Matt NelsonComment


Matt NelsonComment

Shat on, spat upon and made a target out of. Berti Vogts, and his head, have packed plenty into their fifty-odd years together. Here's Matt Nelson.

Berti Vogts’ head arrived in this world on a winter’s day in Büttgen, a small German town nestled in the west of the country, not far from the Dutch border. It was 1964, and it was an ordinary looking head. Soon some wavy brown hair grew on top of it and a slight 5’6 frame sprouted beneath.

It was Berti’s heart that made him great though. A dogged defender who relentlessly hunted down every ball, Berti soon garnered the nickname of “Der Terrier”. Perhaps his most revered performance came in 1974 when he spent the World Cup final snarling and snapping at the shins of Johan Cryuff, who delivered an uncharacteristically meek performance. It finished 2-1 to West Germany, and Berti’s head had the World Cup hoisted above it.

After the legs gave out and his playing days were over, Berti had to learn to rely solely on his head. He soon became a coach with West Germany’s under-20 side. Then, in 1990, he graduated to managing the full German national team. And for a while it looked like Berti’s head encased a brilliant mind. A runner-up spot at the European Championships in 1992 was bettered four years later when Berti led his charges to glory in England. But after this triumph Berti’s stock gradually sunk as the 1990’s wore on. Failure to progress beyond the quarter-final stage at the 1998 World Cup and subsequent underwhelming performances in friendly games meant that Berti’s head, for the first time in its managerial career, rolled. Short, unspectacular spells as the manager of Bayer Leverkusen and Kuwait followed.

After that Berti’s head went missing for a while. It wasn’t to be found on front or back pages anymore. The next time it popped up was in 2002, stationed behind microphones and, incongruously, wrapped in a tartan scarf. Berti was to be Scotland’s next manager, charged with resuscitating an ailing side that had failed to qualify for the last two major tournaments.

And it’s at this point in the story of Berti’s head that things get complicated. There are two narratives to follow, divergent interpretations, a high road and a low one.

For some Berti’s head went the way of Graham Taylor’s. Taylor’s head was, as many will recall, infamously transformed into a turnip by The Sun after his England side were dumped out of Euro 92 at the group stages. Being turned into a root vegetable effectively sounded the death knell for Taylor’s reign and he was sacked little over a year later after failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup (but not before his head was the victim of other Photoshop assaults - Taylor was also turned into a Spanish onion along the way). But after a humiliating 2-2 draw with a Faroe Islands team, seemingly comprised of whale boat drivers, cobblers and lutists, something even more traumatic happened to Berti’s bonce. The Scottish Sun Photoshopped his head so that it appeared to have been crapped on by a low flying puffin. “Oh Scheisse,” screamed the headline.

And for many of the Tartan Army foot soldiers who traipsed around Europe during Vogts’ reign there was a lot of sheisse to be negotiated. A 4-0 drubbing at the hands of a mediocre Welsh side, a 5-0 thumping from France in his first game in charge, a 6-0 walloping from a Dutch side that he had, somehow, managed to fell at Hampden and, of course, that draw with the Faroes.

But, strictly speaking, it wasn’t all schiesse. Berti came closer to navigating Scotland to the finals of a major tournament than any of his successors. No one, not even the much eulogised Walter Smith or Alex McLeish, has taken Scotland as far as the play-offs for a major tournament since Berti managed the feat in the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign.  

For some, Berti was a bizarre character who seemingly entered stage left from the Theatre of the Absurd, handing out caps so indiscriminately that it was like he was flyering for a bad nightclub. Warren Cummings (who?), Gareth Williams (why?) and Andy Gray (no, not that one) all gained caps under Berti. Readers who bore witness to the insane tactics deployed in the soul-destroying draw with the Faroes will also recall the unfortunate vision of a young Kevin Kyle wandering aimlessly around in the opposition’s half, like a lost telegraph pole.

But for others there was method to the madness. After inheriting an ageing squad from previous incumbent Craig Brown, Berti set about slashing and burning the old guard, leaving fertile ground for the next generation of stars. During his tenure Berti capped future Scotland stars like Darren Fletcher, James McFadden and Craig Gordon. Perhaps the owlish eyes peering out of Berti’s head could spot a player after all.

Indeed, the man himself seems keen to be portrayed as a kind of Nostradamus of international football' or something like that. Speaking in 2007, Berti praised himself as the architect of then-manager Alex McLeish’s in-form side: “'I did good. I brought in over twenty young players - they were aged below 18, and now those boys are three years older. There was Darren Fletcher, who plays for Manchester United, James McFadden from Everton and Andy Webster [now on loan at Rangers] and all the rest of the boys that play now. Three years ago nobody knew them.”

Even now fans are still divided when it comes to Berti. As part of the research for this piece I started a thread on a Tartan Army message board asking for appraisals of his time in charge. I was met with a rainbow of opinions, some seemed to be Berti apologists, while others thought that he was just, well, scheisse.  

One respondent was clearly traumatised by the Berti years, opining that he was “a terrible appointment, my worst years following Scotland”.  While another, clearly riled up by request for an evenhanded assessment of Berti, chimed in with the following: “He was a f*****g disaster and if you're writing an article to say otherwise then you are being deliberately provocative.”

Others were kinder though. One fan wrote that Berti’s tactic of distributing caps so freely was an effort to “pan gold from a field of manure”. He continued: “You always got the impression Berti thought a few genius footballers were out there somewhere, kicking a ball around the coalfields of Ayrshire or something, if only he looked hard enough.” There were many who took a similar tact, saying that Berti’s approach was well intentioned, but ultimately flawed due to the dearth of talent at his disposal.

Some were even willing to defend Berti’s competitive record, despite his percentage of victories ranking among the lowest of any Scotland managers. “My defence of Berti Vogts was always that his competitive record was not that bad,” wrote one supporter. “We had some shocking results in friendlies with experimental squads, but in the qualifiers he did okay.”

Ultimately though, Berti’s reign ended in tears. Vilified by the press and abused by fans, “Der terrier” was eventually hounded out of the job. Things came to an unseemly climax when, after a disappointing start to the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, Berti was spat at by a supporter.

So where did our protagonist’s head end up after it rolled off the Scotland chopping block? An equally unsuccessful period in charge of Nigeria followed in 2007. Most recently it once more peered above the parapet of international management when Berti agreed to take charge of the Azerbaijan national side. Things haven’t gone exactly to plan though – after previously being a target for crapping digital puffins, Berti’s head has become a bull’s eye again. Only this time in a physical sense. After a 2-1 defeat to fierce rivals Kazakhstan an Azeri journalist threw a roll of toilet paper at Berti’s head in an effort to express his dismay (odd that they didn’t just digitally manipulate his skull rather than trying to pan it in with soft tissue).    

Berti’s head has gone a long way since arriving in Buttgen all those years ago. It’s seen World Cup glory as a player, masterminded a European Championship victory, but, in later years, it’s also found itself beneath the bowels of a puffin and at the business end of an irate fan’s saliva and a journalist’s bog roll.

Perhaps it’s time to start wearing a hat.