Professionals | 11/05/2019

Long-term FC captain

An open letter from Matze Lehmann

After the next two games, Matthias Lehmann’s time as a player at 1. FC Köln will come to an end. After seven years, at least 187 games, two promotions and qualification for Europe. On Sunday against Regensburg, Lehmann will receive his send-off. For FC.de, the long-term FC captain looks back on an era at FC, that began in difficult circumstances – but is still the best of his career.

Two more games, then that’s it. Then I’ll hang up my boots with FC. I am proud of my time here. It was an incredible time, for the team and for me personally. It was simply fantastic to play here.

Even when it didn’t start well.

In Summer 2012, my time at Geißbockheim began. 1. FC Köln were to have earned immediate promotion back to the Bundesliga by Holger Stanislawski, who I knew from my time at St. Pauli. Stani rang me and asked if I could imagine coming to Köln. I didn’t have to think about it for long, because it was great working with him at Pauli. But when a coach signs a player who he has worked with before, then they are doubly and triply questioned. That is normal. And unfortunately, my first year at FC wasn’t very good. Lots criticised me. I can’t say that it didn’t get to me. As a player, you know what people think of you in the stadium. But I can’t dictate to people, what they should think about me.

Apart from that, what came afterwards was a lot nicer.

Without praising myself or caressing my receding hairline: I think I revised my first year's impression from the second year onwards. There are still fans who think I've been with FC for seven years too long. But I hope there are not that many.

I’m not a Brazilian, I’m a worker. I've never shied away from anything, I've always thrown myself in fully, regardless of my own body. That's why I can look in the mirror and say: I am very proud of what I have done with FC.

In my first few years as a footballer, I was more attacking – on the eight or as the 10. Later on, I moved backwards. To the six. For me it was always clear: as a six, you’ve got to play as simply as possible. Don’t go over the top, well-organised and give it everything. You shouldn’t be thinking: “Oh, if I go into a challenge now, I’ll hurt myself.” Instead it means: fly into every tackle and hope that it’s the other guy lying there and not you.

At the beginning, I didn’t think that FC would be my longest stint and also my last. I can say it honestly: you don’t think about it as a player. When I came to FC, it was just about getting promoted. That didn’t work out in the first year. Therefore I was even more happy, that we managed it second time around. With a superb season and very few goals conceded.

I knew that no team wanted to play against us because they knew that they just couldn’t get through. Sometimes you noticed that during the game. If you get on the pitch and look at how your opposition look on the other side, resigned and say that it’s pointless – that’s the biggest thing as a football. That makes you even more hyped up. Then you know why you go through pre-season.

Before the 2013-14 season, when we got promoted, Peter Stöger came to FC as head coach. It worked out from the beginning with us – we had a very good coach-player relationship. But not just us. With Manfred Schmid, Alex Bade, Jörg Schmadtke, Alex Wehrle and the board, there was only one goal: to get promoted. That was an overall good set-up. Not just for me, but for the whole club.

In 2015, I became FC captain. It was a huge honour. As captain, you stand at the front. Then comes the vice captain and the team council. Those are the ones who stand in the first row. I was always someone, throughout my footballing experience, that liked to have responsibility – already in the youth teams and with the national youth set-up. I was the youngest captain in 1860 Munich’s history and was in the team council at Pauli. Captain is the highest of all. The fact that I was able to do that at FC is simply class.

My goal as captain was to lead the team so that they are clean in terms of character. No scandals. I wanted the times at the FC, in which a lot was on the outside, to end. It can break a team when there is theatre within a team. And when the climate within the team is clean, then that comes through on the pitch.

The life in the dressing room is the thing that I will miss most of all after time my as a football. There’s nowhere that such nonsense is spoken about as in the dressing room. Nonsense, bad jokes and making an arse out of one another. In the dressing room, the funny things happen – but they also stay there. The dressing room is sacred and taboo. That’s an unwritten law.

I’ve never led alone, instead always with colleagues from the team council. I would also never say that I was the captain that brought FC to Europe. Instead, I was a part of a superb team, that brought FC to Europe. I just had the honour, to be the captain of this team.

I’ve been a professional footballer for 19 years. I also had the honour to be in a super team at Pauli as well. Then, St. Pauli were really a rebel club. But the time here at FC is still not to be compared to. We were a tough bunch. If the manager had rang at half 3 in the morning and said: we’re training. At half three, we would all have been at Geißbockheim and have trained.

We were not always the best team, that’s no secret. We were also not the team with the best individuals. But we were always a team, where we had the mentality that everyone would have gone through the fire for one another and there was never any worries that anyone would leave you in the shit.

We didn’t get to the Europa League with nice football. We got there, because we were efficient and our will was so big, that it overcame everything. We know that we played an incredible season, and that we perhaps played over our abilities. And now we have this big chance – and we want to take it. That’s how we looked at it and it was sensational.

The crowning moment was the home game against Mainz, where we confirmed our place in the Europa League. What went on in the stadium and the city was absolutely mental. I still remember how I snatched the megaphone and said that it was a new holiday in the Köln calendar. I’m not normally the biggest talker. I’m rather the one who gets on with things and just does it. But that was simply a feeling in a quite special moment. I will never forget this day for the rest of my life.

Almost a year to the day later and we were relegated. There you see how things can change in football.

But the relegation itself is a moment that will remain in my head. Because the team didn’t fall apart. That was a great experience. To see how a group can maintain themselves, even though things are shit. That we still came to Geißbockheim every day with the motivation to be better. We lost and lost, and we still came to training and gave it everything. We simply didn’t get the results at the weekend. Then came an injury, and another and another. At one point there were up to 13 to 14 players injured. We had to make things up with youth and academy players. We couldn’t rotate things and had a game every three days. As a players, you simply feel empty. And you know that as well, but you’ve still got to function and play, because there are no other players. We went through everything. It was an exceptional situation.

A football team can take themselves apart in such a phase. But not a team with this character. In the years after the promotion, every year we had the character that every team desires. Not only because everyone was in their arms and everyone liked or loved each other. But because we knew: If the opponent got past me, my mate is behind me and will sort it out.

The qualification for the Europa League was the best moment in my time with FC. The first promotion was also very, very nice. And the promotion this year will also be great.

The previous season for me was one where I learned a lot. Because I could already prepare for how it is when I retire from football. Because the weekly competition was not there. My function on the pitch was not called upon so often. In the dressing room, as an experienced player, you always try to play your part. But despite that, it’s no secret that when you’re a player, you want to play. If you aren’t playing week after week, then the motivation goes down. I believe that’s the same with everyone who has no perspective. There were better days and days that were bloody hard. When I had a few shit days, the other boys helped me.

I wasn’t offended before the season when it was clear that I would no longer be captain. That’s just how things go. I still remember how I went into the dressing room into the kitmen’s room and said to Jonas that he had my backing, and that I would happily be there if he had questions.

Even when the season hasn’t gone as I had personally imagined, to be 2. Bundesliga champion and to become a medal again is something special. Therefore, I’m looking forward to the game against Regensburg. To be allowed onto the stand and have the Meisterschale.

I’m not a sentimental person, but with such a goodbye it could be that there are one or two tears. If you’ve played with friends for so long and gone through many battles for the club – not just in the Europa League, but also in the Bundesliga and all the derbies – then it will be emotional. Because it also hurts. But I’m getting older and sometimes that’s simply enough.

It looks like I will end my playing career. It could be that I receive an offer I can’t turn down. But at the moment, things are pointing clearly in the direction of retirement. If that is it for me as a footballer, we’ll sit down together and see whether or not there is a future for me at FC. My contract is still valid until the 30th June, there is still enough time for talks.

I always want to deliver honest work. That was the motto in my career and it will always continue to be so. Honest and straight. That’s the best way.

I hope that the fans will have my in their memory as an honest player, who didn’t turn away from anything and was always there for FC. 

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