BY MARK GODFREY
In 1987, the city of Berlin (although still divided at the time) celebrated its 750th anniversary. In its famous Olympic Stadium, Thomas von Heesen led the victorious players of Hamburger SV up the steps to be presented with the DFB Pokal (the German Cup) on June 20th of that notable year. Bearing in mind the club’s long and proud heritage and its recent successful history, no one could have foreseen that this – up to now – would be the last significant honour won by German football’s Dinosaur.
Granted, there were the Intertoto Cup wins in 2005 and 2007 and the DFB Ligapokal triumph in 2003, but nobody can pretend that any of those counted for much in the grand scheme of things; the convoluted Intertoto Cup being a perpetually maligned entity and the Ligapokal having a less-than-prominent place in the priorities of those who participated during its brief history. So, in essence, one of Germany’s giants fell asleep and has gone potless for over a quarter of a century. To make matters worse, in more recent times Hamburg have slipped ever closer to the trap door and their first relegation in the 52-year history of the Bundesliga; just this summer they barely survived courtesy of a dramatic late comeback in the two-legged play-off with Karlsruhe. The play-off itself was a lifeline snatched out of thin air on the final day of the season thanks to their 2-0 home victory over Schalke 04 and favourable results elsewhere; Freiburg’s loss at Hannover condemned die Breisgau-Brasilianer to the second automatic relegation place that looked almost certainly reserved for HSV. So, how have things deteriorated to this current state?
The glory days of the late 70s and early 80s are rightly treasured, but perhaps they were also the catalyst for the long, frustrating decline that has afflicted die Rothosen ever since. Back when that run of success began, the Bundesliga was still relatively new. In the beginning, the title was shared around until the great sides of Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach created their duopoly. The 1970s were dominated by the economically and politically powerful Bavaria in the south and the Rhineland in the west until Hamburg bucked that trend, grasping the opportunity to strike a blow for the north by investing wisely, but heavily to do so, most notably with their high profile acquisition of Liverpool’s European Footballer of the Year Kevin Keegan in 1977. Inspired by the signing of ‘Mighty Mouse’ it did not take long for Hamburg to step into the void left by the waning of the all-conquering Bayern and Gladbach sides at the end of the decade.
Success was sustained; between 1976 and 1987 there were three Bundesliga titles, five runners-up places, two Pokals, a European Cup Winners Cup; there were European Cup, UEFA Cup and Super Cup runners-up spots and – the crowning glory – a famous European Champions Cup win in 1983 when defeating the overwhelming favourites Juventus thanks to Felix Magath’s wonder strike. But as quickly as the good times rolled in, they rolled back out again after that final Pokal triumph in ‘87.
Bayern rediscovered themselves. VfB Stuttgart, Werder Bremen, Borussia Dortmund and even Kaiserslautern leapfrogged HSV as the 80s turned into the 90s and, in truth, they’ve never really recovered the ground that they lost. There was even talk of financial ruin in the 90s as the club swiftly dropped off the pace.
And as a consequence of that fall from grace, the names of Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen occupy the place in the upper echelons of German football today where Hamburg should rightfully sit.
The reconstruction of the Volksparkstadion – completed in 2000 – gave hope of a revival. Indeed, HSV seemed to gain impetus from this and, when added to increased investment in the playing staff, it propelled them from perennial mid-table also rans to a side that continually challenged for a place in European competition. Yet still, they kept banging their heads off that glass ceiling, never quite summoning up a serious title challenge, stymied by that period of time when the club ‘went missing’.
In football, standing still rarely does anyone any good. More often than not, lack of progression equates to stagnation and even regression, in real terms. Nothing could be truer when referring to HSV.
That’s not to say they haven’t given it a reasonably good shot in the last 10 to 15 years. Plenty of decent footballing talent and reasonably respected coaches have been employed in the Hanseatic city during that time – Rafael van der Vaart (twice), Vincent Kompany, Martin Jol and Bert van Marwijk to name but a few – but none have managed to replicate that one seemingly absent ingredient from the days of Keegan, Magath, Manny Kaltz, Ernst Happel and Branko Zebec; direction.
HSV have employed 20 managers in the last 15 years (present incumbent Bruno Labbadia twice) – exactly the same number as in the previous thirty-seven. That says little for the focus on continuity and even less about any sense of structure for the way the club operates. That revolving door policy has been equally as visible on the playing side. It’s neither big money, nor Moneyball; youth or experience, and without a determined philosophy, it’s likely they will continue to drift aimlessly amongst the clubs who have been far more proactive and professionally organised than they have been. However, the Dinosaur does not face extinction just yet.
Their illustrious history is something to be rightly proud of, but the club must consign this to memory; living off former glories is no way for a football club to shape its future, and generally speaking, it very rarely pays any dividend – looking towards England, think Manchester United before Alex Ferguson, Liverpool for the past 25 years and others such as Everton, Newcastle United and Aston Villa. Being a big club is no guarantee of success. Clear thinking, lucid strategy and patience can go a long way to helping, though.
HSV must find their way – in the same fashion as Dortmund did with their youth policy when the money dried up or as Wolfsburg have done with their consistent spending – if they are to return to anything like their former selves. They need to concentrate on becoming their own success story rather than pining for the ghosts of the past. In three out of the last four seasons Hamburg have flirted dangerously with relegation, escaping by the skin of their teeth on more than one occasion. They have also suffered some of the most embarrassing defeats in the club’s history; the recent 8-0 reverse to one-time rivals Bayern Munich succinctly demonstrating the gap that has opened up between the expectations of the two since parity in the 70s and 80s.
The 2015-16 Bundesliga season is critical to the long term prospects of this once great club. There are only so many times you can cheat fate if you repeatedly court disaster in the way HSV have in the last five years. The modern game is no great respecter of reputations and as Bob Dylan once said, the times they are a-changing; it’s up to Hamburger SV to do the same.