Hertha BSC’s 2018/19 campaign was somewhat emblematic of Pal Dardai’s tenure at the club. A strong start to the season left supporters dreaming of a challenge for the UEFA Champions League. Matchday 6 concluded with a 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich and 13 points gathered from 18, with the capital club lying in third place.
Yet this level of performance was short-lived. Standards dropped by the end of the Hinrunde and Hertha had fallen to eighth place going into the winter break. Mediocre form continued in the Rückrunde, with only 19 points acquired in the second half of the season. An eventual 11th position was disappointing given the calibre of the Hertha squad and promising start made.
This seems a repeat of other seasons, as Hertha under Dardai have consistently failed to build on excellent starts. Even in the Hungarian’s most successful campaign this was the case, in 2016/17. During this year, die Alte Dame qualified for the Europa League with a commendable sixth place finish. Yet, there was still a feeling of anti-climax. Hertha had entered the second half of that season in third. However, largely due to terrible away form (eight losses from nine away Rückrunde matches), the side failed to push on in their quest for the Champions League and had to settle for Europe’s secondary continental competition.
The club hierarchy had grown restless with this repeat in form, season after season. There was a feeling that the club legend had taken Hertha BSC as far as he could. This was not helped by Dardai’s seeming lack of tactical flexibility. He tended to adopt a cautious approach to matches which could often lead to a turgid style of football. This was especially evident towards the end of his reign, as the side often struggled to find the back of the net, only managing 23 Rückrunde goals.
Hertha’s executive board “charged the coach with taking more advice from external influencers, getting in younger players and – in view of the decline in the number of spectators last season – to play more attractive football, especially at home,” wrote Uwe Bremer in Berliner Morgenpost. Ultimately, Dardai could not deliver this. There was a failure to maintain the comparatively attacking style of the opening matches last season, and the dull football on display did little to attract spectators.
With things seemingly going stale, in April Hertha BSC and Pal Dardai took the joint decision to part company at the end of the 2018/19 season. Sporting Director Michael Preetz announced, “We have come to the conclusion that a new impetus in the summer is the right move for Hertha BSC.”
While this was a bold move by the club, it also represents a risky one. Dardai symbolised a figure of stability. Hired in February 2015, he saved the Berliners from relegation and Hertha were untroubled by the threat of the drop in subsequent seasons whilst the coach was present.
Additionally, it should not be discounted that Dardai remains Hertha BSC’s record appearance holder, playing 297 times in the league for Hertha between 1997 and 2011. The man was someone the fans could relate to, as dedicated to Hertha as many of the fans stood on the Ostkurve.
This is illustrated by the dismay of many supporters with the decision to relieve Dardai of his duties, who remained loyal to the coach and former midfielder until the very end. Berliner Morgenpost described much criticism directed towards Sporting Director Preetz online. Dardai’s tenure ended unceremoniously with a 5-1 home defeat to Bayer Leverkusen, but the fond farewell that the Hungarian received is testament to his continued popularity with fans. For all that Dardai’s playing style seemed to fail in winning over casual supporters, the hardcore support stood by the departing coach. They will be somewhat appeased by the Hungarian’s supposed return in 2020 as a youth coach.
Michael Preetz was faced with the unenviable task of finding a replacement for Pal Dardai. It is perhaps sensible that he has turned to Ante Covic. Berlin-born as well as a former player and reserve coach, Covic is a familiar face to fans and fits a similar mould to Dardai. He made 72 appearances for Hertha between 1996 and 2000, and even more for Hertha BSC II at the end of his career. Despite the unknown quantity of Covic’s managerial abilities, it seems a low-risk choice in comparison to other names mentioned in the frame such as Andre Villas-Boas.
Covic’s appointment also is an indicator that Preetz has not fallen into the previous trap of appointing a journeyman coach, as he has done before. It should be noted that prior to Dardai, the Sporting Director’s coaching selections have included the likes of Otto Rehhagel, Jos Luhukay and Friedhelm Funkel, none of whom managed to enjoy any sustained period of success. The club seemed to struggle in the wake of Lucien Favre’s departure, who had managed to steer the club to 4th in 2009. Two relegations followed in the coming years, so the reign of Dardai can be viewed as a great success as he managed to firmly establish the Berlin club in the top flight and end a run of short-lived coaching appointments.
Therefore, to give the job to Covic shows that Preetz may have learned from prior mistakes, particularly given that experienced names such as Bruno Labbadia and Dieter Hecking were available in the summer. As a young coach, Covic can hopefully build long-term success at the helm of Hertha BSC.
Nevertheless, the transitional period that Hertha go through may take time as they move on from Dardai. The vast majority of the club’s squad have only known Dardai as a coach whilst at Hertha, so these players must adapt to a new manager’s ways of working. For instance, with the displeasure at Dardai’s tactical style, it is likely that the club management will expect a more attractive brand of football under Covic.
It remains to be seen whether the decision to move on from Dardai’s unfashionable but steady stewardship will backfire on Hertha. More optimistic supporters will expect the capital club to build on the foundations laid by Dardai and make the step to become regular contenders for European competition. However, such is the unpredictability of the club that a slide down the table is equally possible. Either way, interesting times lie ahead for Hertha BSC.
By Colin Moore.