Jonas Hector: Is the Germany and Cologne left-back the most loyal man in football?
Jonas Hector's decision to stick it out with Cologne has been fully vindicated after the Billy Goats bounced straight back to the top tier as 2018/19 Bundesliga 2 champions. The uber-loyal left-back even earned a Germany recall for his efforts.
The naysayers are still eating their words. Hector's omission from the Germany squad to face the Netherlands in March 2019 was seen as the clearest indication yet that the Cologne captain's international days were numbered.
Even Löw admitted 29-year-old Hector had fallen behind Borussia Dortmund's Nico Schulz and RB Leipzig counterpart Marcel Halstenberg in the pecking order - but he also left the door open for his tried-and-tested left-back to return.
"Right now Nico and Marcel are ahead of Jonas, but I'm in touch with him a lot," Löw said of the only current Germany international not to have come through a youth academy.
"He's been playing in a lot of other positions for Cologne - as part of a back three and in defensive midfield - that was decisive.
"I've told him he's still part of our plans. He's always done a fantastic job for us at left-back."
Löw stayed true to his word and, in June, Hector stepped over the threshold once more.
He didn't make it off the bench for the UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying wins against Belarus and Estonia, but his inclusion alone suggests the 42-time international remains a key part of Löw's plans after turning out as his country's first-choice left-back at Euro 2016, the FIFA 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup.
It's a remarkable tale for a player who, until the age of 20, was kicking about in Germany's fifth division with Auersmacher.
Eventually the talent outgrew the backwaters of German football, but not before Hector had rejected the advances of the Saarbrücken youth academy in favour of "continuing to play with my friends".
Hector's loyalty would be tested again at Cologne - the club he joined in 2012 and that put him on the world football map. He purportedly turned down Barcelona for fear of not being good enough.
And when Liverpool came calling in 2018, he nonchalantly replied, "Why would I go there, when I have everything I need in Cologne?"
Hector duly underscored his inveterate commitment by signing a new deal through to 2023 - on the eve of Cologne's relegation to the second tier at that.
"I don't think it's a decision many people in my position would have taken," he recalled in May 2018. "It surprised a lot of people, but staying with my girlfriend in a city where I'm happy, at a club where I feel happy, was decisive.
"I don't listen to what people tell me what to do anyway. Feeling is more important than money."
Watch: Jonas Hector's 2018 Goal of the Year winner
Not for the first time in his career, Hector's allegiance - and intuition - has been rewarded.
At the first time of asking, Cologne secured promotion back to the Bundesliga as 2018/19 Bundesliga 2 champions.
The Billy Goats' Captain Fantastic missed just five matches of the league campaign, producing six goals and two assists without a single green-eyed glance in the direction of Lionel Messi or Jürgen Klopp.
"There's always something to learn," Hector told Der Spiegel, after claiming his second Bundesliga 2 winner's medal with Cologne.
"I was officially club captain for the first time, and I learnt a lot through having the responsibility, especially at an interpersonal level.
"I also played in a number of positions, which I got a lot out of.
"Despite what was said [about my decision to stay at Cologne], it certainly wasn't a wasted year for me."
The fact is Hector would be like a dog with two tails whether he was playing for record champions Bayern Munich or earning a crust in the regional divisions. How many top-level players could you say that about?
Back in the Bundesliga and the international fold, Hector's unplanned mission to restore man's faith in modern-day footballers continues apace.
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