Issue #24: Hertha BSC: The Big-City Club on the Brink of Disaster
Following the biggest financial deal in Bundesliga history, Hertha BSC looked set for a grandiose era in 2019. 2 1/2 years later they're 1-point above the relegation zone. Where has it gone wrong?
June 27, 2019, was supposed to be an unforgettable day in the history of Hertha Berlin; the awakening of a sleeping giant after years of general mediocrity.
German entrepreneur Lars Windhorst and his investment firm Tennor Holding B.V. had just finalized the biggest financial deal in Bundesliga history, pumping €125m into Hertha BSC in the hopes of forming a new footballing force on German soil.
Whereas all the other European leagues boast at least one capital-club regularly competing in international competition, Germany have rarely extracted any football pedigree from theirs. From the seat of government, a late-night Döner to a vibrant party-scene, just about anything can be found in Berlin, bar an internationally competitive football outfit, with the city's most prominent club failing to win a national title since 1931.
Under Windhorst this was all going to change however, with the once Tech Wunderkind, now promising a restless fanbase that they too would become “a big-city club like those in Madrid or London”.
2 ½ years and €374m later, though, and we’re still yet to see this grandiose era stagger out of the blocks.
With terrible performances on the pitch and constant turmoil off it, the Berlin project promising European football is instead edging closer to topflight relegation as each week goes by. As the only Bundesliga side without a win in 2022, perhaps it’s time for the dreams of a European night in Madrid to be replaced by the dread of a Sunday afternoon in Aue.
Awful displays on the pitch and an ominous slide down the table will always land at the feet of the playing squad, but for Hertha BSC the recent failures began with an infectious disease spreading in the backroom management. Since Windhorst’s engagement in 2019, no Bundesligist has had more technical upheaval than Hertha BSC, with the club routinely landing in the tabloids for management failure and disgraceful employee behavior.
Jens Lehmann, a 61-time German international, was probably the most public example. The former Arsenal Invincible lost his position in the club’s supervisory board following leaked messages in which he called Dennis Aogo the “quota black guy” on Sky Sports’ Bundesliga broadcast.
Perhaps that can be chalked down to the wild ramblings of a man who seemingly always had a screw loose, but less than a month earlier goalkeeping coach Zsolt Petry put the club under an equally disparaging spotlight. In an interview with Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet, Petry not only ridiculed Péter Gulácsi’s decision to play for a club which supported same-sex marriage (RB Leipzig), but the 55-year old also had a scathing stance on European migration which was littered with casual racism and vicious undertones.
In both cases Hertha not only avoided making a statement until the outside noise became unbearably loud, but they did so whilst simultaneously boasting the image of a club which stands for ‘diversity, tolerance, and world openness’. Even proudly displaying it on their club website.
In any environment such actions could alienate a fanbase by creating irreparable divides, but nowhere more so than in Berlin - undoubtedly Germany’s most liberal and multicultural city. Though the mood of a match-going fan remains almost entirely fueled by results on the pitch, becoming a ‘big-city club’, representing the values of the Berlin public image they cater for, simply demands more accountability.
Even when blatant bigotry hasn't led to an untimely dismissal, the Windhorst-era has still found more than enough reasons to continuously chop and change the staff over the past 2 ½ seasons.
With an influx of capital practically overnight, Hertha had to entirely restructure their investment strategy from one day to the next. Individuals previously tasked with keeping a middling Bundesliga club from sinking into the second tier now had to create a dominant European outfit with new-found pedigree.
This impossible pull to merge the old with the new has left lasting scars across the club, but nowhere more so than in the technical arena. Head-coaches have consistently come under fire, whilst the backroom staff routinely falls short of expectations in an almost habitual loop.
In the 950 days of the Windhorst era, Die Alte Dame had 6 different managers. No other club in Europe’s top five leagues has had such a massive turn-over during this period, highlighting the continual lack of awareness in Hertha’s hiring process.
Shortly before Windhorst’s tenure began, Pál Dárdai was sacked, a former defensive midfielder who brought a cautious approach to the managerial dugout. In a previous era where the only goal was Bundesliga survival such a regressive style flourished, but with Berlin’s glory days beckoning, a more adventurous man was needed to get the best out of the incoming jewels.
A flirtatious attempt to get Erik ten Hag shortly after his Ajax side missed out on a Champions League final was unsurprisingly turned down - so too were approaches for the out-of-work duo of Roger Schmidt and André Villa-Boas - so Hertha were left with few credible options upon Windhorst’s arrival. Ultimately, the 43-year old Ante Čović would take over, a forward-thinking manager doing respectable work with the under 23s, but an inexperienced name to head a project of this scale.
By November, Čović was unsurprisingly relieved of his duties, and replaced by Jürgen Klinsmann, a 10-game experiment which included the fireworks of an €80.00m winter outlay, but ended just 80 days later with an out of the blue resignation via facebook. Klinsmann was supposed to be the marquee new arrival whose playing pedigree could uplift a star-studded roster, yet in reality it just showed the managerial shortcomings of a man left behind in the world of football.
An interim-spell from Klinsmann’s number 2 Alexander Nouri saw Hertha ship 11-goals in 4 matches, so the Big City Club went back to its roots.
Bruno Labbadia, the Sam Allardyce of German football, came in to extinguish the fires of a pending relegation, whilst the following January Hertha would go one step further and re-unite a fanbase promised success with the familiar face of Pál Dárdai.
In each instance one could argue that the manager tasked with shaping the side under performed in their role, but to truly get at the heart of the issue one needs to gaze a bit further up the pecking order where true decision-making lies.
Michael Preetz, Hertha BSC’s record goalscorer turned general manager, was responsible for the roster-planning and managerial appointments between June 2009 and January 2021. In that time, Preetz fired 11 managers, spent over €200m, and routinely brought the club into turmoil with ill-advised transfers and idiotic appointments.
Matt Hermann, host of The Talking Fussball Podcast and an avid Hertha supporter, went as far as to say “getting rid of Preetz was the single most important thing to allow the club to move forward,” a stance you’d find hard to argue with given the German’s disillusionary track-record.
Despite shattering transfer records, and becoming the biggest January spenders in Bundesliga history, in his final 2 seasons Preetz failed to recruit a squad capable of performing at the level which Windhorst’s investment should have enabled.
Individuals like Krzysztof Piątek, Lucas Tousart, Dodi Lukebakio provide prime examples, all three signed for well over €20.00m, but each of them rarely, if ever, showing a glimpse of their potential in the German capital. Whether it’s Preetz’s poor management choices limiting the influence of individual talent, these supposed superstars performing well-below their price tag, or a combination of both, each and every scenario undeniably points back to the poor decision-making from the man overseeing it all.
Rather than bolster a relegation firefighter with disciplined specialists, or provide Hertha’s superfluous talent with an imaginative attacking manager, Preetz attempted to marry the two ideas, ultimately causing a slow, and steady decline as Hertha’s management philosophy clashed with its playing squad to create irrefutable damage.
Tasked with rebuilding the sinking ship is Fredi Bobic, The Blue-Whites' new sporting director who joined from Eintracht Frankfurt over the summer. In his 5-seasons in Hessen’s Financial Metropolis, Fredi Bobic left a lasting impression, taking a club previously yo-yoing in & out of the topflight to a Pokal triumph and European semi-final.
From top to bottom Bobic’s work was commendable, but particularly his transfer activity deserved enthusiastic praise. The former German international not only got it right, but smashed any and all expectations by bringing in the likes of André Silva, Luka Jović, Ante Rebić, and Sébastian Haller for €41.84m and selling them on again just a couple years later for over €100.00m in profit.
This same process has taken roots in Berlin, with Bobic already turning a profit by selling notable stars in favor of a wider crop of fresh talent, however, even he hasn't been given the freedom to get the process right in the dugout.
After securing topflight safety and losing just once in his final 9 Bundesliga outings, Pál Dárdai was practically unsackable over the summer - an irritating roadblock for a sporting director looking to revolutionize strategy and processes’ across the entire club.
When results inevitably turned on the Hungarian, Hertha were 13 games into the 2021/22 campaign and just 1-point above the drop zone, thoroughly unattractive to a top-manager looking to set up forward-thinking structures whilst simultaneously battling the drop.
Bobic, left with little choice but to call upon another relegation specialist, ultimately selected Tayfun Korkut, a decision which has brought mixed success across the 47-year olds first 10 matches in charge.
In every sense Bobic is left blameless in the managerial misgivings this season, but nevertheless these final 11-matches could prove critical in determining the direction Hertha is heading in both the near, and longer-term future.
Should the Olympiastadion remain a top flight destination in 2022, then there is ample reason to believe that Hertha BSC will finally come true on their promise of becoming a prominent European destination.
For a start, a hungry young squad may finally be united with a progressive topflight manager - a travesty to think that this is still yet to be a reality in the Windhorst era.
Roger Schmidt is the obvious choice, with the former Leverkusen and Salzburg-man opting against extending his expiring deal at PSV Eindhoven, but even the out-of-work Niko Kovač could be enticed back to the capital. It wouldn’t just spell a reunion with his former Frankfurt colleague, but it may also see Kovač return to the city of his birth and a club he played over 200 matches for.
Additionally, Fredi Bobic (unlike his predecessor Preetz) finally has given powerful roles to intelligent decision-makers, simultaneously putting an end to a model which saw ex-professionals offer meaningless input off the pitch, by living off their past reputation on it.
Almost the entire scouting department has been remodeled, with 7 new scouts appointed to cast a wider net in the talent search, and to allow for a more balanced assessment of potential recruits. Babacar Wane (Head Scout) and Enis Hajri (scout), both followed their boss after impressive work at Frankfurt, whilst Leonardo Scirpoli (scout) was also brought in from Arsenal following the English club’s decision to move to a more data-driven model.
But even beyond the first-team, Bobic has taken a proactive stance, most notably restructuring the youth academy by appointing Pablo Thiam - formerly of VFL Wolfsburg - as the club’s new Academy Director.
Despite being the 5th largest city in Europe, and operating with a large pool of local talent, Hertha BSC have only sporadically used their academy to earn a profit, or produce stand-out first team graduates. Whereas West-German clubs routinely export talent amongst harsh local competition, Berlin habitually falls short of the mark despite being one of the few large cities to cater to the East-German market. Thiam will look to change this in the subsequent seasons by not only producing more talent, but also by working alongside Bobic to ensure there is a clear pathway for these youngsters to eventually star in the Hertha first-team.
Should Hertha fail to hit the mark and spiral into the Zweite Bundesliga though, this could all quickly change.
Lars Windhorst, already disgruntled at his lack of decision-making power and Hertha’s unflattering development, has declined to put any more money into the club, determining that a squad which boasts one of the biggest wage bills in the Bundesliga would quickly be torn to shreds following relegation.
Any hopes of a world-class manager of the Roger Schmidt ilk will also go tumbling down the drain, whilst the club's already money-sucking 75,000 seater stadium will become even more of a dreary sight with the backdrop of near empty stands in the second-tier.
Thus, in the appointment of Fredi Bobic Hertha BSC may have set the groundwork for a new era of success, but the entire fate of one of the most audacious footballing projects in the 21st century now lives and dies off the back of the next 11 Bundesliga matchdays. If they come out of it unscathed, Hertha could still come true on Windhorst's promise of becoming a footballing destination, if they don't, this big-city club could become the next dreary tale of a forgotten giant wallowing away in the lower tiers.
Title Image: Gabriel Foligno