How Hamburg’s relegation clock slowly reset

Words By Euan McTear Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 18, 2018

Fifty-four years without slumbering, tick, tock, tick, tock. It’s life’s seconds numbering, tick, tock, tick, tock. It stopped short never to go again when Hamburg’s permanent Bundesliga status died.

From August 24th, 1963, to May 12th, 2018, Hamburg SV were a member of the Bundesliga, but the only founding member never to have been relegated finally dropped down to the second division on Saturday afternoon, despite their 2-1 victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach. Their famous clock, which showed how long they’d been in the division, was made to stop.

The ultras in the Nordtribüne of the Volksparkstadion reacted angrily, with the images of the fiery scenes quickly going viral, but this was more of a response to the general state of the club rather than a spur-of-the-moment rage. This relegation was not a shock. If anything, the shock was that it had taken this long. Even their nickname of The Dinosaur had changed from being a proud badge of honour for the club to become something of a joke, a way to ridicule the club whose permanent Bundesliga status should have been extinct long ago.

Although Hamburg have won the German title six times and although they regularly qualified for European football in the decade of the Noughties, they’ve been regularly taking part in relegation scraps since 2011, even needing to win the relegation play-offs of 2013/14 and 2014/15 to stay up. It was inevitable that this game of relegation Russian roulette was eventually going to catch them out, with the club having been run in a dubious manner for several years.

Even though they’re based in a wealthy city, they are skint and local billionaire Klaus-Michael Kühne simply cannot keep pumping money into the club to keep them above water. This wasn’t sustainable. As such, their budget has been reduced and reduced and the playing squad is a far cry from the days when they counted on Dutch stars like Vincent Kompany, Nigel de Jong and Rafael van der Vaart.

That said, Hamburg have also been guilty of failing to make the most of the resources they have had, which was still more than some of the minnows who’ll finish this season above them. It is quite amazing that they’ve gone through this season with only one reliable striker in Bobby Wood, a player who has only managed two Bundesliga goals and who had only reached double figures once before in his career, when playing for FC Union Berlin in Bundesliga 2. Fellow striker Sven Schipplock has been constantly injured, which isn’t surprising given his past medical records, while Luca Waldschmidt and Jann-Fiete Arp are just 21 and 18 and shouldn’t have been relied upon so heavily. The decision to loan Pierre-Michel Lasogga to Leeds, where he has scored 10 goals, has also come back to haunt the club.

Looking towards the dugout, they’ve had as many as 15 coaches in the past decade and, logically, they haven’t established a tactical identity or philosophy. This season alone summed that up perfectly, as Markus Gisdol’s high-pressing methods didn’t really work and he was sacked in January, only for his replacement Bernd Hollerbach to try to play a completely new kind of football, a defensive-minded one. He did manage to stop the team leaking quite as many goals, but they simply couldn’t score and were as toothless as a newborn baby in attack. Christian Titz then came in for the final stretch and they did put up a bit of a fight under the former reserves coach, but it was too little too late.

The constant upheaval means that those making the decisions, whether coaches or directors, know that they’re unlikely to be given much time and a culture of short-termism was allowed to set in. It was always a sense of ‘let’s not get relegated on my watch’, with such passing of the buck never likely to be sustainable for long.

“Hamburg is a big club, but they don’t have a good structure in the background,” Sky Germany’s Jurek Rohrberg put it. “Around the club there was a lot of struggle in the last few years. There have been new managers, new CEOs and financial problems.”

Now, the question is how they manage to get the clock up and running again. Hamburg will be expected to win promotion at the first attempt, but their institutional issues won’t simply dissipate because they’re playing at a lower level. There’s a need to put together a sensible budget, to spend it wisely and to bring in a coach whose style of play will be adhered to for the entire campaign.

It’s already embarrassing enough for this Bundesliga mainstay that they’ll be spending the 100th year of their history in Bundesliga 2. They won’t want to be doing the same in their 101st.

Bundesliga Hamburg SV
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