Level on points with the league leaders, but eight behind on goal difference – it is not the ideal situation for Manchester United as they go in search of the Premier League title at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light this weekend. But this is not the first time that a team has entered the final day in such a situation. And a look back at the 1977/78 Bundesliga season may offer inspiration to Sir Alex Ferguson and his men, as they bid to overhaul Manchester City.
That season, Borussia Monchengladbach, like Manchester United reigning champions, went into the final day of the campaign level on points with 1.FC Koln, but 10 behind on goal difference. Die Fohlen faced a Borussia Dortmund team whose season was over having staved off the threat of relegation – a bit like Sunderland.
Koln meanwhile were travelling to St. Pauli, bottom of the league and heading down. Queens Park Rangers, the side Manchester City host in their final game, at least have a fighting chance of survival still. But the maths was quite straightforward for Gladbach: they needed either a favour from St. Pauli or an 11-goal victory at the very least.
Fate conspired to help Gladbach on the eve of the game, as Dortmund, managed by a young Otto Rehhagel, who would decades later lead Greece to an unlikely European Championship triumph in 2004, faced a goalkeeping crisis. Horst Bertram, the usual shot-stopper, was recovering from injury and so Rehhagel selected Peter Endrulat in his place; Endrulat had already been told that his contract was not to be renewed for the following season.
A fired up Gladbach raced out of the traps, going ahead within a minute thanks to Jupp Heynckes (the current Bayern Munich coach), who then soon doubled the lead, followed by a goal from Carsten Nielsen inside a quarter of an hour to make it three. Further strikes from Kalle Del’Haye, Heynckes and Herbert Wimmer made it 6-0 with five minutes still remaining in the first period; the unthinkable was now being thought.
Endrulat was offered the chance to be substituted, but opted to stay on the pitch and fate conspired to make him concede a further six goals – a decision he has regretted since.
“I should have left the pitch at half time”, admitted the goalkeeper. “Then at least Horst Bertram would have let in six of the goals. Most people forget that I actually saved a lot of shots, at least those which were possible.”
If Endrulat could not quite believe the hand that had been dealt him, several on the Gladbach side were having trouble understanding just what was unfolding too, with an unlikely title appearing to draw closer. "People were asking from the bench how many more goals we needed to beat Koln to the title," explained Heynckes. "When the scoreline was 9-0, they wanted three more, to which I replied ‘have you gone crazy?’"
At 12-0 to Gladbach, it was a record breaking scoreline, but the match came under significant scrutiny of course, with the predictable allegation of match fixing. This was put to bed when a Dortmund player simply admitted that his team had given up. And that was the evidence on the pitch, where the referee was forced to retrieve the ball on occasion to get the game restarted, as the Ruhr side showed little interest in resuming their pummelling in a hurry. Rehhagel was punished for his side’s attitude when he was fired following the result, and earned himself the nickname ‘Torhagel’, or ‘goal hail’ in English. It may explain to some extent why his future teams would be so defensively obdurate.
For Manchester United, the lesson is clear – a thumping victory is not beyond reach, even if it is unlikely. And if any team is going to produce such an unlikely result, it could well be Ferguson’s men. The Old Trafford outfit’s flair and attacking options mean they can open the floodgates when they are in the mood to do so. Manchester United have accounted for some of the Premier League’s most comprehensive victories, including 9-0 and 8-1 triumphs against Ipswich and Nottingham Forest respectively; not to mention an 8-2 victory against Arsenal earlier this campaign, though it would be a surprise if even a Sunderland team looking forward to their summer off defend as badly as the Gunners did that day.
Last weekend Ferguson wanted his side to score as many as possible against Swansea, but Brendan Rodgers was wise to his mentality, and instructed his team, as always, not to panic and to keep the ball. That meant Manchester United were unable to take full control of the game. They can at least expect to be able to do that against Sunderland this weekend. Martin O’Neill always sends out his teams to restrict the opposition’s time on the ball, but the Black Cats have looked like a group who are counting down the weeks until the end of the season and planning a fortnight in the sun, rather than digging in for one final fight.
But there is another side to the Gladbach story. Their players left the pitch following the outstanding feat only to discover that Koln had won 5-0, making their efforts irrelevant. The plus side for Manchester United fans is that Koln have not won the league since; and they may take that if the same fate were to befall Manchester City.