Wolfsburg - Clinching promotion with a dramatic 5-4 win over 1. FSV Mainz 05 on the final day of the 1996/97 Bundesliga 2 season was an early warning of what was to come, yet while VfL Wolfsburg’s relationship with Germany’s top-flight has been anything but affable, it could be about to change.
Sweet smell of success
In their thus far, Wolfsburg have enjoyed beating the odds to be crowned champions, endured nail-biting final day relegation battles and, starting with Felix Magath’s first stint in charge of the club, flirted with the prospect of regular European football.
Storming to the Bundesliga title in 2009 did little to help the cause of the Auto City club as it papered over the unmistakable cracks of a club that was still very much a work in progress. However, that first taste of the big time inspired a hunger in the Wolves that has since not been satisfied.
“We shouldn’t forget this club has recently fought against the drop,” said sporting director Klaus Allofs after the Lower Saxony side secured UEFA Europa League qualification in the recently-ended campaign. “Others may have expected more of us, but we set ourselves the ambitious target of returning to Europe.”
In recent years that desire to establish themselves as regular contenders with a quick-fix solution has led to Wolfsburg becoming a hotbed of instability as head coaches flitted in and out like a bad revolving door, while the squad underwent an overhaul in virtually every transfer window. However, with Allofs and coach Dieter Hecking calling the shots as of the 2012/13 winter break, the ‘c’ word - consistency - is starting be whispered by the Wolfsburg faithful.
Benaglio: 'Fantastic evolution'
At the club since early 2008, Swiss international goalkeeper Diego Benaglio has experienced “lots of positives and a few more difficult times” as part of the wolf pack, and the start of the 2013/14 campaign was no different. “Before the season we were still a little unsure of ourselves,” conceded the 30-year-old, whose side picked up just nine points from a possible 24 in their opening games, a run of results that was concluded by a 2-0 loss on home soil to local rivals Eintracht Braunschweig.
Though many see the Matchday 8 encounter as the turning point in VfL's season, it can only be considered that way thanks to the Wolves ability to bounce back with a 2-1 victory in Augsburg, one of eight encounters in which they came from behind to pick up points (W6, D2) in the past term. “We never let our heads hang after a setback,” said Benaglio. “But that makes it even more special that we’ve qualified for Europe. We exceeded our pre-season expectations and have seen the side undergo a fantastic evolution.”
Wolf pups prove a point
They may have more financial clout than most Bundesliga outfits, but Wolfsburg still possess some admirable qualities, not least their willingness to hand home-grown talent a chance to prove itself in a star-studded line-up. This season , recently recognised by Germany head coach Joachim Löw, and Robin Knoche were the benefactors. “Things couldn’t have gone better,” beamed Knoche. “I was delighted to be able to repay the faith that was shown in me. I’d never have believed this is possible.”
For Hecking, a man who does not shirk away from his “ambitious” nature, it came as little surprise that the two youngsters made waves in the top flight this season. “We knew they had potential,” said the 49-year-old. “They’re both so level-headed and focused on their performances that it’s a lot of fun working with them, which in turn makes me very excited to be a factor in their development.”
European stepping stone
In light of their own lofty ambitions, securing a top-five finish - one point adrift of fourth-placed Bayer 04 Leverkusen - and with it a place in the Europa League group stages, the Wolves have taken the first step to fulfilling their acknowledged potential. “I felt fourth place was just out of our reach,” admitted Hecking. “So we achieved the best possible outcome in my view. We were in the mix for a fourth-place finish, but that’s why this year can be seen as a success.”
While Hecking’s star-studded side are “getting to grips” with playing attractive football on the pitch, sporting director Allofs has equally proved his ability to offer support to the Wolves’ ascension, already sealing the signings of Germany internationals Aaron Hunt and Sebastian Jung for the coming campaign, and the pieces are starting to fall in place.
With up to eight Wolfsburg players travelling to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and European football beckoning, Hecking wants “to achieve the best possible result on all four fronts” next season. “We’ve got to cement our place at the top and if we can do that with attractive football, I’ll be happy.” A greater sense of consistency was ultimately what proved decisive in determining their fate, but if the Wolves can maintain their momentum in spite of the “big challenge” of Europe, they could finally be on course to acquire powerhouse status.