As well as being an FC Bayern München fan, I also follow the fortunes of other Bavarian clubs . . . well, apart from a couple of them. While keeping a beady eye on the likes of Augsburg, Ingolstadt, and Greuther Fürth, this year’s focus was on 2. Bundesliga new boys Würzburger Kickers, who had made their way back into the professional ranks for the first time in almost four decades.
The story of the Kickers’ season is one that can sit happily in the encyclopedia of footballing nightmares. After a solid Hinrunde, they would suffer a Rückrunde the script for which was surely written in the torrid depths of hell. A Rückrunde where they would suffer from what could best be described as Anti-Dusel.
If nobody has thought of the terms Anti-Dusel (or Antidusel?), I am going to lay claim to it.
Up and up. And up.
It had started so well for the club known as Die Rothosen (“The Red Shorts”), a nickname shared with the more famous Hamburger SV. Having stormed to the fourth-tier Regionalliga Bayern title in 2014/15, the Kickers had made their way up into the 2. Bundesliga at the first time of asking, courtesy of a 4-1 aggregate play-off win against MSV Duisburg.
Having sunk like a stone into the depths of amateur football after just one season in the 2. Bundesliga (Süd) in 1977/78, it marked a staggering resurgence for the small Franconian outfit, which had sunk as low as the seventh-tier Bezirksliga Unterfranken in 2004.
Coach Bernd Hollerbach, who had started out at his home town club before starring at St. Pauli, Kaiserslautern, and the aforementioned other Rothosen, could do no wrong. After taking the helm in 2014, he was on a roll. The club were starting to draw some decent crowds, and Franconia, the proud region in the north of Bavaria, now had a third team in professional football alongside 1. FC Nürnberg and SpVgg Greuther Fürth.
The Kickers started their 2. Bundesliga campaign with a close 2-1 defeat at the hands of title contenders Eintracht Braunschweig and a 1-1 draw against former top flight regulars Kaiserslautern, but wins against FC Heidenheim, VfL Bochum and Greuther Fürth would take them into second place.
Miracles often happen in football, and some Würzburg supporters must have started to dare to dream.
As the Hinrunde ticked along, such lofty expectations had been ironed out a little, but the Kickers continued to pick-up points. Unbeaten in November 2016, they found themselves sitting in a comfortable eighth place, just eight points behind leaders Braunschweig.
The unbeaten run carried on to the end of the year, culminating in a resounding 3-0 hammering of high-flying VfB Stuttgart at the Flyeralarm Arena. Just seven points behind a three-way tie at the top between Stuttgart, Braunschweig, and Hannover 96, Hollerbach’s men looked guaranteed to secure a safe mid-table spot at the very least.
The start of the slide
When the Rückrunde got underway against Braunschweig, there was nothing untoward. The form of the Hinrunde seemed to be picking up again, and Albanian Valdet Rama’s strike after thirty-four minutes looked to have secured all three points for Die Rothosen. Then, as the match crept into additional time, Die Löwen netted an equaliser.
Nobody in their worst nightmares could have foreseen it, but it would mark the beginning of a dramatic slide. A late Kaiserslautern goal at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion condemned the Kickers to another defeat, and conceding late goals had started to become a habit. At home against FC Heidenheim, two goals in the last ten minutes saw the visitors walk away with the points.
It was the same horrible story against Bochum. An own goal from former Schalke 04 defender Tim Hoogland had given the Kickers a half-time lead, and as the clock ticked into the final ten minutes they looked set to secure their first three point haul of the Rückrunde. Cue two late Bochum goals in the space of three minutes to turn the entire match on its head.
You really couldn’t make it up. For Würzburg fans, it must have felt like being stuck in the middle of an unspeakably bad dream. They had only picked up the one point from twelve. Yet, with the teams around them beating each other, they were still sitting in the top half of the table in ninth.
Any appearance of mid-table establishment, however, was deceptive. A number of clubs were now bunched together, and only seven points separated fifth-placed Heidenheim from fourteenth-placed 1860 München, just two places above the relegation playoff spot. Even then, St. Pauli were a further seven points adrift.
St. Pauli had been propping up the table for long spells during the Hinrunde, but had started to slowly make the climb back up. Curiously, their ascent would almost mirror Würzburg’s incomprehensible collapse.
A gut-wrenching blow
A 1-1 draw in the local derby against Greuther Fürth finally saw the Kickers add to their tally, but three defeats on the spin against Union Berlin, Dynamo Dresden, and 1860 saw Hollerbach’s men slip down into twelfth spot – just four points ahead of St. Pauli and six in front of a resurgent Arminia Bielefeld, then sitting in the relegation zone.
The game against Bielefeld at the Flyeralarm Arena was not quite a make-or-break affair, but it was starting to feel like it. The team had not tasted victory for more than three months, and three points would have been a massive boost their ailing confidence. When Rico Benatelli found the back of the opposition net after seventeen minutes, hopes were raised. Half-time came and went, and once again the clocked ticked into the final ten minutes without incident. Then, the final five . . . and, finally, the ninety minutes of regulation were up.
Surely, the Kickers were going to claim all three points.
Surely, this was going to be the end of the winless slump.
But there had been a nasty whiff in the Franconian air. The home side should have finished the match by halftime, but chance after chance had gone begging. There was a sense of inevitability about what was coming next.
When it ultimately arrived, just as surely, it was a gut-wrenching blow. As Bielefeld lauched their final attack, full-back Julian Börner’s effort was turned into his own net by Costa Rican Junior Diaz. Goalkeeper Jörg Siebenhandl and the crowd of just over ten thousand could only watch in agony as the victory was ripped away. One cannot even begin to comprehend what it must have been like for those having to endure it.
Another three points were on offer against table-proppers Karlsruher SC, but it was as if the spirit had been torn out of Hollerbach’s side. They eked out another 1-1 draw, but the crowd behind them in the table were closing in like vampires. Then, completely against the form book, Kickers managed a fighting goalless draw against table toppers Hannover. It was proof that there still might be something left in the tank.
These hopes quickly dried-up the following week with yet another last-gasp defeat. In what was effectively a six-pointer against St. Pauli at the Millerntor, the Buccaneers joined the long list of those who had subjected the Kickers to an act of smash-and-grab piracy right at the death. Three minutes from time, Christopher Buchtmann stole all three points for St. Pauli.
Suddenly, Würzburg found themselves right in the thick of the relegation struggle. They were one of four teams locked together on thirty-two points, with only their marginally superior goal difference keeping them ahead of the rest.
Even more worrying was the form of the teams immediately behind them. St. Pauli had continued their recovery, while both Erzgebirge Aue and Bielefeld had also started to pick up valuable points.
Match day 30 pitted the Kickers in the other Franconian derby against eighth-placed 1. FC Nürnberg. By now, the script had become almost tiresome: A Rama strike after just ten minutes was followed by seventy minutes of hope and an inevitable Nürnberg equaliser as the clock ticked past that fateful eightieth minute.
It was one more episode in this footballing version of Groundhog Day. Meanwhile, two of the chasing pack had notched up wins. Both St. Pauli and Fortuna Düsseldorf were up to thirty-five points, two ahead of the Kickers; 1860 and Aue were both on thirty-three.
The horror gets worse
Having looked pretty much doomed for most of the season, Aue were one of the form teams, and it showed as they subjected the Kickers to a comprehensive 3-1 mauling. Week by week, the Franconians were sucked towards the basement. With three match days remaining, they sat one place above the 1860 in the playoff spot, and a point ahead of Bielefeld in the drop zone.
A win, any win, would have taken dragged them away from the mess. But there was no obvious sign that one was going to come.
Could the story get any worse? You bet it could. In what was another crucial death match against Fortuna Düsseldorf at the Esprit-Arena, it was another case of the same old story, but with an extra painful twist. In what was a drab contest between two desperate teams, the match entered the final ten minutes locked at 0-0.
With just five minutes left, Würzburg scored.
When Lukas Fröde’s right-footed effort hit the back of the Düsseldorf net to silence the 27,000-plus home crowd, it looked as though Hollerbach’s team had pulled it out of the fire. Finally, they looked set to turn some of their own suffering on their opponents, who now found themselves sitting in the playoff spot.
If the score had remained that way until the final whistle, of course, you wouldn’t be reading this. Würzburg would have just about stayed up, and there wouldn’t be a story. Cue yet another moment of horror.
With seconds remaining, Düsseldorf won a free-kick some forty yards from goal: on any other day, a completely innocuous situation requiring a simple case of keeping cool and seeing out time. When Julian Schauerte’s kick floated in, one-time German international Alexander Madlung was making a nuisance of himself in the penalty area, looking to chase down ‘keeper Siebenhandl rather than the ball.
Once again, it was a case of heart in mouth quickly followed by head in hands for the visiting Würzburg fans. Somehow, the ball had made its way past Siebenhandl and into the net. The defenders looked at the referee claiming obstruction against the ‘keeper, but the official pointed to the centre circle. It was scarcely credible.
No final twist
Sometimes when you look at the course of a season, you can pick out a couple of occasions when your team has been unlucky: bad penalty decision here; a poor offside call there; the occasional last-minute goal for the opposition. But for Würzburg fans, this was happening every week.
There were no such dramas in the final home fixture against SV Sandhausen, but the sense of doom was evident when the visitors took an early lead. It was a lead the visitors would never relinquish.
Despite the highs of the turn of the year, the Kickers had been knocked down into one of the automatic-relegation positions. While the Franconians had been praying for a miracle for months, fellow strugglers Arminia Bielefeld had got theirs. Having looked all set to return to amateur football after just one year back in the second division, Jeff Saibene’s team would provide the performance of the season to put half-a-dozen past promotion chasers Braunschweig and lift themselves out of the danger zone.
It was surely the most evil of omens for Würzburg, who were left having to win their last match against table-toppers Stuttgart to have even a shout of edging their way to safety. Even the playoff spot would have been acceptable, in that it would at least have offered a stay of execution.
It was not to be. All of the fight had been sucked out of Hollerbach’s men by halftime; they eventually succumbed to a 4-1 defeat, their biggest of the season.
There have been stories of dramatic collapses, but it hard to recall anything like this in a long while. Usually, such a catastrophic slide down the table is accompanied by obligatory thrashings. This was not the case here. Until that final defeat in Stuttgart, Würzburg had not lost a game by more than two goals all season. Hardly the form of a team without a win in seventeen matches and sinking like a stone.
This Kickers team have it in them to get straight back up, but after such a traumatic run of results it is going to be hard. They will also have to do it without Bernd Hollerbach, who was released after him team’s time in the 2. Bundesliga had run out. All it would have taken was one twist the other way, one moment of fortune.
When reading the story, it becomes pretty clear that it was not going to end any other way.
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