HSV – The story of a downfall

These days, the eternal Bundesliga clock in the northwestern corner of Imtech Arena is ticking slowly, second by second and minute by minute, toward the 51 year mark. HSV remain the only German club to have been a continual part of the Bundesliga since the league was founded in 1963. However, through the entire 2013/14 campaign, the top flight status of the Red Shorts has been in danger, and now the team needs a small miracle to escape the bottom three places given that 15th place VfB Stuttgart sit five points ahead of them.

The three-time Bundesliga champion has now even started to turn to a spirit healer to find a way out of their crisis. The man in question, Joseph Kuhnert, told Hamburger Morgenpost:

Really, it’s pretty easy. I bring body, soul, and spirit back into harmony and accommodate the four elements.

If the accommodation of those four elements is going to yield results remains to be seen. To his credit, Kuhnert helped the club start a revival back in 2007. Back then the team managed to climb from 17th after 17 match days to the 7th position in the table at the end of the season.

Meanwhile, HSV coach Mirko Slomka is trying to instill confidence in his team by using the same cliched sentiments over and over again. The former Hannover and Schalke coach has, in the last few weeks, laid out how important it is that the team to keep fighting, but he hasn’t mapped out a specific plan for how HSV should play. By comparison, Hoffenheim’s Markus Gisdol and Augsburg’s Markus Weinzierl both used the same sentiments when their sides were facing Herculean tasks to escape relegation, but the two also talked about how their teams should play their way out of trouble (this point was also raised by Eurosport commentator Angus Torode during the live broadcast of HSV’s away match against Augsburg).

Sporting director Oliver Kreuzer has followed the coach’s lead when talking to the press, but when questioned by Sport1.de on Monday the former Bayern player seemed to have a moment of clarity, like an alcoholic during a sober moment, telling the website:

We have taken it too far. Many times we did have a chance. Now we have reached the point where everything could turn (against us). We are up against Bayern, who are maybe the best team in the world. And our competitors have solvable tasks ahead of themselves. At some point enough has been said.

Contributing factors

Ironically, this was supposed to be the season where HSV was going to take strides towards reaching the upper half of the table. Last season the team had finished in 7th, and the prospects of the changing structure at the club was supposedly going to help the club to gain a sense of stability. The board was ordered, through the annual general meeting, to work on implementing the HSV Plus concept and present a final draft for ultimate approval to a membership meeting later this month. At this point, the Red Shorts were looking to turn their form, as their new coach Bert van Marwijk had failed to address the defensive weaknesses of the team, while the goals from Pierre-Michel Lasogga had dried up.

What has happened since is well known. The Dutchman was let go, and there have only been glimpses of improvement under Slomka. Key players like van der Vaart, Westermann, Adler, and Janssen have all been performing below par throughout the entire season, while the dismay of supporters has been growing steadily.

Interestingly, former HSV coach Thorsten Fink didn’t point towards the structures at the club when he was asked about the team’s poor performance this season, rather at the way outside influences corrupt the daily business at the team. In an interview with die Welt, Fink said the expectations at the start of the season were to be level with the likes of Gladbach and Wolfsburg. Furthermore, the former coach pointed out that wealthy businessmen like Klaus-Michael Kühne, who Fink described as, “a fan who has a lack of knowledge,”  had gained far too much influence.

Planning . . . but, planning for what?

Fink may not be supportive of HSV Plus, however, though the concept is partly aimed at sorting out the club’s dire finances. The debts of the clubs are in the millions, and there is little doubt that the team sooner or later will be in need of fresh capital. Over the last couple of years, the financial situation has also seen HSV having to rethink their transfer strategy. Frank Arnesen was brought in to modernize the team, but his reign was short-lived, as he had fewer funds on hand than promised, and his tendency to bring in players from his former employers struck the wrong chord.

His successor Oliver Kreuzer didn’t have an awful lot of working capital either, and his transfers have failed to make an impact at the club (Hakan Calhanoglu was signed during the Arnesen reign, but was loaned back to KSC last season). However, blaming Kreuzer for all that has gone wrong this season would ignore a trend which started in 2009. After sporting director Dietmar Beiersdorfer was forced out of the club, his position was vacant for a year and has since been filled by three different men during over the following four seasons.

It’s the job of a sporting director to have long-term vision to ensure the club can reach its long-term targets. How can any long-term vision be effective if it isn’t given more than one or two years? During Beiersdorfer’s time at the club, the team never finished below 8th in the table, despite a whole host of different coaches being in charge of the team. Besides the financial situation, a big contributing factor to the uneven performance the HSV are having at the moment is also the merry-go-around in the sporting director’s position.

Consequences of a season in Bundesliga 2

The unthinkable prospect of the Red Shorts playing in the second tier are getting more realistic week after week. Going down a division does entail a number of problems which the club would need to address. First and foremost, a number of players are certainly going to leave the club, as the revenue stream in the Bundesliga 2 would force the club to make cutbacks. Paying the wages of and/or retaining the services of Marcell Jansen, Rene Adler, Hakan Calhanoglu, Raffael van der Vaart, Heiko Westermann, Maxi Beister, Jonathan Tah, Milan Badelj and Pierre-Michel Lasogga seem to be unlikely.

Furthermore, there are strict licensing rules which the club needs to obey. The financial implications of going down might cause some trouble in that regard, if a number of papers are to be believed.

On the other hand, many pundits have said that this might be the club’s chance to start from scratch. The burden of having been the only club always to have been a part of this division would be lifted from the team’s shoulders. A new concept could be created, seeing the team being enriched by younger players with upside. It has ultimately been the lack of long term thinking which has gotten HSV to this low point. Whatever the outcome, this season should have taught club officials how important it is to think further ahead than next weekend.

Ultimately, all of it depends on how the club handles this situation should it happen. Would HSV Plus still fill the club’s coffers with money, putting all of the above into action? Or, as Thorsten Fink might seemingly think, would that concept give clueless rich men more power at the club, which, in turn, would lead to more short-sighted decisions rooted in hysteria? Furthermore, this concept still depends on the members passing it.

All in all, what this season has shown is that HSV are a club in a need for a lot of soul searching to determine how they want to handle their future challenges.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 32-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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