In a brief spell at Middlesbrough, he won the hearts of the fans and the local TV celebrity, if you believe the gossip. Harry Pearson recalls a German cult hero
No doubt there are many players whose careers illustrate Rupert Pupkin’s maxim “Better a star for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime”, but on Teesside none illuminates the point quite so brightly as a former Germany Under-21 international who was brought in from Kaiserslautern by Bryan Robson.
Since recovering from bankruptcy in 1986 Middlesbrough have made a habit of signing a striker late in the season to add impetus to a faltering promotion push. Trevor Senior and Marco Branca both scored goals that helped Boro claw their way into the top flight, but neither made quite the impact of Uwe, a burly, dark-haired German whose demented, face-splitting grimace suggested Les Dawson’s Cosmo Smallpiece let loose in Victoria’s Secret. The gurning forward arrived in January 1995, hit the net nine times, was sent off once and found himself the subject of rumours about an affair with a local celebrity and the decking of a team-mate who questioned her virtue. Not bad for a man who played only 13 full games.
Such drama seemed unlikely when Uwe arrived via the intervention of Tony Woodcock, who touted him as “an English-style centre-forward” (words which are to football what the phrase “mechanically recovered meat” is to gastronomy). Apart from a couple of spells with Fortuna Cologne, the 29-year-old’s record was hardly inspiring. At a string of other clubs Uwe had left little impression beyond his fingerprints. Indeed, Robson was only persuaded to take him after repeated bids for Jan-Aage Fjortoft had been turned down.
By that stage Boro’s traditional post-Christmas torpor had begun to take hold, a sequence of four games without a win seeing them slip out of the automatic promotion berths for the first time. Enter Uwe. Six goals in his first five starts for the club, including a hat-trick against Bristol City, shook the club awake again.
Though at times Uwe could show unexpected touches of finesse or even sophistication, generally there was something decidedly agricultural about him. If George Best was El Beatle then Fuchs was Das Wurzel. He was one of those people who look like they have straw in their hair. His technique had a rustic simplicity too: whenever he received the ball he propelled it as hard as he could in the general direction of the opposition net with whatever part of his body happened to be available at the time.
As if to cement Uwe’s place in legend, rumours began to circulate that the goalscorer was romantically entwined with Jet from Gladiators, whose habit of turning cartwheels on the Ayresome Park pitch at half-time had plainly overheated local imaginations. Soon a “Uwe Loves Jet” banner was unveiled in the Holgate and, when winger John Hendrie appeared with a black eye, the quickfire explanation offered was that the Scot’s training ground quips about Uwe’s lady friend had resulted in a swift fourpenny one. (That Hendrie had actually picked up the shiner in a bruising encounter at Oakwell hardly mattered.)
With Boro back at the top of the First Division and Fjortoft’s services at last secured, Uwe’s appearances became more sporadic. His last game, against Sheffield United, was not the finale his earlier exploits had hinted at. Thrown into depression after apparently being poked in the eye by a Blades defender, his listlessness culminated in a half-baked attempt to gain retribution via the sort of arse-first tackle for which English-style centre forwards are famous. The resulting red card was more for intent than execution.
Two days after the end of the season, Bryan Robson announced he would not be taking up the £500,000 option to make Uwe’s move permanent. Instead the striker went for £750,000 to Millwall, where his biggest impact was on the wage bill. Like a jilted lover who can’t let go, the German would sometimes turn up in the away end when Middlesbrough played within striking distance of the capital, to be feted once again by the fans.
Then it was on to Arminia Bielefeld, a spell as an advisor for a multi-media group that has since hit financial trouble and the job of coach at Fortuna Cologne, from which he has just resigned. Yet whatever Uwe’s status may be elsewhere, the reception he received when he returned to Teesside for Robbie Mustoe’s testimonial shows that in one corner of the globe at least, he remains a star. Possibly even for a lifetime.
From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month