field, and finished the season just two places above the relegation places. Horton was then replaced in the dug-out by Alan Ball, a World Cup winner in 1966 and a supremely able midfielder for Everton and Arsenal. But his appointment changed the landscape for Rosler, and for City, whose struggles only deepened further under Ball. He was adamant that City should ditch a reliance on getting the ball to their wingers, like Beagrie, to provide aerial ammunition for Rosler and/or fellow striker Niall Quinn.
The new manager also shocked the City support by swapping Paul Walsh (and parting with £500,000) for Portsmouth’s Gerry Creaney, who had started his career at Celtic. Creaney managed only four goals in 21 league outings for City, and Walsh’s undoubted role in getting the best from Rosler was sorely missed.
Ball wanted the City team to orchestrate the bulk of their attacks from central positions, in the process alienating Beagrie from the side (he played just five times under Ball) and regularly playing winger Nicky Summerbee, signed from Swindon Town, in a less effective right-back role.
Thus, Rosler was starved of the required service in the box and soon fell out of favour. Sadly, says David Mooney, the manager’s clear lack of faith in Rosler led to the diminishing of the talismanic forward’s influence on the pitch.
“Rosler soon looked a shadow of the player he was a couple of years earlier, and City just couldn’t create the chances he needed to score”, he recalls.
“With Walsh, the strike partners just seemed to understand each other. But with others, Rosler was less effective and the team struggled. Rosler was great with the likes of Beagrie and Summerbee getting the ball in the box. But that style went out the window when Horton was sacked. With Ball switching the style around, it put more pressure on the strikers to create their own chances and Rosler struggled as a result”, adds Mooney.
So, the 94/95 season, which included two convincing defeats against rivals Manchester United, signalled the beginning of the end for Rosler’s City career. And although he continued to fight to save it in 95/96, memorably scoring in another Manchester Derby defeat having been left on the bench to start with, and finishing the season as the club’s leading scorer, his star was somewhat on the wane, especially as Ball became more reliant on his own forward acquisitions like Nigel Clough and Mikhail Kavelashvili, a Georgian who made little impact despite famously scoring on his debut in the Derby.
In the end, City fell through the relegation trap door at the end of the 1995/96 season and Ball was out of the job by the following August. Rosler, in fairness, still hit 17 goals in the second tier in 1996/97 but his overall impact was not what it once was as City finished below mid-table and then suffered relegation to the third-tier in the following season. Rosler left for Kaiserslautern and later returned to England to play for Southampton and West Bromwich Albion, and has since become a manager in England.
But his finest work, as a player, was seen in Manchester City colours and in 2009, he was inducted into the club’s ‘Hall of Fame’. Indeed, when the German triumphantly beat the threat of cancer a few years ago, he claimed the support received from City fans spurred him on to recovery.
“I have never hidden the fact I have a very strong emotional bond to Manchester City. From the moment I walked in the door, I knew the club was made for me. I felt the energy, the vibe, from day one”, Rosler has said in the past. Taking his affinity with the club even further, Rosler named his sons, Colin and Tony, after City icons Colin Bell and Tony Book.
Unfortunately, the three other Germans to play for City alongside Rosler didn’t make as much of a lasting impact, despite the talented Maurizio Gaudino, who arrived on-loan from Eintracht Frankfurt in the latter stages in the 94/95 Premier League season, showing fleeting moments of high quality from midfield. Gaudino had won the Bundesliga title with VfB Stuttgart and five caps for Germany, but when his temporary spell in Manchester was not made permanent he extended his career for another eight years by playing in Mexico, Switzerland and Turkey, as well as back home for VfL Bochum and SV Waldhof Mannheim. Somewhat ridiculously though, Gaudino is probably best known, in Britain, for being the victim of an unnecessarily crude tackle by the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in a celebrity England vs. Germany charity match.
Soon after, goalkeeper Eike Immel, another Bundesliga winner and member of West Germany’s European Championship winning squad in 1980, and the left-back Michael Frontzeck, who won 19 international caps, came to Maine Road to aid an ultimately unsuccessful battle against relegation in 95/96. The latter would last only 23 league games while Immel, it’s fair to say, never totally convinced the City fans.
“I have memories of panic attacks every time Immel left his line and he seemed to struggle to dominate his box, even if he did pull off one or two good saves. Frontzeck was seen as the answer to the club’s left-back issues but never hit top-form in his 20-odd games for the club”, says David Mooney.
Indeed, Immel’s preference for punching crosses rather than catching them (which is now widespread among goalkeepers), tended to cause anxiety in a crowd used to seeing City on the back-foot in their relegation season. In saying that, the then 34-year-old had some fine games for City, having been drafted in as an emergency signing following the loss to injury of three ‘keepers (Tony Coton, Andy Dibble and Martyn Margetson). In his favour, he could still produce some very good saves and it must also be remembered that Immel was playing behind a fragile defence. He went on to play four times for City in the second-tier, as well, and over 50 times for the club overall, before retiring and taking up coaching positions (and a place on the German version of ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’).
As illustrated, Rosler was undoubtedly the pick of City’s 90s German invasion, and although Dietmar Hamann did reasonably well for the club in a three-season spell from 2006, other young German signings Loris Karius (now of Liverpool) and Dino Toppmoller, a midfielder and son of former Bayer Leverkusen manager Klaus Toppmoller, failed to make the grade at City before returning to Germany.
In more recent years, City’s vastly improved financial situation means that instead of signing out-of-favour players from Germany, they can instead compete for the most outstanding talent in the Bundesliga.
Jerome Boateng, Ilkay Gundogan and Leroy Sane have all signed for City in the last few years, with young attacker Sane looking like a real gem after an impressive debut season in the 2016/17 Premier League. If Gundogan can shake-off the unwanted habit of getting injured too often, he too has the technical prowess to become a great City player, but in Boateng’s case, it never really happened for him at the Etihad Stadium (City’s home since 2003). He was played mainly out-of-position at right-back, instead of at the centre-back role that he’s since mastered for Bayern Munich and the German national team, meaning that English football fans rarely saw the best of Boateng.
The same could be said, unfortunately, for the majority of City’s 90s German contingent. For although the signing of Rosler gave the City fans an attacking idol in a tough era for the club, their dalliance with German players in that period doesn’t leave too many fond memories.
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