A Tale of Triumph Over Adversity in the Bundesliga

Winner of two Bundesliga titles and a UEFA Cup with Borussia Mönchengladbach in the 1970s before moving into management, Wilfried ‘Winnie’ Hannes has enjoyed a successful career.

However, it is a medical condition originating in his childhood that makes Hannes’ achievements truly remarkable. A tumour forced him to have his right eye removed when he was eight years old, and he played the game with a major visual impairment.

While Hannes isn’t the only player to have suffered this fate, former Northern Ireland midfielder Dean Shiels has also overcome the disability, he is almost certainly the only one to have won a major European trophy, and was even part of the West Germany squad for the 1982 World Cup.

When talking to Hannes, it is clear that a particular point of personal pride is his impressive goalscoring record. Despite the disadvantage of severely restricted depth perception, and being converted from his initial role as a striker to a defensive sweeper, he netted more than 60 goals in 350-odd league appearances. It is a Bundesliga total he believes to be the highest of any defender since the league was inaugurated in 1963.

He explains that this was partly down to his past as a forward, but also because Jupp Heynckes, the current Bayern Munich coach who altered Hannes’ position when he took over as manager at Mönchengladbach, always insisted that his defensive players also pushed forward.

There was something even more significant than positional sense behind Hannes’ record: he is fifth in the all-time list of Bundesliga penalty-kick scorers. So what was his secret?

“Not to think too much, just to pick somewhere where you are sure it will go in. The ones I missed were when I changed corners during the run-up, although that was unusual for me.”

He chuckles at the suggestion that the modern day England team could learn a thing or two from that. “Maybe in England they are looking for a penalty coach – I could apply for that job!”

One penalty sticks in his mind above all others. In 1979, Borussia Mönchengladbach won the UEFA Cup final, with the decisive goal in the second leg against Red Star Belgrade coming from the spot after 15 minutes. But it was not to be Hannes’ moment of glory.

“Actually, I was supposed to take it. But I had missed one in the Bundesliga not long before, at home against Darmstadt I think, and shortly after was the final and Allan (Simonsen) took the penalty. But he was also a super penalty taker and a super player.”

‘Winnie’ nevertheless names that final as the highlight of his club career, but he has less positive memories of what should have been his international zenith – the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

He recalls being ordered to warm up during almost all West Germany’s matches on the way to a final that they ultimately lost to a Paolo Rossi-inspired Italy, but he never made it onto the pitch. Hannes ascribes that fate to the extreme competition for places in the squad at the time.

“Uli Stielike also played my position and was a really great player. I believe he is still the foreign player to have spent the longest at Real Madrid*, and that shows what class of player he was.”

Despite reaching the final, West Germany’s 1982 campaign is best-known for the infamous ‘Disgrace of Gijón’, in which Jupp Derwall’s side appeared to deliberately see out a lacklustre 1-0 victory against their Austrian neighbours that ensured both nations’ qualification for the second round.

Hannes maintains he was unaware of any pre-match agreements between the sides, but wonders if familiarity bred affection, with several of the Austrian team plying their trade in the Bundesliga at that time. “The match just developed that way, maybe because you knew one another and no one wanted to do the other harm,” he suggests.

Before he reached the level of being coached by the likes of Derwall, Heynckes and Udo Lattek, Hannes endured the hardship of finding a way to play the game he loved using only one eye.

He remembers little of the illness or treatment that caused his disability, but he does believe it gave him added motivation to succeed. It required thinking about the game in a different way. “I trained a lot with my father, using small footballs or tennis balls, trying to get to grips with distances. People who saw me play might have had the impression I was standing in the wrong position, but for me it was just right.”

After hanging up his boots, Hannes took on the first of his four managerial posts in 1991, at Alemannia Aachen, but feels he was doomed not to reach the top level from that point on.

“We just missed out on promotion to the second division one year, on goal difference. In Germany, if you’re not successful early on as a young guy, it’s very difficult to make the leap up.”

He describes the situation as an endless cycle of the same old faces for the top jobs, and that point brings us back to Heynckes and his return to Munich for a fourth spell as Bayern manager.

The two remain close to this day, and he names the veteran boss as the main influence on his own managerial philosophy, which is based on ambition and hard work. However, he feels that players are always responsible for their own fate.

“Someone like Carlo Ancelotti is without doubt a fantastic manager, but Munich was not the right fit. In England, too, there’s discussion about Klopp at Liverpool just now, as it’s not quite working how everyone thought. But in the end, in my opinion – and then we’re back to attitude and will – it’s down to the players. A manager can always give instructions, but ultimately it’s down to the players to implement them.”

Although Hannes will not be taking over the Bayern hot seat anytime soon, he lists failing to grasp the opportunity to play there as one of his main regrets.

“In the late seventies Tottenham were interested, and I could have moved to Bayern Munich at one time, but I always stayed loyal to Gladbach. Of course, you’re smarter now than you were at the time. You think ‘Why didn’t you go to Bayern Munich back then?’ I think I would have, if I’d known how things would develop. But it’s not something I think about a lot.”

The game has changed considerably since his playing days, and there is one element of today’s approach to the sport that Hannes finds particularly grating.

“I think the top players should earn the top money. But what I can’t stand at the moment is that people barely talk about football anymore, only about money. And in my opinion, that’s a real shame. When PSG are playing, no one discusses the game anymore, just how much they all cost. And football suffers from that, I think.”

The fact that Hannes has spent all but one year since 1999 in his current position as manager of SC Borussia 1912 Freialdenhoven, in the fifth tier of German football, shows he is clearly satisfied away from the megabucks of the Champions League.

“We have the advantage of knowing exactly where we belong, exactly how much money we have, and I think we’ve been doing a good job with that money for years. Due to our situation, we always have to bring in a lot of young players, often from lower levels, and develop them. For a manager, the best thing is seeing a young guy who wants to learn and then actually does so, who improves. That’s what drives me. And that won’t change.”

But were Red Bull to come knocking in Freialdenhoven, would he be tempted?

“I think there are few clubs in Germany who wouldn’t take that offer,” he admits. “People get annoyed about Red Bull, or (Hoffenheim backer Dietmar) Hopp, but I think there is no club in Germany, except perhaps Bayern Munich, who would turn them down. In many cases, it’s pure jealousy talking.”

Given that such riches are noticeably lacking in Freialdenhoven, promotion even to the fourth tier is not at the forefront of Hannes’ mind at the moment, but, having battled adversity from a young age, he has no intention of throwing in the towel anytime soon.

“I still enjoy it. It keeps you young. I’m over 60 now, and always outdoors, always together with young people. At a certain age you have to adjust, to learn from the young players. This generation are different to how we were, but if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it.”

*Stielike held the record for most Real Madrid appearances by a non-Spanish citizen until being surpassed by Roberto Carlos in the 2002/2003 season.

A Tale of Triumph Over Adversity in the Bundesliga
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