The way things are going, Mirko Slomka may well have taken on the toughest job in German football when he agreed to become new Hamburg coach this week. With one of German football’s most historic clubs staring relegation directly in the face, the job to avoid an unprecedented drop from the first division now falls heavily on Slomka’s shoulders.
To start their uphill battle, Slomka and Hamburg host Borussia Dortmund this weekend, and all eyes in Germany will be on the Hanseatic club and their new man in charge. Will he deliver?
The Pressure of History
When Hamburg’s supervisory board approved Slomka’s appointment following the dismissal of Bert van Marwijk (who held the job for just 143 days), they hired their 11th coach in 10 years. Counting interim and caretaker coaches, the club has had 17 different coaches in charge since 2000. That is telling not only of how hard it has been to get results in Hamburg but also how far the club has fallen since their glory days.
Old Hamburg supporters still recall the golden age of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Hamburg were one of Europe’s most successful clubs. Between 1976 and 1983, they reached nine cup finals in all competitions and won the Bundesliga three times. The most famous of all their achievements was the 1983 European Cup triumph against Juventus. Four years later they added the German Cup, but the supporters have not seen any silverware since.
The club went into the current season in its 50th year in the Bundesliga. They still remain the only club to have stuck around in the first division since its inception in 1963. So proud is the club of this accomplishment that the stadium and website features a standing clock of its time in the league. It is also a clock that is dangerously close to coming to its end and becoming symbolic of a past that has also become a burden.
In a sense, the heights they reached then only work to emphasize the continuous underachievement and internal turmoil of recent years. Hamburg have lost their last seven league matches, their worst record in club history after 21 matchdays. Player and fan morale appear to be at an all-time low, and conflict has been brewing both on and off the pitch.
After their defeat to Hertha Berlin two weeks ago, roughly 200 Hamburg supporters gathered outside the stadium protesting club chairman Carl-Edgar Jarchow and demanding to see the players. The crisis meeting that followed yielded no results and no changes, only perpetuating supporter frustration and pressure.
The Right Man
The former Schalke and Hannover coach may just be the best candidate to bring Hamburg back from the dead. Despite his sacking at Hannover in December, Slomka’s record with the club as well as his work with Schalke are indicative of a coach who is able to make the most of his resources all while achieving results.
Slomka’s stint at Hannover can actually serve as a great template for Hamburg’s current situation. He took the club over when they were undergoing several coaching changes and teetering on the brink of relegation. He quickly transformed them into one of the most difficult-to-beat sides in the league and had them playing a powerful and effective brand of football.
Hannover beat the drop and eventually had their best European run in club history when they reached the quarterfinals of the Europa League in the 2011-12 season. A slew of injuries and poor results led to a mutual parting earlier this season, but Slomka still boasts the best record of any coach in Hannover history and is widely celebrated by their supporters.
His time at Schalke was more tumultuous, but his record still quite admirable. He led Schalke to the semifinals of the Europa League in the 2005-06 season and a second-place finish in the league the year after. In that season he controversially replaced veteran goalkeeper Frank Rost with a young Manuel Neuer who made a big splash in the Champions League the following season with his now legendary performance against Porto in the quarterfinals.
Ultimately, disappointing results and performances in the league led to Schalke letting Slomka go. Still, Schalke fans point to the fact that between 2006 and 2008, Slomka had the best points-per-game ratio of any coach in Germany other than Ottmar Hitzfeld.
If anything, Slomka’s previous experiences serve as the best preparation for what awaits him at Hamburg. He will have to deal with a similar kind of pressure to what he faced at Schalke, both from a strong local base and press. At the same time, he will have a malleable squad to work with like he had at Hannover, a group of players eager to turn the corner and put the past behind them.
The Dortmund game may also be a blessing in disguise. Hamburg were the only team to beat Dortmund in both matches last season, and Jurgen Klopp’s team have lost on five of their last seven visits to Hamburg. What also bodes well for Slomka is that none of the last six Hamburg coaches have lost in their first game in charge.
More importantly than anything perhaps is the fact that Slomka is a coach who prioritizes defense. Or at the very least, he makes it the cornerstone of his team’s tactics. Hannover were notoriously difficult to break down under Slomka, and Hamburg are in dire need of a defense transformation. They have conceded at least three goals 11 times already this season in the league—a club low historically.
Is Slomka the answer to Hamburg’s prayers? Time will tell. But one would be hard-pressed to find a more suitable candidate at this point in time. Slomka is a breath of fresh air in what seems like a poisonous atmosphere. At the end of the day, he could be the man to keep the clock ticking.