Arsenal's Cologne test in Europa League against stalwart Peter Stoger
"[Having] our coach is a huge stroke of luck for us, and I have already said I would be happy if Peter Stoger could become our Arsene Wenger," Cologne's vice president Toni Schumacher said recently.
The idea has been mooted for a while. Stoger, though, doesn't really take it seriously. At the start of his fifth season in charge, he reckons the chances of remaining at the club for more than 20 years is nonexistent, but joked: "By Cologne standards, I am Wenger already."
Stoger has been at the club since the summer of 2013 and he is remarkably the longest serving coach in Cologne history. The previous record, set by the legendary Hennes Weisweiler, stood at fewer than four years. It was repeated by Christoph Daum in late '80s, while the great Rinus Michels didn't even complete three years.
Those names from the past remind of Cologne's cherished heritage. They are one of the most important clubs in Germany. Having won the Bundesliga only twice, in 1964 and 1978, they were nevertheless mightily important for three decades, raising famous players like Wolfgang Overath, Bernd Schuster, Pierre Littbarski, Thomas Haessler, Dieter Muller and Heinz Flohe, among others.
"The Billy Goats" were used to fighting at the top and playing in European competitions. They reached the European Cup semifinals in 1979 while their biggest achievement was reaching the UEFA Cup final in 1986. Those days are long gone, but fans -- even the younger ones who never witnessed the glory days -- can feel them. The nostalgia is extremely strong.
Arsenal fans, disappointed to have missed out on the Champions League, would be hard pressed to understand the euphoria in Cologne, where tens of thousands poured into the streets in May to celebrate their first European qualification since 1992. The scenes were ecstatic and some players wept with joy.
The fallen giants were absent from the European stage for a quarter of a century. Now they are back, thanks to a coach who gave up an opportunity to take part in the Champions League in order to drop into the second division in Germany. Stoger led Austria Vienna to an unexpected title in 2013 at the expense of the mega-rich Red Bull Salzburg, only to leave for the Billy Goats who were then struggling in the 2.Bundesliga.
"I have always dreamed of coaching in Germany," he stated.
That is not entirely correct, though, because Stoger claimed he didn't want to coach at all upon hanging up his boots. People outside of Austria may not remember but he had an illustrious career on the pitch. Most of the headlines went to elegant playmaker Andreas Herzog and burly striker Toni Polster, but Stoger was arguably as important to the national team with his boundless energy and excellent dribbling at speed. He won 65 caps, scoring 15 goals, and was honoured to have been mentored by Ernst Happel until the coach's death in 1992.
That experience under the attack-minded genius left a mark on him.
"Football is a game that should be enjoyed. This is becoming more and more difficult, but the fun factor should be there, and I am trying to give it," he said.
Perhaps that is why he was lured into management after all, even working in the lower divisions in his homeland first. The title triumph with Vienna was hugely impressive, with some stylish gung-ho performances. At Cologne, however, Stoger chose to build the foundation on solid defending, proving how flexible he is.
The Austrian has been criticised for a cautious approach at times, most notably by former Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt, but its success is unquestionable. In his first season, Cologne broke the second division record by conceding just 20 goals in 34 matches, and were promoted as champions. Thereafter, the main goal was to keep the team safe in the Bundesliga and make gradual progress. That is exactly what the Billy Goats have achieved, while Stoger and sporting director Jorg Schmadtke have admitted they are probably ahead of schedule.
Only the top four teams conceded fewer than Cologne in the 2014-15 season when they finished 12th. They improved to ninth a year later, and then stunned themselves by climbing to the dizzy heights of fifth last term. For Stoger, that felt even more rewarding than the Austrian title in 2013.
Anthony Modeste's 25 goals were crucial to last season's fine showing and Stoger is mainly responsible for the Frenchman's rise to prominence. The striker wasn't respected elsewhere -- most certainly not at Blackburn -- but has fulfilled his potential at Cologne. Others have their mentor to thank for their rise as well, especially the locals. Hard working left-back Jonas Hector became a starter for the national team, while the Cologne-born Timo Horn developed into one of the best goalkeepers in the country.
Stoger, 51, believes that making his proteges feel comfortable and playing to their strengths is the most important role of the coach. He is excellent at man-management, and his door is always open. Stoger is so sensitive to his players' needs that he once closed down his popular Facebook page where he used to share his thoughts with fans. He couldn't accept his players being criticised on it.
Stoger was shortlisted as one of the candidates to replace Thomas Tuchel at Borussia Dortmund last summer and Cologne fans are glad he remained. He still has three years left on his contract, signed in 2016 and with perfect harmony inside the club, there's a chance he could extend it.
The Austrian is well aware there are no safe jobs in football, and has always stated that he won't overstay his welcome. That is where he is different to Wenger, and the morale of the two sides is quite different ahead of the Europa League opener on Thursday, even though Cologne are bottom of the Bundesliga at the moment.
This is their first game in Europe since the 3-0 defeat at Celtic Park, when Littbarski was on the pitch and Happel was still alive. The motivation couldn't be higher and Stoger is more than capable of surprising Wenger on his big day.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin