For those who believe that football has become slightly boring or predictable, there are still stories to help you keep up the faith… for a while at least. One of football’s latest fairytales took place in Hessen last Sunday, when SV Darmstadt 98 achieved promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time since 1982. However, this fairytale started seasons ago.
Tough times at the bottom
In 1998, Darmstadt were languishing in the Hessenliga, Germany’s fourth tier at the time before the creation of the 3. Liga. In 2008, they faced bankruptcy, but managed to avoid it thanks to actions taken by their fans. Still, they remained a Regionalliga side with little to no prospects of success.
As recently as December 2012, Darmstadt were found themselves at the bottom of the 3. Liga table, only two points ahead of the awful Alemannia Aachen. Prospects were gloomy and manager Jürgen Seeberger was sacked after just three months on the job and two victories to his name after succeeding Kosta Runjaic in September.
Sacked by Stuttgarter Kickers a month before, Dirk Schuster, famous for playing mostly for KSC in the 90s, was appointed new manager of Die Lilien. This appointment marked the turning point in Darmstadt’s fortunes.
One of Schuster’s first actions as coach was the free signing of centre-back Aytaç Sulu from SCR Altach in the Austrian Erste Liga (Second Division), a signing that would turn out to be one of the club’s greatest bargain finds as the next few seasons would demonstrate.
Darmstadt were dragged into a relegation battle and came to the last day of the 12-13 season needing a win or a draw, if results went their way, against fellow relegation battlers Stuttgarter Kickers to stay in the division.
At 3.30pm on Saturday May 18th, Darmstadt were relegated to the Regionalliga after a 1-1 draw. It was a hard blow for a team who had shown some fighting spirit since Schuster took over, but remaining in the 3. Liga was not to be.
However, Kickers Offenbach came to the rescue when they couldn’t get a license for the following season in the 3. Liga, which automatically relegated them, thus allowing Darmstadt to remain in the division. Had it not been for Elton da Costa’s 84th-minute equaliser against Kickers, it would have been SV Babelsberg who would have stayed in the 3. Liga instead, since both SVB and Darmstadt were equal on points with the Lillies on top only by goal difference.
The miracle of Bielefeld
And so, Schuster’s plan began. In the summer, he made another signing that would turn out to be an inspired one, 1.97m target man Dominik Stroh-Engel from SV Wehen Wiesbaden, an old-school type striker who had not been able to find form or consistency in any of Germany’s top three leagues with Eintracht Frankfurt, Wehen Wiesbaden or SV Babelsberg, and only with the latter managing to get into double scoring digits in a one-off season.
Further key additions in the summer of 2013 were tricky wingers Marcel Heller and Milan Ivana from Alemannia Aachen and Wehen respectively, Jérôme Gondorf from Stuttgarter Kickers and forward Marco Sailer from 1. FC Heidenheim.
With stalwart goalkeeper Jan Zimmermann in goal, Darmstadt had a mediocre start to the season but picked up form in late autumn, mostly thanks to Stroh-Engel’s goalscoring antics and the impenetrable central-defending duo of Sulu and Benjamin Gorka. Having fallen with grace against Schalke in the Pokal after having beaten ‘Gladbach in the previous round, Darmstadt went into the winter break in third position. They would not give up that place for the remainder of the season, always a handful of points behind Heidenheim and RB Leipzig. At the end of the season, they were paired in the promotion playoff against Arminia Bielefeld for a place in the 2. Bundesliga the following season.
If Kickers Offenbach’s relegation was Darmstadt’s first miracle, then their second miracle was what happened next. Nevertheless, things could not have gotten off to a worst start, as Darmstadt lost 3-1 at home in the first leg of the playoffs, showing no glimpses of their defensive solidity from the season.
Few believed that Darmstadt had a chance, but there were still 90 minutes (at least) to play for. Darmstadt got off to a good start and who else but Stroh-Engel put his side ahead, a result which lasted until the break. The miracle was on six minutes after the restart when Hanno Behrens doubled the lead, sending shivers down the spine of the Bielefeld supporters who had filled the stadium to celebrate not getting relegated. They were given something to cheer for two minutes later when Felix Burmeister cut the lead in half and Darmstadt started to look shaky for the first time all game. However, with ten minutes left on the clock, Gondorf struck a stunning volley from 25 yards out that smashed into the top corner of the goal to take the game to extra time, much to the disbelief of players and coaches from both sides, fans and TV viewers everywhere.
Darmstadt had done the most difficult part, but they still had to finish the job. In extra time, Stroh-Engel’s header was cleared off the line and Bielefeld’s goalkeeper Stefan Ortega’s heroics denied Sulu and Josip Landeka from close range. It was a killer blow, therefore, when with eight minutes left on the clock Bielefeld struck again. It was against the run of play but a beautiful combining move saw Kacper Przybyłko finish into the net.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Schuster’s inspiration saw him bring on the mercurial yet inconsistent Elton da Costa two minutes later. With seconds left in the two minutes of added time, the ball fell to da Costa on the edge of the area, who unleashed a fantastic left-footed volley that beat Ortega and sent the travelling fans into raptures. There was still time for Bielefeld to hit the post in the last play of the match but Darmstadt were promoted and the miracle (Part I) had happened.
Miracle Part II
Having lost Jan Zimmermann in the summer to Heidenheim, one of Darmstadt’s pillars was gone. He was replaced with the somewhat underwhelming signing of Christian Mathenia from Mainz II and the rest of the new faces were just as unspectacular.
When we spoke with Dominik Stroh-Engel during pre-season training, his message was clear: the objective is the Klassenerhalt, to stay in the division. Darmstadt were expected to languish at the bottom of the division for most of the season but Schuster proved doubters (and his own fans!) wrong once again, as they entered the Winterpause in a familiar third place.
The fight for promotion was tough in the Rückrunde and yet Darmstadt still fought with the likes of Kaiserslautern and Karlsruhe, reaching the last two Spieltags with promotion options. After squandering their first chance with a defeat to Greuther Fürth, they got to the last day needing a result against relegation-threatened St. Pauli. With 20 minutes left in the match, Darmstadt were out of not only second place but third as well, as KSC and FCK both had results going their way. If da Costa was the hero of 2014, Tobias Kempe was the hero of 2015. A summer arrival from Dynamo Dresden, the right-sided midfielder curled in a beautiful free-kick that dipped into the corner of the post and sent Böllenfalltor into ecstasy. Die Lilien held on and the rest is (recent) history, as Schuster won his second consecutive promotion.
And so, from the brink of bankruptcy, Darmstadt have risen to the top of German football. Having planned for fourth-tier football just 24 months ago, they now find themselves with the big boys again for the first time in more than 30 years.
Few would have thought that this would happen but Dirk Schuster and his shrewd managerial ways have driven this friendly club to the top.
What will happen next season? If we’ve learned something with Darmstadt in the last couple of years is that predicting their season has not gone to plan. It’s time for Schuster to continue the Miracle of Darmstadt for at least one more season.
Header courtesy of dpa