Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum,
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
(“Funeral Blues” – W.H.Auden)
‘Cause at 5 o’clock, they take me to the Gallows Pole,
The sands of time for me are running low.
(“Hallowed Be Thy Name” – Iron Maiden)
24 August, 1963. Just three years before, five scruffy Scousers had left their hometown and headed for the notorious Reeperbahn to try their luck on the local music scene. Similar in vibe to Liverpool, Hamburg would be their home for the next 26 months – an era that led to them turning from boys to men, redefining their image thanks to a local photographer and recording their first record. Stuart Sutcliffe decided to leave the band shortly thereafter and five became the Fab Four.
While August 1960 will be remembered as the date that the Beatles arrived in Hamburg, August 1963 will be remembered as the date that SV Hamburg were admitted to the new German Bundesliga. Before then, German teams played within five regional part-time professional Oberligen, the champions and runners-up of which then competed in play-offs to determine a national champion. But it was felt that the part-time nature of these leagues was driving German talent overseas and that a professional central league was needed to both retain talent and improve the German national team. Hence the Bundesliga was created in July 1962 with 16 teams being selected based on past success, economic criteria and overall country spread.
Surprisingly to present day readers, neither Bayern Munich nor Borussia Mönchengladbach – the two team who dominated the following 70s decade – made the cut. Bayern Munich were actually overshadowed by their neighbours; 1860 Munich. Teams that did make the grade included current powerhouses as Werder Bremen, Hamburg SV, Borussia Dortmund, FC Köln, Schalke 04, Eintracht Frankfurt and VfB Stuttgart.
Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach were both promoted into the Bundesliga during the 1964/65 season and Bayern Munich have remained there for the 56 subsequent seasons – an amazing record. But they were absent on day one and so as long as one of the original 16 teams never got relegated, they could never claim to be the longest surviving Bundesliga team.
As time passed, members of the original 16 inevitably hit bumps in the road and had to suffer the indignity of relegation and time spent in the division below, however briefly. By the 1990s, four clubs had still evaded the drop – Hamburg SV, FC Köln, Eintracht Frankfurt and Kaiserslautern. 1996 saw both Frankfurt and Kaiserslautern finally get the chop together, with Kaiserslautern interestingly winning the DFB-Pokal and so qualifying for the following year’s Cup Winner’s Cup. And so there were two; SV Hamburg and FC Koln.
The 1997/98 season saw FC Köln get off to a poor start and by Matchday 20, they were rooted to the bottom of the standings in 18th, while SV Hamburg were only marginally better in 14th. A strong run followed for Koln, taking them all the way to 12th by Matchday 28 and seemingly safe with just 6 games remaining. At the same time, SV Hamburg went into a tailspin and sat in the relegation zone with 7 games remaining. It appeared that Hamburg could finally suffer the indignation of relegation
But one draw and four losses saw Köln slip back into the danger zone, ahead of a final day Rhine Derby at home to Bayer Leverkusen, while Hamburg grabbed four wins and two draws to take them to safety. 38,500 packed the RheinEnergieStadion to see Köln take a 2-0 lead before disastrously capitulating in the last final seven minutes and allowing Leverkusen to grab two late goals. At the same time, Borussia Monchengladbach snatched a 2-0 win at Wolfsburg and with that it was all over. Köln were down and SV Hamburg were the last original man still standing.
Hamburg’s golden period had been during late 70s/early 80s when Kevin Keegan and Horst Hrubesch terrorised defences to win three Bundesliga titles, one European Cup and one Cup Winners Cup. Since then, they had experienced only mid-table bleakness. So as Köln entered the Bundesliga 2, there was a sense of pride around the Volksparkstadion that SV Hamburg were now the only member of the original 16 that had remained in the Bundesliga throughout. The club felt that public recognition of this achievement should be highlighted.
But how to do so? How best to rub it into opposing fan’s consciousness that SV Hamburg had history that demanded respect from lesser mortals? They needed something that would highlight the achievement and better still if it could show how this achievement was continuing to grow – hour by hour, minute by minute and second by second.
Yes, just what Hamburg needed was a huge clock, showing to the second how much time they had spent in the Bundesliga! And so in 2001, such a clock was installed in the north-west corner of the stadium, facing directly out onto the pitch for all to see. In the absence of trophies, Hamburg were determined to take pride in their history instead. The white, digital numbers showed the years, days, hours, minutes and yes, even seconds, that they had occupied the top tier.
While clearly a source of pride, it could also have been argued that by installing this clock, Hamburg were also attaching a millstone to themselves. After all, having anything that highlights how long you have avoided relegation is just tempting fate. Hamburg took the clock idea to extremes, even having one displayed on the front window of the team coach. Once you have a clock running, you need to keep it running, which it could be argued just adds pressure during a stressful season. And you just know that opposing fans would love to see nothing more than that clock halted. And what if you are relegated, what then? You now have a huge clock in your stadium with nothing to display. Was it really the best idea ever?
If the clock was not enough, Hamburg were also nicknamed Der Dinosaurier, which doesn’t need translation. Needless to say the nickname derived from having been around in the top division so long, although again it tempts fate with the obvious fact that the dinosaurs did eventually end up extinct.
But anyway, the clock was built, installed and started in order to record the march of time, and for the next few years, it all seemed a jolly wheeze as Hamburg recorded a series of strong seasons from 2003 to 2011, finishing continuously in the top ten and reaching the semi-finals of both the UEFA Cup and Europa Cup. The 2011/12 season did see a blip as Hamburg finished 15th, five points above the relegation zone but that was soon forgotten as Hamburg rose back to finish 7th the following year. The clock had now been ticking along for 13 years with little threat to its existence. But the 2013/14 season was going to see that finally under threat.
At the end of November, Hamburg stood in 11th place, before a seven match losing streak threw them into the relegation zone. Apart from only one weekend thereafter, Hamburg remained there and the final five weeks saw them lose all five games. They had ended the season in 16th, meaning that they would now be subjected to the stress of a two-legged play-off against the 3rd place Bundesliga 2 team – SpVgg Greuther Fürth.
Captained by the Dutch international Rafael van der Vaart and led up front by German striker Pierre-Michel Lasogga, Hamburg were held to a goalless draw in the first leg at their home of Imtech Arena, with commentators saying they were lucky to avoid defeat . That meant advantage Furth going into the second leg three days later down in Bavaria. A packed Sportpark Ronhof saw a mass of green and white flags cheering on the home side. Hamburg produced the early chances and in the 14th minute broke through with a Lasogga header from a Van der Vaart corner, giving them a precious away goal. The second half saw Furstner grab an equaliser for Fürth in the 59th minute and the Hamburg nerves began to jangle. But no further goals were forthcoming and The Dinosaur celebrated in front of 2,000 travelling fans. The sands of time continued to run.
Entering into the following 2014/15 season, Mirko Slomka remained Hamburg manager. However, if fans were hoping for some improvement over the previous season’s near-debacle, they were soon disavowed of that hope. Hamburg took just one point from their first three games, and Slomka was replaced with reserve team coach Josef Zinnbauer, resulting in Slomka slapping an E1.4M lawsuit against Hamburg, having managed them for only 18 games total. Zinnbauer lasted just six months until a 1-0 home defeat by Hertha BSC saw Hamburg back in the relegation zone and he received his marching orders. Peter Knabel, the Sports Director for Hamburg, took the reins for the next two until the appointment of Hamburg’s fourth manager of the season – Bruno Labbadia, who had previously managed Hamburg for just under a year in 2010 before being sacked. He started with Hamburg now rooted to the bottom of the Bundesliga, but three wins in their last five games pushed them up into the play-off spot for a second year running.
This time the opposition was Karlsruher, located just west of Stuttgart, who just two seasons before had been mired in the third league within Germany. The first leg was in Hamburg and got off to a disastrous start for the home team as Karlsruher scored after just four minutes. A 73rd minute equaliser from Ilicevic avoided home defeat but again, like the previous year, they went to the away leg with just a home draw and with Karlsruher having a vital away goal.
The second leg was a tense affair and was still goalless as it approached the 78th minute, giving Karlsruher the away goal advantage. Then a lovely chip put Karlruher’s substitute Yabo in on goal and his volley put the stadium into ecstasy. Hamburg then threw everything they had at the Karlsruher goal, knowing they had to score, hitting the post at one point, but Karlsruher kept clinging on as the game entered stoppage time. Finally fate was going to halt the Hamburg clock after 52 years.
Enter Marcelo Diaz. The Chilean midfielder had signed just four months previously and had not scored during that time. In the dying seconds, Hamburg got a direct free-kick just outside the penalty-box. Rafael van der Vaart, the captain, prepared to take the kick before Diaz told him “tomorrow, my friend” and took charge instead. Top corner, 1-1, extra time! 3,600 travelling fans were seriously bouncing. With five minutes of extra-time remaining, substitute Nicolai Muller ensured that once again Hamburg wriggled free of the clutches of the grim reaper. For a second year in succession, Hamburg had avoided the drop – this time by mere seconds. It seemed like the clock was fated to continue to tick indefinitely.
2015/16 ended up being a tame, relatively boring affair, although given the two previous play-off dramas, that may have been just fine by Hamburg supporters. Bruno Labbadia remained at the helm through the whole season and Hamburg literally sat right around mid-table for the whole 34 matches, finishing 10th. They did receive a 5-0 thrashing from Bayern and an embarrassing cup defeat in the first round at Carl Zeiss Jena, but that was about the height of the drama. Labbadia seemed to have corrected course and all now seemed calm sailing once again.
It couldn’t, and didn’t, last. 2016/17 saw Hamburg draw one and lose four of their opening five games and with that Labbadia’s second stint was terminated, replaced by Markus Gisdol, who had last managed Hoffenheim. Hamburg’s terrible start continued and after 12 games they had still failed to register a single win. February saw Hamburg receive their annual humiliation at the hands of Bayern – this time 8-0 including a Lewandowski hat-trick. A minor resurgence saw them briefly exit the relegation zone but with one game left in the season they sat in 17th, in relegation and one place below the play-off spot. It looked like this time there may not even be the option of a play-off miracle to save them.
The final game was home against Wolfsburg, who were also relegation candidates. The equation was simple – Hamburg had to win to stay up, something they had not managed to do during the five previous games. Both teams were playing for their Bundesliga lives.
On a glorious sunny day, Hamburg got off a bad start as Knoche headed Wolfsburg into a 1-0 lead after just 23 minutes – his first goal of the season. However, just nine minutes later, a midfield press saw Hamburg steal possession and a low cross was converted by Kostic to square the match up. But from then on, Hamburg couldn’t find the second goal they needed for survival as the match ebbed away. With just two minutes left, the game was still tied and Hamburg were heading down. Then a long ball out to the wing got behind the Wolfsburg offside trap. A cross towards the far post saw Waldschmidt sneak in and head Hamburg ahead – also his first goal of the season and producing immediate sainthood. Waldschmidt himself seemed amazed and his confused goal celebration mirrored this. Cue pandemonium, cue end of game pitch invasion. Cue the clock continuing. Hamburg had now cheated the drop narrowly three times – could their luck last another season?
The 2017/18 season saw Hamburg win their opening two games – and then the slump began. Eight losses in the next ten games saw them plummet to 15th and in December they entered the relegation zone for the first time. By Matchday 28 Hamburg were bottom, having gone 15 successive games winless. But then with six games left and relegation looking inevitable, Hamburg suddenly won three of their next five games, dragging them to 17th place and with a chance of survival going into their final match – at home to Borussia Monchengladbach. The math was that Hamburg needed to win and hope that Köln would travel to Wolfsburg and defeat them. Anything else and Hamburg would be automatically relegated in their 55th Bundesliga season. In desperation, Hamburg fans promised to send barrels of beer to Köln if they could win.
The Volksparkstadion was a sea of blue and white as 57,000 fans did their utmost to spur Hamburg on. After just nine minutes Hamburg had a penalty shout for handball – VAR confirmation followed and Aaron Hunt thumped home the kick. But Monchengladbach were playing for a European spot and just seventeen minutes later they were level through a counter-attack – the scorer being ex-Hamburg player Drmic. At half-time both Hamburg and Köln were drawing giving hope still to Hamburg fans. An amazing goal-line clearance saw Hamburg stay level and then on 63 minutes, Holtby rifled in a winner ensuring Hamburg had done all that they could. It was now all eyes and ears on the Wolfsburg game.
Unfortunately for Hamburg, Wolfsburg moved up a gear in the second half and put three goals past Köln to comfortably win 4-1. As the realisation of relegation percolated through the crowd toward the end, disappointment turned to frustration. Firecrackers started to be thrown onto the field during stoppage time and flares ignited behind one of the goals and the end was soon bathed in smoke. Riot police flooded onto the pitch as the smoke thickened and stood off and watched the increased level of pyrotechnics. The game was held up for 15 minutes before finally the players reemerged and play was finished. The final whistle in Hamburg saw tears amongst the players and fans as fate finally caught up with them.
And so it finally happened – 54 years, 261 days, 0 hours, 36 minutes and 2 seconds – the clock was stopped! Auf Wiedersehen Hamburg – the Dinosaur was finally extinct after 55 seasons. The 1978/79, 1981/82 and 1982/83 Bundesliga champions and 1983 European Champions now faced the Bundesliga 2 for the first time.
Both 2018/19 and 2019/20 saw Hamburg finish 4th and narrowly miss promotion by just one point in both cases – double heartbreak. And then this season saw the same story again – 4th place and four points off promotion. It feels like just a matter of time before Hamburg rejoin the promised land – but three years in the wilderness will have financial implications. But most would agree that Hamburg belong back amongst the elite and with their huge fanbase, they are a huge loss to the Bundesliga.
But what about the stopped clock? At first, it was changed to show how long Hamburg had been in existence – 130 years, 7 months, 3 days. Then, in July 2019, Hamburg confirmed that they had dismantled the legendary stadium clock and replaced it with the stadium’s GPS data. Chairman Bernd Hoffman said “We want to position ourselves for the future. A constant look into the rear mirror doesn’t help.”
The story of Hamburg and their clock is a lesson in tempting fate. Whilst rightfully proud of their record time in the top division, flaunting that to the rest of the country would appear in hindsight to have been asking for trouble. As we saw, they managed to cheat relegation by fractions a few times – and it seemed that maybe fate was smiling on them. But, as with all things in life, the party had to end eventually. Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone – the sands of time had finally run out.