BY MARK GODFREY
The French expression ‘déjà-vu’ is pretty universal. They certainly know what it means in Hamburg where the city’s biggest and most successful football club faces yet another nail biting fight to avoid a first ever relegation from the Bundesliga.
OK, so Germany’s top flight only came into existence in 1963, but Hamburger Sport-Verein (HSV) are the only club to have participated in its every season; winning the title three times to go with three other national championships in the pre-Bundesliga era. The 1983 European champions had their heyday in the late 1970s and 80s, and although they were regular qualifiers for continental competition throughout the Noughties, die Rotenhosen have certainly seen better days than they’ve experienced recently.
2015/16’s mid-table finish provided some temporary respite from an increasingly dark outlook for Der Dino. The two previous campaigns saw HSV finish third bottom in the table in the relegation play-off spot, where they had to stare down the challenge of Bundesliga 2’s third placed team; in 2015 they were only saved by an extra time winner in the second leg to deny Karlsruher SC promotion, and by the away goals rule the year before against Greuther Fürth.
After those previous scares the powers that be at the Volksparkstadion vowed never to get into such a situation again, yet here they are repeating their mistakes just two years on. HSV go into the final game of the season floundering in the dreaded play-off berth; clear of automatic relegation which has claimed the much smaller entities of Ingolstadt and Darmstadt, but two points – and with a significantly worse goal difference – adrift of safety and a gaggle of clubs who could, by the end of the weekend, find themselves replacing HSV in 16th.
For that to occur would require HSV to manage something they haven’t done since early April – a win – when a victory over Hoffenheim was their fourth in their previous six games and seemed to have eased the relegation fears that have gripped them all year. Since then they’ve sunk back into trouble and will face fellow strugglers VfL Wolfsburg on home turf knowing that only three points will help them dodge yet another nerve wracking conclusion to the regular season.
It’s a situation that’s been brewing for some time; with a continual revolving door in the manager’s office and poor player recruitment crippling any hope of proper, sustainable improvement on the pitch. Current head coach Markus Gisdol only took up the position in September after the sacking of Bruno Labbadia, and while that may seem a short tenure – even in the precarious world of football management – it’s already par for the course in the crazy world of HSV.
While it’s no surprise to see HSV in trouble again, their upcoming opponents Wolfsburg must be wondering how they’ve got themselves into this perilous position. Bundesliga runners-up to Bayern Munich as recently as 2014/15 and champions back in 2008/09, the Volkswagen backed club have rarely dipped below mid-table in recent times, save for one disastrous spell under Englishman Steve McClaren in 2010/11. In that time they’ve fielded a string of top class players – and Nicklas Bendtner – and been a staple on the European scene.
Current boss Andries Jonker is the third to be employed this season. He will be hoping that 16-goal veteran international striker Mario Gomez can prove the difference between the sides when they meet in Hamburg on Saturday.
Should HSV fail to win against Wolfsburg and consequently lose in the relegation play-off, it will be a seismic shock to a club that believes they have a divine right to be playing in Germany’s top tier.
They would not be the only big club to suffer the humiliation of relegation in Germany over the last few years; the most prominent of which – VfB Stuttgart – will almost certainly return to Bundesliga 1 at the first attempt.
HSV’s (or any of the other teams involved) likely opponents in the play-off will also come from the north of the country. Depending on results from this weekend’s final round of games, either Hannover 96 or Eintracht Braunschweig will stand in their path to redemption – no easy task given both have plenty of top flight experience recently.
However much of a German football institution HSV may be, amongst the rest of the nation’s football followers, few tears will be shed if the unthinkable finally becomes the inevitable.