By Dan Williamson (@winkveron)
Matchdays, by Ronald Reng, is a fascinating history of the Bundesliga-era told through the story of maverick football figure Heinz Höher who initially rose to prominence as a player with local side Bayer Leverkusen when German football was still very much a regional affair. The German Bundesliga is today one of the most prominent leagues in world football, thanks to the success of the national team and in particular Bayern’s performances in the Champions League. The German game is lauded for fan ownership, safe standing, cheap tickets and a thriving fan culture. It’s therefore hard to believe that before 1963 the Bundesliga didn’t exist! When the inaugural Bundesliga season kicked off in 1963 Höher was plying his trade with Meidericher SV. Following a brief spell in Holland with Twente he returned to the Bundesliga, ending his playing days with VfL Bochum who he would also go on to manage. His career as a coach also took him to Greece and Saudi Arabia, as well as a successful spell back home with 1.FC Nuremburg. When he was later unable to get a real job, he began coaching the kids of Greuther Furth. It was there that he encountered youngster Juri Judt who would become his pet project and somewhat of an obsession. Judt was drilled incessantly by Höher and tipped for big things. Judt predictably didn’t live up to the lofty hype bestowed upon him by Höher yet has had a decent career amassing over 200 professional appearances as well as four for Germany’s U21 side. He is currently plying his trade in the third tier of German football.
Reng’s previous effort, A Life Too Short, the brilliant yet tragic tale of German goalkeeper Robert Enke, was a moving read and wonderfully written. Matchdays is a much lighter read and Höher’s bouts of depression, alcoholism and gambling are interspersed with moments of great humour and hilariously eccentric anecdotes. Höher didn’t pull up any trees during his time as a player and coach. Yet that’s what makes this book so fascinating, the fact that it is telling the story of the Bundesliga through the eyes of a “normal” person, rather than a superstar. Höher’s ultimate problem seemed to be that, unlike everyone and everything around him, he couldn’t or didn’t want to change with the times. He appeared to be overly stubborn and while in some ways that is to be admired but ultimately he who stands still is left behind. Highly recommended.