On September 11th last year, I sat in the AWD Arena in Hannover and watched an enthralling 2-2 draw between Hannover and Bayer Leverkusen. After two wins from their opening two games, there was a sense of confidence amongst the swelled ranks of Hannover fans.
Early on, their confidence seemed well place. Hannover took the lead after a bad error by Hyypia allowed Ya Konan a chance. As is so often, the Ivorian slotted home coolly. Following a red card for Hannover’s Emanuel Pogatetz, die Roten (‘the reds’) produced a gritty performance and managed to double their lead when Abdellaoue nodded in from a set piece. However, down to 10 men and up against a quality outfit, Hannover eventually succumbed, when Patrick Helmes hammered in a last minute equaliser from a free-kick. The game made headlines all over Germany, and the world.
Michael Ballack, still officially Germany captain at that point, suffered an injury which kept him out for over 4 months. The news shocked many German football fans and ruined any chance Ballack had of returning to the national team. No one paid much attention to Hannover. Sure, Hannover had played well and 7 points from their opening 3 games was impressive, but Hannover weren’t going to achieve much this season. At best, they’d avoid relegation for another season with a mid-table finish.
Or so we thought.
Yet, come the end of the season, little Hannover were fighting Bayern for the final Champions League spot. Third place seemed like a realistic goal for Hannover after they played brilliantly in 3-1 home victory against Bayern on match day 25, which left the Bavarians in fifth trailing Hannover by 5 points. Eventually, Bayern wrestled third place from Hannover, leaving Hannover to make do with fourth place and a Europa League spot. Despite being largely ignored by much of the media, this was a remarkable achievement for a team of limited resources which finished the previous season 15th and only avoided the relegation play-off by two points.
So, how did they do it? Well, firstly, the 15th place finish was perhaps a bit misleading. The team had endured a tumultuous and distressing season, after Hannover and Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke’s tragic suicide. The psychological impact of his death seemed to leave the players, fans and management in a state of shock and made it even harder for an already struggling team to turn their season around. Adding to their problems, Hannover went through 3 managers. Eventually, former Schalke manager Mirko Slomka was appointed and, after an initially poor start, managed to do just enough to survive.
Slomka then had a chance to work with his team over the summer to get the best out of his players. He adopted a relatively direct counter-attacking style, reliant on finding the two strikers quickly. And in Didier Ya Konan (14 goals in 28 appearances) and Mohammed Abdellaoue (10 goals in 26 games) he had a fantastic strike partnership, who got him goals and complimented each other very well. Ya Konan, in particular, was superb. The stocky Ivorian had the pace to trouble teams when balls were played in behind the defence, the ability and strength to hold the ball up, and the coolness to finish accurately. Slomka also managed to get the best from many of his players. Most notably, Slomka coaxed excellent performances from the tough-tackling Portuguese midfielder Sergio Pinto, who provided many excellent passes up to the front players. Even talented former Germany international Jan Schlaudraff, who had previously under-achieved at the AWD Arena, began to produce good performances. In addition, Slomka massively improved the defence, by improving the organisation and adding Pogatetz to the heart of the defence. In 2009/10, Hannover conceded a staggeringly awful 67 goals, but last season Hannover conceded a far more respectable 45 goals.
Of course, there is a danger when playing on the break that you become one dimensional and are unable to cope when a team sits back against you. Slomka addressed this as well, and in the second half of the season Hannover began to play a bit more football. Alongside Pinto, the likes of Rausch, Schmiedebach and a resurgent Schlaudraff played well in midfield, as Hannover held more possession. This meant that Hannover were no longer so reliant on counter-attacks to break down the opposition.
A lot of credit has to go to Jörg Schmadtke, Hannover’s Sporting Director, who signed Ya Konan, Abdellaoue, Pogatetz, and the young talented goalkeeper Ron Robert Zieler, on a very small budget. Schmadtke and Slomka have often disagreed publically and have questioned each other’s ability’s at times, but both men have played their part in what has been a remarkable rise.
The ironic thing about Hannover’s rise is that it has been done on a small budget. Martin Kind, the Hannover President, has long argued against the ‘50+1 rule’, which prevents investors from owning 50% or more of any Bundesliga club. 50% + 1 of the shares must be owned by the club, and therefore the members, and control of the club must also be retained by the members. There are two exceptions to this. Wolfsburg are wholly owned by Volkswagen and Bayer Leverkusen by Bayer. Both clubs were originally founded as works teams formed at the companies’ factories and the league, as a result, has allowed Bayer and Wolfsburg to own their respective clubs. After he failed in his attempt to alter the rules through the leagues structures, Kind has filed a lawsuit against the league at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Kind argues that giving exceptions to Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen is unfair. He has also stated that “The rule means the loss of many Bundesliga clubs’ ability to compete nationally and internationally. And in some ways it prevents further development of German football, especially those clubs who play in the lower half of the Bundesliga, as they do not have enough financial resources.” Of course, Kind will be delighted that his club proved him wrong last season.
As for next season, Hannover can look forward to playing in the Europa League with a squad, which, on paper at least, looks stronger than last season. Hannover have held on to all their key players so far, including star striker Ya Konan. Even German international left back Christian Schulz, who looked set to join Wolfsburg, eventually committed to the club and extended his contract. Hannover will also hope to see more of last summer’s signing Carlitos, who missed basically the whole season through injury. The creative midfielder should provide more depth and invention to Hannover’s midfield next season. Hannover have also made some interesting signings. German international left wing-back or left midfielder Christian Pander has joined from Schalke. If Hannover can keep him fit, and that’s a very big if, he could prove a very astute signing. In addition, Norwegian international holding midfielder Henning Hauger and Polish international striker Artur Sobiech have been added to add more strength and depth to the squad. Repeating last season’s success is unlikely. Balancing their domestic and European commitments will be difficult for Hannover, and it’s unlikely that so many big teams will underachieve again this season. However, a decent European run and finish in the upper reaches of mid-table should be attainable for Hannover.
Hannover have a fairly large fan base and a large and modern stadium, there is undoubtedly some potential there. Following last season’s success with another solid season is vital if Kind is going to prove himself wrong and organically grow Hannover into regular challengers for European places.