Hope springs even as Hamburg 'the dinosaur' struggle for top-flight survival in Bundesliga
They have been around in German football's top division for 55 years, but for the past five, almost every May has had all the suspense of a Jurassic Park sequel for Der Dino
This is the time of year that Hamburg, once the champion club of Europe, are reminded of one of their lasting nicknames.
It is "Der Dino", short for the dinosaur. It is a sobriquet earned because, well, Hamburg are older than any other Bundesliga top-flight club in terms of their endurance at the elite level of German football.
They have been around in the Bundesliga’s highest division for all of its 55 years of existence. But for the last five of those years, almost every May has had all the action-packed suspense of a Jurassic Park sequel for Der Dino.
We know the script, which asks, tantalisingly: Will the dinosaur survive, as it flirts once again with threats to its survival as a top-tier beast?
Der Dino are certainly a creature of habit.
Last season, the great escape was achieved on the final afternoon of the campaign thanks to an 88th-minute winning goal that air-lifted Hamburg – or HSV – from 16th in the 18-team table to 14th and a point clear of a relegation play-off. Wolfsburg, whom HSV defeated with two minutes to go of the normal season, were instead condemned to the play-off.
Unusually dramatic, you might think. Not for the tightrope-walkers of modern Hamburg. Three years ago, HSV took their survival storyline beyond the end of the calendar, into the play-off against the third-placed second division club.
That tie kept them at parity with Karlsruhe after 180 minutes of two-legged attrition. Hamburg then scraped through with a goal in extra time of the second leg.
Had they learned any lessons? No.
A year earlier, HSV found another way of teasing at relegation. The 2013/14 season ended with Hamburg 16th, with the worst defence in the Bundesliga’s upper tier, bound for a play-off against ambitious Greuther Furth.
The two legs produced two goals. Luckily for Hamburg, they scored their only one of the tie in the away leg. So they survived on away goals.
Here we go again.
This May, Hamburg will have to complete a late recovery unprecedented in the history of the Bundesliga. This is a professional structure that, since its founding in 1963, has mostly regarded Hamburg as one of its mainstays.
After all, the Hamburg club belong to a sturdy football city, and are one of only three German continental champions, thanks to their 1983 triumph in the European Cup.
At the end of March, Hamburg sat bottom of the table. They had contrived to slide beneath even Cologne, whose woeful start to the campaign had created its own set of records.
There were seven matches left and HSV genuinely looked like a doomed Dino, a great, sagging Brontosaurus with no grazing land in sight.
Their senior executives had just quit, and the season’s third different manager, Christian Titz - had been appointed, promoted from the Under 21s. Titz was the 10th different man to take charge of the first team in four and half years.
He made some changes, coaxed marginalised senior players back to some sort of form and elevated some juniors. After taking four points from two games, including a see-saw 3-2 win at home to Schalke, some feelgood instincts were perceptible in the old beast.
But defeat at Hoffenheim, on Matchday 30, put Hamburg deep into trouble again. They were eight points from safety, with 12 points to play for.
Since then they have won two on the trot, against fellow strugglers Freiburg, and, last weekend, a first away win in the league since August, 3-1 against a Wolfsburg now in 16th spot.
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“We can get out of this,” beamed Lewis Holtby, the 27-year-old attacking midfielder who more than anyone has led Titz’s tenacious bid to stave off the drop. He has scored four goals in his last five games, three of them in victories.
Holtby, who in his younger days won caps for his native Germany – to the envy of England, where his parents come from – spoke with a candour about why this challenge feels distinct from previous escapes.
“The truth is that now we are playing good football for the first time in four years, actually wanting the ball and trying to move it forward.”
Holtby speaks from weary experience. He joined HSV in 2014, after a spell in England had concluded with a loan spell from his then employers Tottenham Hotspur to a Fulham side who were relegated.
A season later, he was in a play-off for survival with Hamburg, and two years on, he was part of the last-gasp escape drama against Wolfsburg. He has been injured and out of favour for much of this season, until Titz took over.
“It’s like a cup run now, and as if we’ve just won the quarter-final,” Holtby said of the remaining assignments, against Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday and Borussia Monchengladbach on the last day.
From those two games Der Dino must almost certainly garner more points than Wolfsburg, who sit two points ahead of HSV, can eke from their pair of fixtures.
“I think, 100 per cent, we will make it,” Holtby said.
Updated: May 3, 2018 03:23 PM