The return of Köln’s other prodigal son, Patrick Helmes

In the summer of 2009, after three seasons at Bayern München, Lukas Podolski returned to Köln, the city where he is prince and to the club where he is revered. Fast forward four years and the Billygoats are now welcoming back another of their stars from the past; Patrick Helmes signed on a free transfer from Wolfsburg back to his hometown and childhood club, the club where he made a name for himself and where he was once regarded as one of Germany’s most promising footballers.

Not big enough

Helmes signed for Köln in 1997 from Sportfreunde Siegen at the age of 13 but, after just three years, Helmes was deemed not physically strong enough and too small and returned to Siegen. In 2003 he made the first team and was playing in the Regionalliga West, becoming top scorer of the league in 2004/2005 and lifting his club to the second position, earning promotion to the 2. Bundesliga. The following season, Siegen finished rock bottom of Germany’s second division but Helmes was not there to see it; that summer, he re-signed for Köln for 200,000€.

After a learning curve in his first season where Köln got relegated, Helmes was an important part of the team in his second season back in the 2. Bundesliga, scoring 14 goals in 20 matches and being called up for Germany’s U21 team. However, Helmes endured a broken leg after five matches of the new season, in which he had scored 7 goals and Köln were sitting at the top of the table. He was out for four months and his absence weighed heavily on Köln’s promotion chances.

When he returned in February, Köln had slipped down to 8th and ended up finishing the season a lowly 9th, with Helmes adding another 7 goals in 14 matches. His goalscoring prowess did not go unnoticed and he was duly called up by Joachim Löw to the German squad and made his debut in a 6-0 thumping of San Marino in June 2007. Things got better for Helmes and Köln as, with a fully-fit Helmes, Köln earned promotion the following year. In January, though, they were dealt a bitter blow when Helmes announced that he would be moving to Bayer Leverkusen the following season. Having briefly been named captain of the side by Christoph Daum despite his announcement, Helmes contributed with 17 goals and Köln finished 3rd and won promotion.

The long and painful road back to Cologne

Having moved on a free transfer, Helmes’ transition to Leverkusen was incredibly smooth; he played all Bundesliga matches and scored 21 goals, plus another 3 in 6 in the DFB Pokal, where Leverkusen lost the final to Werder Bremen.  This, however, was as good as it got for him. In the summer of 2009, he tore his cruciate ligaments and was out for 5 whole months. With Stefan Kießling and Eren Derdiyok preferred by Jupp Heynckes, Helmes fell down the pecking order. The following season he wasn’t able to regain his place in the starting lineup. Trouble with Heynckes lead to a 5m€ transfer to Wolfsburg in January 2011. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Steve McClaren signed Helmes but was sacked in March, with Felix Magath replacing him. Magath.  Helmes never got on well with the taskmaster and in November 2011 Magath demoted Helmes to the U23 team due to poor performances.  The Köln native wasn’t called up again until late February, but Helmes bounced back from his personal demotion and scored 10 goals in the last 10 matches, lifting Wolfsbureg from 13th to 8th.

Having finished the season on a high, disaster struck again in summer; Helmes tore his cruciates once again, this time he was sidelined for 6 months. After he was fit again, he played sporadically for the first team and the reserve team, scoring goals in the Regionalliga Nord but not in the Bundesliga. He was out of favour again, this time with Dieter Hecking, behind Ivica Olic and Bas Dost in the pecking order. Without a single call-up for the first-team this season, Helmes once again sought a move, and this time it was back home – for the third time.

“An acceptable risk for all parties”

Without a future at Wolfsburg, Helmes’ options seemed limited but, on transfer deadline day, he sealed a move back to Köln, who again, as they were seven years ago, are trying to get back into the Bundesliga. Admittedly, Helmes is now 29 and not 22 With two serious cruciate ligament injuries in his past and a series of niggling additional injuries  the former Billygoat may hardly be considered the player he once was. However, at Köln he will feel right at home and will play without the pressure of the Bundesliga, a stage where he thrived many years ago. At this stage in his career, he is not vying for a place in the national team (who he hasn’t played for since August 2010) or trophies or anything like that; all he needs is regular football. If he can stay injury-free, chances are his class will show in the division and Köln will benefit from it.

Signing for Köln isn’t a step down; I’m back home – Patrick Helmes

In an interview with Bild, Helmes stated that this was “no step down” because he was “back at home”, and that feeling was the main reason he’s come back, because that’s the feeling he’ll need to “get back to the top”. Helmes is also aware that some fans still haven’t forgiven him for leaving to nearby Leverkusen, but his reasons for that are because he wanted to stay close to home and remain in Germany.

Of course though, injuries are obviously a topic that has come up with this transfer. Köln Sporting Director Jörg Schmadtke answered these questions by saying that “(signing Helmes) is an acceptable risk for all parties”. Helmes will sign a three-year contract which will also give him the peace of mind that he won’t feel that he’s on trial. Trust is something he has lacked in most of the managers he’s had since Christoph Daum and it will help him in confidence, a confidence destroyed by injuries. Helmes’ goalscoring talents could provide Köln the edge needed to become a first-division side again. After scoring twice in his first match back, a friendly against Wuppertaler SV (9-1), the striker has hit the ground running. Whether he’s ready for next week’s visit to Energie Cottbus is still too early to say but there’s no doubt he’ll take part in the following home match against Kaiserslautern, ironically the same club he faced in his last match for Köln five years ago.

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Aleix Gwilliam

Is a 27-year-old living in Barcelona who gets more pleasure from watching German lower-league football than from going to watch his hometown team at the Camp Nou every other week. Passionate about European football, its history and culture, you can follow him on Twitter at @AleixGwilliam

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