Hamburg were finally relegated from the Bundesliga at the end of the 2017/18 season after a number of seasons of flirting with the drop. That relegation ended the longest-running stay by one club in Germany’s top flight and brought to the fore the story of a clock perched in the north-west corner of the club’s home stadium. The Stadionuhr counted how long Hamburg had been in the Bundesliga to the exact second. When relegation finally occurred on 12th May 2018, it naturally invoked much emotion at the Volksparkstadion. A report on the website of Deutsche Welle mentioned one banner in the stadium that read: “Love regardless of league.”
At the point of relegation, the clock read 54 years, 260 days, 22 hours, 28 minutes and 21 seconds and it became synonymous with the club’s struggles to cling on to a piece of history. Over time, it felt as though Hamburg’s only yardstick for success became the continuous movement of the clock’s hands – a sad situation that belies the greatness this extraordinary football club had once enjoyed.
The Hamburger SV that exists today was founded in June 1919 through a merger of three clubs. However, the club’s history can be traced back to 29th September 1887, when the first of the predecessors, Sport-Club Germania Hamburg or SC Germania was formed. SC Germania was an amalgam of two clubs: Der Hohenfelder Sport Club and Wandsbek-Marienthaler. After the First World War, SC Germania merged with Hamburger FC (formed in 1888) and FC Falke Eppendorf (formed in 1906) to form Hamburger Sport-Verein (HSV). The toll of the war hamstrung the ability of the three clubs to successfully survive as separate clubs.
Long after its formation, the club had enjoyed only modest success with three German championships and one DFB Pokal before the formation of the Bundesliga. By 1973 when the Bundesliga was a decade old, Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach were dominating the West German game and Hamburg’s highest league finish in that era was a modest fifth.
In April of that year, Peter Krohn assumed the role of General Manager of Die Rothosen with an avowed aim of making the club a force in German football – at the time, a seemingly ambitious aspiration. A business entrepreneur, he launched various initiatives to improve marketing of the club to bring in more funds to finance his ambition. Various events were organized during training sessions: he started selling advertising spaces and lured fans into the stadium by giving them a say through voting on transfers. Even a pink jersey was launched to attract women to their games.
Any semblance of the progress Krohn envisaged took time in arriving. The 1975-76 season yielded a second-place finish in the league and the first silverware in the form of the DFB Pokal. Despite a disappointing sixth-place finish in the league the next season, Hamburg won the European Cup Winners’ Cup by defeating Anderlecht. That success gave even greater impetus to Krohn’s ambitions.
Hitachi was brought in as shirt sponsors to further drive Krohn’s push to make Hamburg a force. To match that ambition on the pitch, Kevin Keegan was signed for a then British record fee of £500,000 from Liverpool, whilst Yugoslav defender Ivan Buljan also arrived. To lead the charge, Kuno Klotzer was replaced as manager by Rudi Gutendorf despite opposition from the squad. A poor start to the 1977-78 season led to both Krohn and Gutendorf departing in October. Ozcan Arkoc, Hamburg’s ex-Turkish goalkeeper, took over.
Krohn had not taken Hamburger SV to where he wanted to but it was clear he had lain strong foundations. His replacement was Günter Netzer who had been part of the Borussia Mönchengladbach team that battled Bayern Munich for dominance in the Bundesliga from the late 1960s. One of his first acts was to appoint Yugoslav Branko Zebec as new coach.
Zebec had played with Yugoslavia at the 1958 World Cup and enjoyed success in club football in his home country. A transfer to Alemannia Aachen towards the end of his career introduced him to the environment in which he was later to do most of his coaching. He won Bayern Munich its first Bundesliga title and DFB Pokal during his sole season in charge in 1969. Prior to the Hamburg role, he also had experience with Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia and VfB Stuttgart.
Netzer signed midfielder William Hartwig from TSV Munich 1860, as well as strikers Horst Hrubesch from Rot-Weiss Essen, Bernd Wehmeyer from Hannover and Hans-Gunther Plucken from Union Solingen. Arno Steffenhagen and Georg Volkert were considered trouble-makers who were not playing for Keegan so they were moved on. Kevin Keegan himself was expected to be sold after a disappointing first season in Germany, with Real Madrid showing interest. However, Netzer’s explanation about his own struggles in the Spanish capital convinced the Englishman to stay and that proved to be an inspired decision. The following campaign the ‘Machtig Maus’ (Mighty Mouse) displayed his best form to finish the season as club top scorer with 16 goals and he would go on to win the Ballon d’Or twice in the following three seasons.
The new signings, a revitalized Keegan and a coach well-versed in the German league proved a potent combination as Hamburg took a first Bundesliga title in the 1978/79 season, winning 21 of 34 fixtures en route to the title.
Felix Magath, who had been signed from second-tier side Saarbrücken, had developed into the team’s key creative force and a full international. Striker Horst Hrubesch and defender Manfred Kaltz were also in the German set up and Hrubesch, at the end of the 1979/80 season, became an unlikely hero for West Germany in the Euro 1980 triumph in Italy.
Hamburg came close to repeating the league triumph of the previous season but ultimately lost out by two points to Bayern Munich. Three key factors contributed to Bayern’s resurgence in 1980: Uli Hoeneß’s supreme work in an executive role, Pal Csernai success as a coach and the arrival of Paul Breitner from Real Madrid. With Breitner in midfield and the prolific Karl-Heinz Rummenigge upfront, ‘FC Breitnigg’ fired Bayern Munich to the title. Despite the strength of Bayern Munich, Hamburg had remained in contention until near the very end until their hopes receiving a fatal blow with a 3-1 penultimate round loss to Bayer Leverkusen.
Hamburg had to settle for second-best in Europe too that year, losing to Nottingham Forest in the European Cup final despite going into the match as favourites. It was an anti-climatic end to a fine campaign that included a 5-1 hammering of Real Madrid in the second-leg of the semi-final to overturn a two-goal first-leg deficit. Such was their dominance that Madrid’s Vicente del Bosque, a traditionally composed figure, lost his cool and was sent off for trying to punch Kevin Keegan.
The club’s profile received a major boost that close season with the signing of a late-career Franz Beckenbauer. The new season brought a 5-0 thumping by Saint-Étienne in the UEFA Cup, but it was the sacking of Zebec that captured most of the headlines. The coach’s troubles with alcohol caught up with him and it was clear that his work was being affected. In his place came his assistant, Aleksander Ristić, who, in his short tenure, led the team to a second-placed finish in the Bundesliga.
Ernst Happel is rarely mentioned as one of the originators of Total Football though he did make a seminal contribution to the concept during his coaching career. Taking over ADO Den Haag in 1962, he transformed the relegation contenders into a side more at home in the top five. In 1968, when his ADO Den Haag side faced Ajax in the KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup), he opted for a 4-3-3 formation against the then-popular 4-2-4 default. Ajax was coached by Rinus Michels but Happel triumphed. The Austrian was one of the very first tacticians to use a three-man midfield which became a defining feature of Total Football.
Happel’s success at Den Haag attracted attention in Rotterdam and he would join Feyenoord where he would employ the 4-3-3 again to frustrate Ajax and Michels. According to Jonathan Wilson, a 3-3 draw between the teams convinced Michels to switch his side to the formation. Happel enjoyed a successful spell at Feyenoord, helping them win their first and only European Cup in 1970, a league title and the Intercontinental Cup to add to the Dutch Cup he won at ADO Den Haag.
Therefore, when Netzer made the move to bring Happel to Hamburg in 1981, it was a big deal. Hamburg had emerged from years of under-achievement to a league triumph and now employing a big name coach. With the tactical guidance of the astute Happel, Hamburg won its second league title during the Austrian’s first season in charge. The season did end in some surprise disappointment when Die Rothosen unexpectedly lost the UEFA Cup final to Swedish part-timers IFK Gothenburg.
Despite a stiff challenge from Werder Bremen, Hamburg successfully defended their Bundesliga title the following year while setting a League record by going 36 games unbeaten. That run was ended by Bremen in late January 1983, and the record stuck for 30 years until it was superseded by Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. The high point of the season came with their triumph in the European Cup for the first time. Athens figured prominently as Happel’s team thumped Olympiacos 5-0 in the second round then later returned to the same stadium for the final against Juventus.
Giovanni Trapattoni had been in charge of the Bianconeri since 1976. In his time he had won three Scudetti, but it was European glory that eluded the club. Inconsistent league form saw AS Roma take the Serie A title that season, as Juventus mainly focused on bringing the European Cup to Turin. Many of their squad included the World Cup winners from the previous year like Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile, Marco Tardelli and Gaetano Scirea. Other than that, Hamburg would have Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek to worry about. This was an all-star team and daunting opponent.
Hamburg was more than up for the task. Felix Magath’s early goal would do the trick and Hamburg would hold on for their first European triumph, making Ernst Happel the first manager to win the famous trophy with two different clubs. Jonathan Wilson’s notes about the match in his book, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, made for an interesting read:
“Hamburg played with two forwards: a figurehead in Horst Hrubesch with Lars Bastrup playing off him to the left. That suited Juventus, because it meant he could be marked by Gentile, while Cabrini would be left free from defensive concerns to attack down the left. Realizing that, the Hamburg coach Ernst Happel switched Bastrup to the right, putting him up against Cabrini.
That was something almost unheard of in Italian football…Giovanni Trapattoni decided to stick with the man-to-man system and moved Gentile across to the left to mark Bastrup. That, of course, left a hole on the right, which Tardelli was supposed to drop back and fill. In practice, though Tardelli was both neutered as an attacking force and failed to adequately cover the gap, through which Felix Magath ran to score the only goal of the game”.
That European success and the league titles marked a fabulous era for Die Rothosen. The team gradually disintegrated with players moving on to places far and wide, while mismanagement from the top affected the club greatly. Hamburg would contest the league, finish in the higher echelons several times, but as a club it was never truly competitive again.