Hans makes light work
Maybe I should be careful, as words on this website have served to jinx teams before. But when Nuremberg came from behind to beat Kaiserslautern on Sunday they put ten points worth of daylight between themselves and the relegation zone - with just four games left. Thus, I think it's fairly safe to congratulate the club and proclaim the side the team of the season.
Yes, despite Hamburg's outstanding year and Frankfurt reaching the Cup final for the first time in almost twenty years, and thereby back in Europe after a twelve-year wait (since opponents Bayern will play in the Champions League), there has certainly been no bigger achievement than that of Nuremberg.
As I'm typing this, the tradition-laden club from Franconia is in 9th place, a single point behind Borussia Dortmund and ahead of sides such as Hannover, who were eyeing the Uefa Cup slots.
That in itself is quite some feat - but now consider that the Slovak Marek Mintal, who was the league's top scorer last year and responsible for almost half of Nuremberg's goals, broke his foot not once but twice this season and featured in only four games, including the first three.
That's roughly comparable to Bayern having to cope without Ballack and Pizarro or Makaay since late August.
And even that is only half the story.
I mean, you quite often see unfancied teams with no stars to speak of having a good start to the season and then just taking it from there. But that's not at all what Nuremberg did. They started the campaign like the surest relegation candidate you have ever seen, losing eight of the first twelve games and being in last place by November, already four points off the pace.
Actually, even that won't suffice to tell you how bad things were six months ago.
So, how about this: following a 4-1 loss away to Mainz, Nuremberg fired coach Wolfgang Wolf and offered the job to Peter Neururer, who expressed some interest.
|“||While Nuremberg coach Neururer was explaining the situation, the police were busy stopping fans from storming the ground's inner sanctum. That's how bad it was. ”|
But a week later, Neururer watched Nuremberg lose at home to Stuttgart on the telly and was so shocked that he immediately rang the club's director of sports, Martin Bader. 'Directly after the match, Neururer left a message on my mailbox saying he feels incapable of taking over the team under the impression of this game,' Bader had to inform the press.
While he was explaining the situation, the police were busy stopping fans from storming the ground's inner sanctum. That's how bad it was.
During those weeks in November, I thought back to an e-mail I had received in late May of 2004, as Nuremberg had just been promoted back to the top flight.
The note came from a German (I think) living in England, named Toby. He wrote: 'I'm supporting Nuremberg, who will almost certainly feature in Uli's column at the end of next year as being relegated yet again and the only team to get relegated three times from two professional leagues in two seasons.'
Those words, it should be noted, were realistic rather than pessimistic, coming from someone who's accepted the fact he is supporting a yo-yo team. Which is why my reply included the line: 'I would love to tell you that Nuremberg will certainly stay up and surprise everyone... But you know how it is.'
Yet Nuremberg did surprise us that season. Their most expensive signing had been the Polish defender Bartosz Bosacki, signed from Lech Posen for - wait for it - 150,000 euros. This squad never had any real chance of surviving in the Bundesliga but, thanks to the unexpected heroics of Mintal, it did.
Things looked slightly more rosy before the start of the current season, as Nuremberg were now able to spend a bit more money (the Czech Jan Polak came from Slovan Liberec for a shade over £1million euros). But this was always a team that would have to struggle very, very hard to stay up: Mintal's injury and the horrible first months seemed to seal their fate.
OK, I hear you ask, but what happened then?
Well, then Nuremberg found a 63-year-old coach with a damaged hip joint who had retired from football to grow roses together with his wife. Or at least that's what Hans Meyer had told the press back in the summer of 2004, when he left Hertha Berlin even though the club wanted him to stay.
The truth is that Meyer has as little interest in cultivating plants as his wife. As far as he was concerned, the line about growing roses was simply too good to be left unused. Which also held true for the other line, the one he fed the writers when they asked him why in heaven's name he had decided to come out of retirement to coach a bunch of no-hopers like Nuremberg. 'Maybe I'm just lecherous when it comes to money,' he said with an almost straight face.
Yes, half of Meyer's statements are drenched in irony, which has often led to problems with the press people, who can't stand it if somebody is very obviously not taking them seriously, but has made him popular with the fans wherever he earned his wages.
In fact, Meyer is probably the only coach who has become a cult hero at every Bundesliga club he worked for. He won promotion with Mönchengladbach and helped the side stay up, which is why the farewell was tearful and very emotional when he left on his own free will after four years.
The same happened when he took over a Hertha side that seemed destined to go down: Meyer turned things around, but left at the end of the season. The Hertha officials gave him a suitcase as a parting gift, which referred to the title of an old Marlene Dietrich song ('I've still got a suitcase in Berlin') and was meant to symbolise that Meyer was always welcome.
And now the old fox has done it again. His record since taking over Nuremberg reads: won nine, drawn four, lost five. (Just to show you how excellent this tally is: if those eighteen games had also come at the beginning of the season, the team would have been in fifth place.)
He is already a Nuremberg icon. And once more, his contract runs out in the summer. It looks likely he'll yet again ignore a club's plea to stay and will once more declare it's time to grow roses with his wife Anne.
Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.