Photo courtesy of unionfoto.de
In 1979 Kenny Rogers had a number one hit with a song called "The Gambler". It was unbearably trite and held, not very deeply within, a message about how to get along in this big ol' crazy world of ours. It is a favourite of idiotic young American men and their fathers, who have more money than brains, and less inclination to know about the real world out there than a tortoise with a really short neck. It sums up life's choices into two camps. Knowing "When to hold 'em“ and "When to fold 'em“. Brilliant. A wizened old drunk on a train has told us the secret of life.
But those of you who regularly visit the sportsdesk will know that we love a tawdry old metaphor around these parts. What‘s the point of sports – or indeed, shit country songs – if not to hold a light up to the real world. Or better yet to shine until the real world has disappeared from view entirely and the game, or song, becomes more than just a big ol' hill of beans. It becomes life itself.
So, imagine the scene. Uwe Neuhaus has a problem. With the best part of twenty minutes to go his 1.FC Union are gamely battling for a point in Aue, one of the most beautiful settings in which to watch football in the western world. But Aue are a brilliantly organised team, especially at home, and they know precisely how to play this. They will sit back while the oppostition come at them, wait for a gap to open up and take the three points gladly, swiftly and succinctly. Not for no reason are they in the hunt for automatic promotion to the Bundesliga.
And Neuhaus is haunted by last week. At home, 0-0 against 1860 Munich, he had opted to go for the kill, to open up the game. It didn't work, 1860 hit with a lightning counter into the gap which had been left on their right wing by Union's pressing fullbacks and scored. 1-0 to 1860. Game over.
Away at Aue is different, his wingers Ede and Kolk had both been bad by their standards, and Mosquera was frightfully alone up front. The sometimes derided "double Sechser" – two holding central midfielders in Peitz and Göhlert – had done its job and the valuable away point was won. But this was in front of a travelling support of three thousand. Had Aue nicked one at the end he would have been crucified, but he didn't blink. Despite the injury to central defensive mainstay Christian Stuff (which will now keep him out for the rest of the season) Union held on. It wasn‘t pretty, but it was an excellent retort to a tough question. A point is a point, and "there‘ll be plenty time for counting when the dealing‘s done".
Markus Babbel faced a different dilemma. It was half time on Friday at the Olympiastadion and his Hertha team were beating FSV Frankfurt 2-1, but had started badly. They had conceded another stupid goal and had to fight to get back in the game. They ended the half totally dominant, but the goals for father-to-be Roman Hubnik and the excellent home town hero Patrick Ebert shouldn't have been so necessary. Another stinking mistake at the back had cost them at home, in front of the fans who are still turning out in droves, but are also heaping the pressure onto the players' shoulders. They had already watched them lose to Union and draw with Cottbus here. More mistakes would start to become intolerable.
So, five minutes before the second half was due to start and Babbel could be found already on the bench. Alone. He had said everything that he needed to already. These are highly paid professionals, and he had had enough. Let them stew for a bit. Let them sort it out themselves. It was a gamble. A manager takes a risk when he publicly scolds his players, and this was just that. It wasn‘t Phil Brown giving his half time rant on the pitch just before his Hull side went into freefall, but it sent a message sure enough. Babbel is a young manager. He was a wonderful defender, and would rarely be liable for an opposition goal. It is hard for gifted players to deal with others' mistakes when they move into management. It is all too easy to think that you could have done better yourself. Was this such a mistake?
Initially it could have been. FSV roared out at them in the second half, but gradually under the influence of Ebert, Rukavytsya and the gangling Ramos they dragged themselves back into it. This Hertha side have the best attacking team in the league bar none. To have the luxury of Raffael on the bench shows this. By the time his goal had hit the net, Hertha's third, it was over as a spectacle. Babbel had either held or folded (feld?), it doesn‘t matter which. His decision was justified.
The thing rankling with him must be that he shouldn't have to make a point. He shouldn't have to justify the mistakes of his goalkeeper and defense every week. If they still had Simunic, Friedrich and Drobny in Charlottenburg, Hertha would be indestructible. As it is, Babbel will have to rely on his wiles for a bit longer. Neuhaus has got it similarly so: Union are at a different level to their neighbours, but they can rely on the gaffers gambling for a little bit longer.