When you think of a target man, what do you think of? It’s usually a big, lanky guy with a battering ram on the top of his neck and not much pace. In football there have been few players to define their role on the pitch. When you think of deep lying playmakers, you think of Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo. When you think of creative, attacking midfielders, you will probably think of Johan Cryuff. But for 90’s kids who were obsessed with world football in the early 2000’s, like me, when you thought of a target man, the first name to come into your head was probably Jan Koller.
Koller was born in Prague, Czech Republic, in 1973. He was very tall as a child and started his career in goal, unsurprisingly. However, somewhere along the way a coach spotted how useful his 6 foot 7 inch frame may be up front. He began his professional career with Sparta Prague, the Czech Republic’s most successful club. He would play for Sparta between 1994 and 1996, scoring only 5 goals in 29 games. Young Koller would soon be dodging door frames at a new club though – in 1996 he signed for Belgian side Lokeren. His time with Lokeren was much more successful than it had been with Sparta and he scored 43 goals in 97 games. He was soon courted by another Belgian side and, in 1999, he joined Anderlecht for the equivalent of €2.5 million. Having signed the Jupiler League’s top goalscorer for 1998/99, Anderlecht looked to pair Koller with Tomasz Radzinski up front. His partnership with the Canadian forward was a roaring success. With Radzinski’s lightening pace and perpetual movement, and Koller’s strength and dominance in the air Anderlecht would win the Jupiler League in 1999/00 and 2000/01. Koller would also continue to impress in Belgium and won the Belgian Golden Shoe for Player of the Year in 2000. Bigger clubs in Europe had taken notice of the gangly Czech and, in the summer of 2001, Koller moved to Borussia Dortmund for €7.5 million.
Matthias Sammer made Jan Koller his first signing as manager of Borussia Dortmund. His idea was for Koller to be a focal point of the Dortmund attacks, but to have two players to feed to in the form of Tomas Rosicky, a fellow Czech, and Marcio Amoroso. Just like it did in Anderlecht, the plan worked a treat. Although BVB would be knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages, they would not fail in their quest for silverware. Upon entering the UEFA Cup, Sammer made a point of treating the competition seriously. The rest of the continent would be enlightened to the ability of Jan Koller during the UEFA Cup campaign, as his goals and performances helped Dortmund reach the final. Koller would score in the final but, alas, it would be in vain as Feyenoord would win the UEFA Cup in their own stadium. Koller and Dortmund wouldn’t be denied the chance to lift a trophy though. With three games to go in the Bundesliga, Bayer Leverkusen found themselves top and 5 points clear. But Leverkusen couldn’t hold their nerve and, on the penultimate matchday, Dortmund managed to overtake their rivals in a dramatic 4-3 win over Hamburg in which Koller scored the winner. BVB would wrap up the title with a 2-1 win at the Westfalenstadion on the last day against Werder Bremen, again with Koller on the scoresheet. It was a momentous campaign for everyone involved in the club, no one more so than Jan Koller. He had come to the Bundesliga and made a name for himself in his first season by scoring 17 goals in 47 appearances in all competitions, collecting a runners-up medal in a European final and winning the league. Not a bad first season.
The following season, Koller continued to put in strong performances. His return of 21 goals in 46 appearances was an improvement on the previous campaign and he continued to form a deadly threesome with Rosicky and Amoroso. But Dortmund could not reclaim their Bundesliga crown and only finished 3rd. Koller remained a key player though. Defenders in the Bundesliga had not had to face a skyscraper like Jan Koller before, so had no way of keeping him quiet. Not only was he a good header of the ball but he was physically imposing too. He had a decent touch and was deceptively quick for a target man. There was certainly more to his game than flick on’s and knock down’s. Koller could also play some neat football when necessary. But it was also during this season that Koller got to don the goalkeeping gloves again. In a game against Bayern Munich, Dortmund ‘keeper Jens Lehmann was sent off for a second yellow card. Having used all their substitutes Dortmund had no choice but to throw an outfield player in goal for the remainder of the game. A man the stature and playing history of Jan Koller was never going to get away with this one. So into the net Koller went and he managed to keep a clean sheet in his 23 minutes in goal.
The 2003/04 season would not a good one for BVB. They would finish the season 6th in the Bundesliga, be knocked out of the Champions League on penalties by Club Brugge in the qualifying round and would also be knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Sochaux in the second round. Koller would still finish the season as top scorer for the club, although he would share the title with Ewerthon. It would be the end of Matthias Sammer in Dortmund however, as he was sacked following a poor campaign. BVB would not fair much better the following season under new coach Bert van Maarwijk, as the Dutchman could only lead his side to 7th place in the Bundesliga. More embarrassingly though for the club they were knocked out of the Intertoto Cup at the first hurdle. But again Koller would remain a talisman for the team and retained his status as clubs top goalscorer. 2005/06 would be the last hurrah for Jan Koller in Dortmund. Now 33 years old, he was in the final year of his contract and was finding his playing restricted by injuries and the form of younger players. He would only feature 9 times, scoring 4 goals. At the end of the season he moved to A.S Monaco on a free transfer.
As well as Monaco, Koller would go onto play for F.C Nuremburg, Krylya Sovetov in Russia and A.S Cannes in France, before retiring in 2011 at the age of 38. Koller is fondly remembered by football fans because of his height and distinctive look – some would say he had a face only a mother could love. But Koller was much more than a battering ram. He was class. Target men don’t get the credit they deserve in football and Jan Koller certainly qualifies for that statement. He was Borussia Dortmund’s leading scorer for four of his five seasons with the club. He set up team mates as well as bagging his own. For Christ’s sake, the lad even went in goal! You would be hard pushed to find a more instantly effective and successful signing at any club as Jan Koller was at Borussia Dortmund.