In the corner of Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion sits an infamous but now redundant clock labelled “in der Bundesliga seit” – ‘time in the Bundesliga’. The clock stopped just shy of 55 years, both the length of Hamburg’s stay in the German topflight and the time since the Bundesliga’s inception. Hamburg are proudly the only club to spend every one of those 55 seasons in the Bundesliga but, after barely keeping their heads above water in recent times, they have finally succumbed to relegation. The Bundesliga will carry on into its 56th year without ‘Der Dino’, ‘The Dinosaurs’, and Hamburg only have themselves to blame.
A sense of inevitability has loomed over Hamburger SV for some time and this year was no different. Although a brace of opening wins over Augsburg and Koln put them third in the fledgling Bundesliga table, hope that the Northern club would enjoy the relative security of mid-table insignificance during 17/18 quickly faded as Der Dino collapsed to lose 7 of the next 8 games as part of a disastrous 2 wins in 26. HSV were bottom and 7 points from safety with 6 games to play. Abhorrent form, and not uncommon.
Last season, December 4th marked their first Bundesliga win of the campaign after just 4 draws from the opening 12 matchdays. Only a final day win over Wolfsburg would save Markus Gidsol’s charges. Bruno Labbadia, eventually sacked after last year’s poor start despite a miraculous 10th place in 15/16, cajoled 3 wins from the final 5 games in 14/15 to lift Hamburg off the bottom and into the relegation play-off where Karlsruhe were only beaten in extra time. Away goals were needed to squeeze out a play off win over Greuther Furth in the previous season’s playoff after 15 defeats in their last 20 league fixtures, including the final five, under Bert van Marwijk and then Mirko Slomka. Relegation was long overdue.
This season, a trio of coaches have struggled and failed to eek enough out of a squad that is, admittedly, barely of a top flight standard. Markus Gisdol, who took over from Labbadia in September 2016, was moved on after a pair of defeats following the winter break left Der Dino second bottom. Former HSV player and Felix Magath assistant coach, Bernd Hollerbach, lasted just seven winless matches before Christian Titz managed to engender hope of another barely believable escape with 4 wins in their last 6 matches over Schalke, Freiburg, Wolfsburg and Gladbach. Hamburg’s situation however, bottom and 7 points behind the playoff spot before those wins, unsurprisingly proved irrevocable. Managerial turnover is also nothing new at the Volksparkstadion, Titz being the 13th permanent coach (17 including caretakers) in the last 11 years.
Having steered HSV’s second team to the top of the 4th tier Regionalliga group, Titz’s limited success was partly down to his knowledge of the club’s younger players and his willingness to throw them into a team that has been both slowly eroded over recent years and suffered through uninspiring, unsuccessful additions. Holding midfielder Matti Steinmann (22), Japanese winger Tatsuya Ito (20) and attacking midfielder Luca Waldschmidt (21) all became regulars under Titz, largely performing admirably – particularly Ito, theclub selling out of his replica shirt after the Japanese starred in the Schalke win. While, although clearly still developing, 18-year-old striker Jann-Fiete Arp, the first millennial to play in the Bundesliga, was one of the few bright spots earlier in the year.
The influx of youth was not only welcome but necessary with a number of senior players banished. Experienced Bundesliga stalwarts Lewis Holtby and Sejad Salihovic even struggled to make the 18 in the spring, although Holtby eventually regained his place. Meanwhile, despite long term financial issues, 5.5 million euros was spent on forward Andre Hahn last summer who could only continue his downward trajectory from Gladbach having once been an exciting prospect with Augsburg. Hahn being just one of a host of recent signings failing to have a true impact. Their biggest setback came in bizarre fashion on the opening day as premier and occasionally inspirational forward Nicolai Muller ruptured knee ligaments celebrating what turned out to be the winner over Augsburg. Fellow key man, Swedish international midfield anchor Albin Ekdal, also spent much of the year sidelined with a succession of complaints.
Crucially however, turmoil and turnover amongst the playing and coaching staff has been mirrored, and even perpetuated, higher up the HSV hierarchy. The club are largely kept afloat by investment from billionaire logistics magnate Klaus-Michael Kühne. Born in Hamburg, now 80, Kühne is the largest shareholder of the shipping company Kühne + Nagel founded by his Grandfather. According to Forbes, Kühne is worth nearly $15 billion making him the 7th richest German and putting him 91st on their 2018 billionaires list. Kühne owns over 20% of Hamburg and has reportedly invested around 100 million euros.
Although his input has been absolutely vital in sustaining the club, Kühne is regularly outspoken over the way the club is run and plight of the team, often unhelpfully so. After Hamburg were dumped out of the DFB Pokal by third tier Osnabruck this season Kühne commented that then manager Gisdol needed “to do more in order to shape HSV into a team”, having previously described forward Pierre-Michel Lasogga as “the flop of the century” in Der Spiegel, a popular German weekly news magazine, after an 8.5million euro move and 30 goals in 107 games before joining Leeds on loan last summer (where his goal ratio has improved). Meanwhile, perhaps least helpfully, at the opening of his new luxury hotel in March, Kühne stated: “A few years ago I would have said Hamburg has three pearls; the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, our new hotel and HSV. Now it only has two pearls.”
Kühne has also been vocal on the performance of the club’s board and its directors, another facet of HSV that seems to be constantly in flux over recent seasons, stating; “There’s a significant difference between how I think the club should be run and how it actually is.” In March, chairman Heribert Bruchhagen, who was only appointed at the end of 2016 after 13 years as Eintracht Frankfurt’s chairman, and sporting director Jens Todt, of whom Kühne advised publically “works hard, but does not have much experience and needs to be more decisive”, were dismissed along with seven-game coach Hollerbach by incoming president Bernd Hoffmann in what he called “the biggest shake-up” in the club’s 131 year history. Based on recent times, that’s some statement.
Hoffman, previously president during HSV’s most recent zenith between 2003 and 2011, has understandably referred to the club’s financial situation of 100 million euros plus worth of debt as “drastic” and conceded that Hamburg are “not competitive in several areas,” while affirming his belief that “continuity is the wrong strategy, everything must be put to the test.” Although that attitude may cause debate, given the team’s comparative success during his previous presidency, Hoffman and his new CEO, Frank Wettstein, who spoke of “re-positioning ourselves for the future”, may finally amount to the right blend but unfortunately theirs is a longer term project unable to affect immediate results or undo the damage already done.
Regardless of recent on and off field disasters, Volksparkstadion attendances have remained strong. A season average of over 50,000 puts HSV an impressive sixth in that particular league table in what is the most attended division across world football. Nevertheless, fan unrest remains a prominent issue. In 2014 the decoupling of the the professional Football team from the rest of HSV’s ametur teams across a myriad of sports led to a group of infuriated fans founding their own club, HFC Falke, taking inspiration from FC United of Manchester’s own revolt.
An aggressive attitude from a subset of remaining fans, supporters’ groups in particular, has also proven counterproductive. Following March’s 2-1 home defeat to Hertha Berlin, disturbances on the terraces preceded injuries to six stewards, one policewoman and two fans as a group of ultras attempted to force entry to the dressing room. This followed the displaying of a banner reading; “Before the clock runs out, we’ll chase you through the city”, during the loss to Bayer Leverkusen a month earlier while the 6-0 defeat to Bayern Munich resulted in fans placing crosses around the team’s training pitch with another banner reading: “Time’s up. We’ll get you all.”
Hamburg’s 78,000 members makes them the 15th largest sports club in the world, while the 1983 European Cup win plus 6 German titles underlines their stature and historical significance and although the loss of their near 55 year streak may be seen as disastrous by some sections of the fanbase it has become increasingly clear over the last decade that issues financial, sporting and managerial have become endemic and ingrained. Relegation, despite being fraught with risk in itself, could act as the palate cleanser HSV need to have a chance of returning, eventually, to a position of strength and security back in the top flight. In der Bundesliga seit for HSV may have, for now, come to an end but without violent threats from ultras, their clock ominously ticking away above the pitch and Kühne rattling on about ‘pearls’, the next 55 years might be a little less tense.