March 22, 2017

Far From Over: Nürnberg’s Latest Pilgrimage in the Bundesliga 2 Desert

No other clubs has “yo-yoed” between the top flight and Bundesliga 2 than 1.FC Nürnberg. Currently, Der Club are Bundesliga 2 dwellers, looking for yet another Bundesliga return. However, 2014-15 has been quite unkind to the storied traditional club, winner of nine previous domestic title (albeit the last in 1967-68). Quite unkind. Top flight promotion is all but impossible right now, as FCN sit at 11th place on 34 points (by contrast, 1st place Ingolstadt has 49 points) with a GD of -7. Certainly not promotion-worthy stuff.

So what’s going on with der Club this season? After all, Nürnberg was in the Bundesliga only a season ago, and was a mid-table side only two seasons ago. By this late point in the season’s calendar (26 of 36 matches played), we can begin figuring some things out.

To help me answer this question, I caught up with Jon Goulding, founder of 1FCNUK and author of For Better or for Wurst (2009), who, like the long-suffering FCN supporter he is, has been following Nürnberg during its latest pilgrimage through the desert of relegation.

Travis Timmons: Jon, be honest: at the beginning of the season, how confident were you that der Club were going to earn promotion, especially considering that most of their Bundesliga squad fled after the relegation? I mean in some sense, Nürnberg were starting from scratch. Am I right? You’re safe here, Jon. We know you were Quixotic back in August! Let those feelings out.

Jon Goulding: There was more hope than confidence. Hope that what was left behind was going to form a good enough core, hope that the new signings would add to the squad, and hope that the new coach would work some magic and send FCN soaring back to the top flight. Players such as Ondraj Petrak and Stark would have the opportunity to shine, Peniel Mlapa joined on loan, Jakub Sylvestr had scored plenty of goals in the second tier for Aue. Plus, the experience of Raphael Schäfer and Javier Pinola had been augmented with the return of another hero from our 2007 Pokal triumph, Jan Polak.

It was all too easy to turn hope into something more tangible, like a mere formality!

Seeing through Jon Goulding's pre-season, hope-tinted der Club glasses.
Seeing through Jon Goulding’s pre-season, hope-tinted der Club glasses.
Hope was, however, tempered by realism. Everybody knew that the squad had been significantly weakened by the summer departures but we also knew that it was a squad which had finished in 17th place in the Bundesliga. The best players had departed but even with them, the team had not been good enough to survive at the top level.
So yes, there was a certain element of starting from scratch. Unfortunately the new look squad did not gel effectively – who was actually to blame for that is anyone’s guess, especially at FCN where background politics and player power seem to have played major roles over recent years. Ultimately, the coach paid the price with his job and Valerien Ishmael had to be replaced.
Travis Timmons: Let’s talk narrative – I mean, why else do we watch and write about the football? – what are the basic contours of der Club‘s season? Any valleys, peaks, or dark nights of the soul?
Jon Goulding: The season start was far from encouraging, although it did help to wake up even the biggest dreamers. Despite a victory over Aue on matchday 1, by the second match FCN were thoroughly crushed by local rivals Greuther Fürth, the sky was already falling in on any slight hopes of promotion.

Following the appointment of Rene Weiler in November, the poor start was interrupted by typical FCN-styled false hope. (I half expect this infamous trait to make another brief reappearance before the season’s end!). A superb run of form by recent standards re-ignited belief that a corner was being turned.
Then came the winter break.
A couple of new signings arrived and it looked like Herr Weiler was finally putting together the team we had only dared to hope for last summer. Unfortunately, the form after the break has been at best inconsistent. Most fans realised that the fresh hope Weiler had given of promotion disappeared with the five points dropped over the consecutive home games against Karlsruhe and Heidenheim at the end of February and beginning of March.
As for low points, well the 5-1 thrashing by Fürth is just one low-point. This defeat would have been easily forgotten had we been staring at promotion right now, but to be honest it’s really just a part of the more depressing scenario FCN are in – a scenario which has effectively given rise to a very early start of the 2015-16 pre-season.
Travis Timmons: What is your assessment the current squad? Look, I’m not totally doom ‘n gloom on the claret-clad boys in the roster. Sylvestr (9 goals) seems to be the man the club thought he is, while Alessandro Schöpf has emerged as a fine midfielder. Plus, Pinola got a head shave, now looks sexy as hell, and is still around. But so many other names I’ve heard of, but know nothing about (perhaps this is the point). So give us a squad tour, Jon …
Jon Goulding: The current squad is either not good enough or has not been led well enough to achieve the goal of an immediate return to the Bundesliga.
So who looks the part and who has not achieved a high enough standard?
In goal, Patrick Rakovsky quickly became Valerien Ishmael’s first choice at the expense of stalwart Raphael Schäfer. Rakovsky has put in some good performances and pulled-off some great saves. Unfortunately, he has also made plenty of mistakes. Is it any coincidence that last time Nürnberg were without Schäfer between the posts for so long was the ultimately miserable 2007-08 relegation season (when Schäfer was at Stuttgart for the season)? This season, like in 2007-08, his leadership at the back has been sorely missed. He returned for the Bochum game, but too late to save the season.
The new look Pinola has played reasonably well. He gets caught out of position occasionally and is still prone to silly bookings, but many would welcome more of his heart-on-sleeve, never-say-die attitude from the other players.
The new and improved Javier Pinola: blad and sexy as hell.
The new and improved Javier Pinola: bald and sexy as hell.
The stand-out player in defence has been Evan Hovland. He missed a large chunk of the season’s first half because of injury, but has proved himself a capable centre-back since then. Hovland needs a consistent partner at the heart of defence. Jürgen Mössmer, Niklas Stark and Petrak have all played alongside him with varying degrees of success.
Of these three, Petrak has probably been the best player but he has also been needed in midfield where he has performed reasonably well. Niklas Stark has not yet fulfilled the potential we still hope he has, although being on a terribly inconsistent team has not provided the best environment for his development.
The return of Jan Polak from VfL Wolfsburg was a strange move. In his previous spell at FCN, Polak could be fantastic, but was too often too pedestrian. His performances this season have been more consistent but at a level far below that required for a team with promotion aspirations. Moving up the pitch, Alessandro Schöpf has shown plenty of quality at times and, like Stark, would surely benefit from more quality around him.
Much was made of Sylvestr’s arrival in Nürnberg. He’s a Slovakian being given the #11 shirt (the first to wear it since Marek Mintal’s retirement), so his arrival was always going to be full of promise and expectations. Sylvestr has delivered goals, but is another player who has lacked consistency, like so many other on this squad.
Finally, there are other players who have shown some potential such as Danny Blum and Niclas Füllkrug, but nobody has really excited the fans more than winger Guido Burgstaller. The Austrian international has shown that he could take the mantle of club battler from Pinola, and since his winter arrival he has run and worked harder than anyone on the pitch and if he starts weighing in with a few goals his popularity will flourish.
Travis Timmons: As der Club will with 99% certainty still be playing Bundesliga 2 ball next season, what’s the plan for the squad moving forward, do you think? Along these lines, who from the squad could really emerge next season? Who stays? And who is on the way out, in your opinion?
Jon Goulding: Next season I hope the squad will be built around Schöpf, Sylvestr, Petrak, Hovland, and Burgstaller. Then I hope that Niklas Stark can finally begin fulfilling his potential. These players must stay.
"What's that? Me, superstar?" (Niklas Stark)
“What’s that? Me, superstar? Nah, man. I’m having fun.” (Niklas Stark)
It’s difficult to say who will leave. The real question for some players is who will buy? Schäfer and Pinola could probably contribute for another season, but whether they would want to do so as squad players is unknown. The same goes for Polak, The goalkeeping position needs looking at long and hard. Rakovsky is still young and would benefit from a solid defence in front of him, just as Hovland would benefit from an able and consistent partner.
Travis Timmons: Jon, you’ve been a trooper. How does this Bundesliga 2 sojourn contrast/compare with others that Nürnberg have taken in recent years?
Jon Goulding: Let’s be honest – this has been an awful season.
Last season was bad, but when the relegation became almost inevitable, there was at least the hope that promotion would immediately follow. Back then, Gertjan Verbeek was still in charge and was supported by a majority of the fans. His dismissal just before the relegation was, in my estimation, the start of the problems now faced by the club.
There is clearly a lack of harmony behind the scenes. The calls continue for the removal of Martin Bader from his role as Sporting Manager and the obvious in-fighting and lack of harmony is almost as depressing as the league position. Since I started watching FCN in 2002 (another relegation season) this is certainly the worst relegation trip.
Hopefully we are now at the low point.
Travis Timmons: Jon, I wish you fußballing courage and good-cheer. Spring is here! Blooms. Birds. Bees. Baseball. And more Bundesliga 2 for der Club, eh?
It will get better. It always does for Nürnberg. Eventually.
Jon, you’ve been too kind to spend your time sharing words on what’s been a mostly flat and unsatisfying season for FCN. Share your words any time! Up here in the top flight, we miss der Club. Perhaps we can work out a 2-for-1 special? You know, swapping VfB and HSV for Nürnberg. I’d take this deal any day.
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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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