Heads, He Wins: The Story of Oliver Bierhoff

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August 1997. West Ham’s Michael Hughes raced onto a through ball to fire a left foot strike past the advancing goalkeeper. The European champions trailed 1-0 after an hour at Windsor Park.

Three minutes later manager Berti Vogts turned to his bench. Thomas Hassler of Karlsruhe was the choice. Five minutes more passed when Ulf Kirsten was replaced. In his place; Oliver Bierhoff.

This combination would turn the game. Hassler made a dart into the Northern Ireland box, running onto a forward pass. His low square cross was met by Bierhoff, who guided in a high right foot finish.

Minutes later Hassler found space on the right-hand side with the ball on Germany’s left. The switched pass picked him out perfectly. His first touch took him across the penalty box, second touch secured the ball as defenders closed him down, the third laid it into the path of Bierhoff. With his left foot he struck the ball in low. The 16-yard strike caught the Northern Ireland goalkeeper before he could set his feet. The dive was too late and the ball squirmed home via the keeper’s left hand.

In the 79th minute Germany gained a corner on their right. Taken short to Hassler on the edge of the box, he whipped a cross to the far post where it was met by Stefan Kuntz but not cleanly where he flicked the ball into the path of Bierhoff, unmarked six yards out. An instant left foot half-volley ripped the ball home. Within eight minutes Bierhoff had completed a “dreierpack”.

For many in England their first sight of Oliver Bierhoff would have been as a substitute for Germany at Wembley. In the final of Euro ’96 Patrik Berger crashed an early penalty beyond Andreas Kopke to give the Czech Republic the lead. Trailing 1-0, Vogts sent Bierhoff on after 69 minutes. It took him four minutes to strike. Cristian Ziege’s deep left footed free kick from Germany’s right travelled to the far post. In trademark fashion Bierhoff broke away from his marker to head the ball into the ground and up over the line from six yards.

Others in England would have been more familiar with Oliver Bierhoff. Saturday mornings saw Serie A television highlights from the previous weekend in preparation for the live game on Sunday afternoon. For the 95/96 season, Udinese had signed Bierhoff from Ascoli. In that first campaign he struck 17 times in the league. It was the season that his fearsome reputation in the air was formed- the six-yard box poacher with the towering leap above defenders. Not just any defenders. Italian defenders. And Italian goalkeepers.

Anyone who regularly watched Gazetta Football Italia would not have been surprised by the nature of the equaliser in the Euro 96 final. In the 95/96 season Udinese manager Alberto Zaccheroni looked to exploit Bierhoff’s ability at the far post, trying early passes both low and lofted into his path. However, what happened next was a surprise.

Football’s law makers grew tired of boring extra time periods with teams waiting 30 minutes to get to a penalties. Instead “next goal wins” was instituted. in theory at least, teams would no longer sit back and wait for the lottery of a shootout, they would attack with the opportunity before them to avoid the dreaded spot-kicks.

The “Golden Goal” was in action at Euro 96. Five minutes of extra time had passed when Bierhoff to flicked on a huge goal kick. Klinsmann turned inside the Czech penalty box and lofted a high ball into the box. This time Bierhoff didn’t leap but pulled the ball from the air with his right foot, a Czech defender tight to his back and another turning in. The German used his strength to wriggle and hold back his opponent to edge a little space to his left. He then spun and swung with his left foot, the shot taking a deflection. Petr Kouba, despite being directly in line with the ball, was bamboozled and could only claw the ball into the bottom corner. Oliver Bierhoff had come from the bench to win the European Championship for Germany.

That golden moment came at the age of 28. His Germany debut had only been a few months earlier. A year previously, before Udinese made their move, Bierhoff was heading into Serie C with Ascoli. The path to the top had been circuitous. Beginning with Bayer Uerdingen, moving to Hamburg then Borussia Monchengladbach, the young Bierhoff made little impact. Austria Salzburg (now Red Bull Salzburg) then took him to the Austrian first division. Twenty-three goals alerted Ascoli.

A key man in this late career surge was Alberto Zaccheroni. In 95/96 Udinese, Zaccheroni and Bierhoff were all returning to Serie A. All saw an opportunity to make an impact and grasped it. Udinese finished the season nine points clear of relegation in a comfortable 11th place. The next season they would finish 5th qualifying for the UEFA Cup.

The reputation of Serie A was one that did not favour strikers. The clean sheet was the prize. This was the mentality associated with Italian football. Yet, in reality, they used far more adventurous and daring formations than other leagues that often considered more open. Zaccheroni used a system with three forwards during his second Serie A season – Bierhoff, Marcio Amoroso and Pualo Poggi combined. Poggi and Bierhoff both scored 13 times in the league. Amoroso scored 12.

Juventus finished the season as champions, only losing three games out of 34. But one of those defeats came at home to Udinese. Naturally, Bierhoff was the scorer. As the only Udinese player in the penalty box, that trademark leap high above the defender saw his header planted firmly back where it came from. It was textbook.

In 1997, things got even better. Using the same three forward combination, Zaccheroni guided Udinese to third in Serie A. For Bierhoff it would be a season of huge personal triumph. Twenty-seven goals made him Italy’s top scorer. Opponents were unable to cope with his predatory penalty box play. In the third game of the season Milan were beaten 2-1, Bierhoff scoring both goals, including yet another trademark header, dominating the Milan defenders.

Berlusconi had been watching. Milan limped into 10th that season. His solution was to turn to Udinese. Zaccheroni, Thomas Helveg and the now 30-year-old Oliver Bierhoff arrived at the San Siro with the owner’s vision to reclaim the Serie A title.

The “Bianconeri Friuliani” trio easily switched to Rossoneri”. Just before half-time in the opening Serie A game of the season Ibrahim Ba crossed from the goal line on Milan’s right, and there was Bierhoff, outjumping two Bologna defenders to head home. A new shirt, the same business.

Zaccheroni deployed his 3-4-3 system with a slight change, Zvonomir Boban positioned behind two strikers, Bierhoff and the great George Weah. They also had Leonardo who occasionally played as a third forward, dropping Boban into central midfield. The result was just as Silvio dreamt it, Milan won the Scudetto. Bierhoff scoring 20 goals. Weah scored 8 times.

The next two seasons at Milan were not so idyllic for Zaccheroni and Bierhoff. In 1999-2000 millions were invested at Lazio which saw them finally land the championship. Juventus finished second by a point. Milan were in 3rd place, ten points behind the title winners. A new strike partner arrived for Oliver Bierhoff in the shape of Andrei Shevchenko. The Ukrainian registered twenty-four goals Bierhoff played a supporting role, weighing in with eleven goals.

Zaccheroni had flown too high too soon and in the 2000-01 season he was sacked. Bierhoff managed six goals in Serie A and his time at Milan was up. His next destination was Monaco before one final fling in Serie A with Chievo in the 2002/03 season. They finished the season in a safe 7th place.

The final game of the season would be Oliver Bierhoff’s last – the Old Lady of Juventus facing the ageing man.

With just over an hour played a deep cross from the left found a flying Bierhoff. His powerful header flashed past a well beaten goalkeeper. Ten minutes later a ball from the right was headed back across goal. The initial effort was blocked but from centimetres away Bierhoff prodded in. Then In the 79th minute another cross was launched into the Juventus box from the left. The mis-hit volley found Bierhoff eight yards out. A sweeping one touch finish tucked into the bottom corner saw the German sign off his professional career with another hat-trick – a trio of strikes that summed up his penalty area prowess. Being in the right place. A one touch finish. Plus the true signature of Oliver Bierhoff, the powerful far post header.

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