Hamburg: decline, relegation, and the hope of redemption

Hamburger SV’s identity is of achieving the impossible over numerous decades: remaining the ever-constant in an evolving field. No other German club can boast the record of having played continuously in the national top tier since the end of World War I, as well as every Bundesliga season since its foundation in 1963. Bayern Munich may be the league dictators, but Hamburger have heritage.

It’s that heritage that may finally be lost, tainted by the stains of relegation. They have flirted with danger in many a recent season: in 2013-14, they finished 16th and edged out Greuther Fürth in the relegation play-off via an away goal. In 2014-15, it was déjà vu, but even more dramatic: Marcelo Díaz scored a 91st minute equaliser in the second leg, then Nicolai Müller hit a 115th minute winner to leave Karlsruhe shell-shocked.

It makes it seem as though the football gods conspire for Hamburg to stay in the top tier. Last season, they managed to eke out a 2-1 win over Wolfsburg in the final league game. Luca Waldschmidt scored an 88th minute winner on his 21st birthday to keep Hamburg up, and push Wolfsburg into the play-offs. But luck can run out, just as the sand in the hour glass trickles down. Time may have run its course this time.

In 2001, the club added a large clock to the northwest corner of the stadium, the Volksparkstadion, to commemorate their status as the only founding member not to have been relegated. It marks the time to the second from 24th August 1963. This act may have seemed like tempting fate, but they’ve stayed up since. It’s a record to be proud of, but one that’s become their main source of identity.

The club appears to be built around that fact, and it’s possible that has contributed to their decline. For when a club of Hamburger’s status celebrates survival from relegation year in and year out, it’s clear that there is a deeper issue in the club. They go through underwhelming managers like a carousel, and with every change, they sink deeper into a quagmire. It’s a vicious chain which one can find very difficult to pry themselves out of. And there’s only one eventual end to it: relegation.

But relegation still provides the chance for rebirth, for a club to rise from its ashes like a phoenix. With their identity as the only club to avoid relegation shattered, it will force Hamburger to find something else, a new project to build. It may be what they need; a clean slate, renewed focus, revamped personnel, and refreshing leadership. Avoiding relegation every season provides a short burst of exhilaration to extinguish the despair of the previous months of submission, but it also creates unrealistic hope. Escaping the devil every year is unsustainable and unhealthy. Plenty of English clubs can attest to that.

Hamburger have won just four out their 28 league games so far this season, and two of those came in the first two weeks. It’s been 15 games since their last win, a 3-0 triumph over Hoffenheim on 26th November 2017. With a paltry 20 goals scored, and Filip Kostić top-scoring with a paltry four goals, it’s a sorry tale. Their only experienced striker (excluding Waldschmidt and their starlet Jann-Fiete Arp) is Bobby Wood, who has never been a reliable goalscorer.

The squad is devoid of quality across the pitch, and they don’t have much money to spend either. No continuity, no philosophy, it speaks for itself. Markus Gisdol and Bernd Hollerbach both paid the price for inertia with their jobs. There is disharmony in the boardroom and off the pitch, essentially wrapping up your clichéd relegation-threatened team. When the chips are down, Murphy’s Law strikes.

Hamburg have done a Houdini on many occasions, but this may be a step too far. There may have been complacency with their ability to escape out of tight situations in the past, but a seven-point gap to the play-off spot is a tough gap to bridge. They play 15th placed Wolfsburg (tied with Mainz in 16th) in the third-last game, but their remaining fixtures remain difficult: Schalke, Hoffenheim, and Frankfurt are all competing for European spots, while Mönchengladbach retain some pedigree. With their fate out of their hands, a disastrous run of form, and no way to fix this, it may be the end.

The future of the clock remains a question. It’s a part of the club’s storied history; it may end up in the club’s museum, to allow the club to move on and erase the pain in the second tier. The bright side to relegation is that the club can start winning again, allowing fans to enjoy football once more. If they bounce back, it’ll be with a new project. It’s possible with the right structure, as Stuttgart and Hannover proved while bouncing back in the first attempt last season. It may not seem like it, but there is always hope at the end of the tunnel.

Bayern top the table, Hamburger prop it up, and there’s a fifty-point gap separating them. It’s a sign of the times, and the Bundesliga will be a smaller place without the history they bring to it. One hopes Hamburger find the wheels for their derailing train next season, for relegation may be the cleaning fire they so dearly require.

The clock continues to go tick-tock, tick-tock. Unfortunately, it may not be for much longer.


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