After much gossip and wild speculation, the hunt for Jupp Heynckes’ replacement in the FC Bayern coaching hot seat has come to an end. We welcome former player Niko Kovač, who will move back to Munich from Frankfurt in the summer.
It is an appointment that has already elicited a mixed reaction, but at long last, we have a name. Niko Kovač was not every Bayern’s fan’s first choice, but it is a solid appointment. The incoming coach is the right age, has plenty of experience at the sharp end of the coaching business, and has a connection to the club. We can now move on to the next stage of the story of what will happen next.
As German as one can get
For those unfamiliar with his background, Niko Kovač would not have been high on the list for those gathering names that fitted the “German-speaking coach” requirement. But despite his 83 international caps for Croatia, the 46 year old as as German as one can get without actually playing for Germany.
Born in Berlin, Kovač would spend his entire playing career in German speaking countries, starting out with local outfit Hertha Zehlendorf and playing top-flight football with four Bundesliga clubs, before finishing in Austria with RB Salzburg. Kovač had spent two seasons in Munich, between 2001 and 2003.
After cutting his coaching teeth in Salzburg, Kovač then spent two years as coach of the Croatian national team, taking them to the 2014 World Cup finals. In March 2016 he moved back to the Bundesliga to take the top job in Frankfurt, taking them to the DFB-Pokal final in his first full season.
When the Croatian took over in Frankfurt from Armin Veh, Die Adler were struggling at the wrong end of the table. His first couple of months were a baptism of fire, and the club just about held on to top flight status by the skin of their teeth. Victory in the relegation playoff against 1. FC Nürnberg ensured that Kovač would have an opportunity to build, and he did not disappoint.
Through applying a solid tactical approach and ensuring that his team played to their strengths, Kovač took Eintracht to a safe mid-table finish. He also took the club to the final of the DFB-Pokal, their first appearance in the Berlin showcase in over a decade. A 2-1 defeat against Borussia Dortmund was a disappointing end, but an excellent standard had been set.
The upward trend has continued this season. Frankfurt are back in the mix at the right end of the table, and a place in Europe is on the cards. They are also in the semi-final of the cup, with a tie against Schalke 04 separating Kovač and his team from a second final on the bounce.
Unsurprisingly, the announcement of the Croatian’s appointment has had a slightly acrimonious edge. News of the move had broken before it was all made official, and Eintracht’s director of sport Fredi Bobic had plenty of things to say about the way the deal was done.
While there was little evidence to suggest that Bayern had been underhand in their approach, Frankfurt’s annoyance is understandable. Finally they had a coach who was giving them a sniff of their former glory days, and bad old Bayern have jumped in to snatch him away.
Kovač has admitted that leaving Frankfurt will be hard, but has made it clear that the opportunity to take the biggest job in Germany was just too good to let pass. The timing was just right.
A new Hitzfeld?
All of the important people have had good things to say. Both Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge are content. Kovač’s former teammate and sporting director Hasan Salihamidžić is convinced that Die Roten have found the right man. Outgoing coach Heynckes has also added his approval.
Many fans will need more convincing, but I feel that the right choice has been made. I have always said that Nagelsmann is too young for the Bayern job, and Thomas Tuchel – now on his way to Paris anyway – was a square peg in a round hole. Other options, such as Jürgen Klopp or Jogi Löw, were little more than tabloid tittle-tattle.
If he gets a poor start next season, the dream could come to a sudden end for Kovač. But if things click into place, we could see him in charge in Munich for a long time. There is something of the Ottmar Hitzfeld about the Croatian. Not spectacular, but committed, intelligent and hard-working. It could be the start of something special.