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FOOTBALL IS A VICIOUS AND FICKLE BUSINESS where clubs must learn to adapt to survive to outdo one another. In order to succeed, there is little room for complacency and one must always look to the future to improve, while the past serves as motivation. Europe is littered with teams who, on and off the pitch, have gone on to strike it big, but also those at the other end of the prosperity scale.

Time hangs heavy on several clubs, but no more so than Bundesliga side Hamburger SV.

Proudly flaunted to the left of the Nordtribüne (North Stand – the ultras section) in the 57,000-capacity Volkparkstadion, an unmistakable clock sits looking down upon a pitch which had graced many formidable players over the years. The Stadionuhr counts the total time, down to the precise second, the club has spent playing in the Bundesliga since 24 August 1963 at 5pm to this very day.

The significance is that Hamburg – one of the founding members of Germany’s premier division – remain the only club to have played every single season of the Bundesliga. It is rightfully a big deal as the club has managed to stay afloat for a seemingly perennial amount of time, while Borussia Dortmund, Schalke and even Bayern Munich cannot hold such a claim to fame. 

Pride of the feat escapes no fan or employee of this historic club, but time itself has seen this feeling filter down to one of hubris and denial in light of the sobering truth. The golden years of 1975 to 1987 bore effervescent, attractive football for all to see and led Hamburg to three Bundesliga titles, two DFB-Pokals and an internal place in European Cup history. Fast forward to now and die Rothosen have had three very close shaves with the drop.

Indeed, it was just three-and-a-half years ago Hamburg edged past Greuther Fürth on aggregate in the relegation-promotion playoff. A year later, it was Karlsruher SC – now in the 3. Liga – who came even closer, if it were not for the foot of Marcelo Díaz to bring the tie to extra-time and Nicolai Müller to win it with four minutes left.

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In between these two heart-wrenching events, Hamburg re-hired Dietmar Beiersdorfer to a lucrative, hierarchical position. His statement upon appointment reeked of either sky-high ambitiousness or just pure delusion: “The sporting aim is to establish the club among the top five in the Bundesliga and play in international competitions consistently.”

Of course, it is easy to look back with the gift of hindsight, but, even still, the lack of progression is alarming and, at the same time, not at all that surprising. Just two years after the back-to-back play-off dilemmas, the club found itself knee-deep in relegation trouble yet again, having spent over two-thirds of the season in the bottom three. In the end, a first-ever senior goal from Luca Waldschmidt – a day after his 21st birthday – resulted in the late winner against VfL Wolfsburg, who subsequently dropped to 16th.

German billionaire and transport magnate Klaus-Michael Kühne has invested and loaned millions to his hometown club for years, in an effort to propel them up the table. If anything, the plan has put the club in a financially worse state of affairs, due to wages being driven up to acquire and keep players, while setting the precedent that they are unwilling to play hardball.

But player salaries are just the lesser of two evils surrounding the misuse of the local bankroller’s funding. Like so many, Hamburg have fallen into the trap of attempting to spend their way out of hardship, and when that didn’t work, more and more was wasted. Since Beiersdorf returned to der Dino in 2014, a massive €121 million has been spent on arrivals according to Transfermarkt, which easily dwarfs many more prominent sides.

The club’s most ever expensive signing, Filip Kostić, rather epitomises the flawed transfer policy at hand. Although one of Hamburg’s best players last season, the Serbian largely failed to live up to the price-tag – prior to inflation standards – albeit was a key reason for their survival. There have been some downright terrible signings like Pierre-Michel Lasogga who could muster just 26 goals in 96 Bundesliga games and just one last season, Valon Behrami and Johan Djourou. It is indeed truly incredible how a club can spend so haphazardly after courting serious financial trouble 25 years ago, and without the guarantee Kühne will keep funnelling money into Beiersdorfer’s not-so-successful project.

Departures have somewhat embarrassed HSV further. There have been cases of severe impatience, resulting in the club letting go of some players who have gone on to impress at their new clubs. At the age of 17, Jonathan Tah made his debut for the club and featured in half the Bundesliga matches, arguably being the best defender that season. The arrivals of Djourou, Cleber Reis and Matthias Ostrzolek, however, forced Tah out on loan to second-tier Fortuna Düsseldorf. At the end of the successful loan, Tah was shipped off to Bayer Leverkusen just two weeks later and has since established himself as a formidable centre-back brimming with confidence.

A year later, lightning struck twice. Kerem Demirbay – deemed not good enough for the first team – was also shipped off on loan to Fortuna. Just like his parent club, the 2. Bundesliga outfit encountered serious relegation issues, but the midfielder played a key role in their survival, scoring 10 goals and assisting five. Tah flourishing at Leverkusen served no warning and Demirbay was snapped up by Hoffenheim for a meagre sum soon after, where, under the contrastingly warming tutelage of Julian Nagelsmann, became an integral part in the team’s fourth-place finish.

Read  |  From scalping European royalty to relegation fodder: the decline of VfL Wolfsburg

It will come as no surprise to learn Hamburg have not endured the best of starts to the new campaign. Over a third of the way through, they sit fourth from bottom, and, in many ways are fortunate to not be lower, considering the winless form of Köln. For what seems like an eternity, the team look completely free of cohesion and, naturally, are riddled with consistency. Even the very game first of the season was a nightmare. Hamburg completely crumbled against 3. Liga side VfL Osnabrück in the DFB-Pokal, who played much of the game with 10 men and yet still managed to score three.

Although having won two of their last three – against newly promoted Stuttgart and an out-of-sorts Hoffenheim – the current side still look devoid of hope and weak-willed, requiring solid leadership. Such a critical lack of fighting spirit has been exposed in many games over the years, but none more so than the matches against Bayern.

It’s indisputable the Bavarians are superior in every way, but recent scorelines are nothing if not incredible for contrasting where the two clubs stand, should league finishes not do so already. In the last 10 meetings, Bayern have put 40 goals past a hapless Hamburg, winning nine and drawing the rest. The last drubbing, an 8-0 result at the Allianz Arena, left Hamburg resorting to appointing a team psychologist, Christian Spreckels.

In many ways, RB Leipzig represent much of what Hamburg have hoped to achieve, having also been blessed, controversially, with plenty of funding. The Red Bull-backed club have made it a policy of buying players under the age of 23 packed with potential and it is working better than anyone expected. Moreover, their rumoured wage cap keeps players grounded and concentrated on development, in lieu of demanding better pay as is the case with countless youngsters nowadays.

It would be remiss to not state Hamburg themselves do not have prospects, of course. The team that drew with Schalke on the penultimate matchday was the youngest in three years, while Waldschmidt, Julian Pollersbeck, Rick van Drongelen and, of course, Jann-Fiete Arp give rise to a glimmer of a bright future.

Leipzig also boast a top coach in Ralph Hasenhüttl who is not without fault, but still helped transform them into a formidable foe. It is no secret Hamburg have a quick revolving door policy when it comes to hiring managers. Not long ago, it was Premier League side Chelsea who were the butt of the joke, but such fickleness remains a severely problematic issue at the northern club.

Read  |  The transfer policy stopping Schalke from becoming a major power

Between hiring and firing Bruno Labbadia in his two stints in the job, six full-time managers – and five caretakers – have took the reins and been relieved of their duties. The revolving door period from 2010 to 2016 meant the team struggled to settle to the assorted styles of all those coming in determined to show who was boss – literally. Beiersdorfer even bluntly said Labbadia had made “no discernible progress” which can hold some merit, despite the 51-year-old improving upon his predecessor’s torrid tenure. It was even implied blame did not fall on the team but the manager himself – an all too recurring theme behind the doors of the tiring Volksparkstadion.

Not all the hierarchy have a whiff of incompetence surrounding them, however. Chairman Heribert Bruchhagen has an accomplished track record of stabilising clubs in limbo, with one of his finest achievements coming in the form of overseeing Eintracht Frankfurt’s affairs for over 12 years to reasonable success.

Current manager Markus Gisdol took over from Labbadia in September 2016 with Hamburg stone-dead last, but there remains hope of the ex-Hoffenheim coach pushing the limits of what seems an underperforming squad. Following the priceless win over Wolfsburg, Gisdol abundantly expressed his gratitude to the chairman in the press conference: “I have to thank him [Bruchhagen] for the unbelievable support he has given me.”

There was no doubt Gisdol was relieved in the presser after another close experience with relegation. After all, HSV had a poor home record against Wolfsburg, not beating them since 2007 – finishing seventh in the table – and having lost the last three meetings at the Volsparkstadion. The 48-year-old remains a relatively youthful coach with much to offer, and has revealed his desire in “writing a new chapter in the club’s history.”

The seemingly close relationship between the powers that be and the current manager is one that has not been seen in ages. Whether or not Gisdol is able to keep his job for the foreseeable future is one thing, but the club will need to cease their scapegoating of the head coach as the fall guy sooner or later, for fear of driving away competent suitors.

Since Hamburg last won a trophy in 1987, their rivals Werder Bremen – with whom they contest the fiery Nordderby – have went on to win the Meisterschale three times and the DFB-Pokal on five occasions, even winning the double in 2003/04, before suffering a decline of their own. All things considered, it is inconceivable how a club based in a wealthy, massive city, with millions of loyal fans can deteriorate so quickly on the back of so many honours.

Hamburg fans maintain a quiet sense of optimism in regard to the future, as the club have shown signs of moving on from the Stone Age. In Gisdol, they have a respected tactician whose first season in charge was one of getting his foot firmly in the door, but it remains a constant struggle to get his squad moving up the table, while fending off the obtrusive interference from above. Time and tide wait for no man 

By Kevin McGuinness