Everyone has been to bad Saturday night parties but Hamburg bosses must have feared the mother of all damp squibs before the club celebrated its 125th birthday last month.
More than 12 000 guests were invited to a star-studded gala, including legendary player Uwe Seeler and Rafael van der Vaart’s model wife Sylvie, the event’s host.
But the run-up to the party had been an unmitigated disaster. The 1983 European Cup winners kicked off the season with a German Cup defeat against third tier Karlsruhe, and matters got worse when the club lost their first three games of the season for the first time in 40 years.
Summer investment of €24 million on new players seemed to have misfired.
Klaus-Michael Kuhne, the local businessman who gave HSV an interest-free loan to buy van der Vaart, must have questioned his own business acumen.
But this particular party coincided with the most incredible turnaround in the Bundesliga season so far.
Thorsten Fink’s men have racked up 10 points in four games, climbing from last place to eighth.
Journalists had mocked Fink, appointed 12 months ago, for targeting European football next term when his team were bottom of the pile, but the former Bayern player seems to have now turned the corner.
”It has been a crazy year, it seemed I had a battle that could not be won. But I have always felt the backing of the club, even in difficult times. I have always been convinced that my way is the right one for HSV,” he said.
”I’ve been building this team for a year but my work is only now really showing. I’ve only had this squad together for three or four weeks, now I can really mold it the way I have imagined.”
Sylvie’s husband has justified the hype surrounding his €14 million transfer from Tottenham. Goalkeeper Rene Adler has proved an inspired signing from Leverkusen while Heung Min Son’s potential has finally been translated into goals. Off the pitch the club has been applauded for treating the depression of international left back Dennis Aogo.
The turnaround all started with a shock 3-2 win against defending Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund, with South Korean youngster Son scoring twice and van der Vaart providing two assists.
The sense of history that day seemed to work wonders: the visitors were on an unbeaten run of 31games, just five short of the Bundesliga record set by Ernst Happel’s all-conquering Hamburg team of 1983.
In their next match, the Red Shorts led deep into injury time before conceding an equalizer at Borussia Monchengladbach. That didn’t dent confidence, with Fink seeing his men register back-to-back 1-0 wins against Hannover and Furth.
Son scored his fourth goal in five matches in Bavaria, a wonderful effort that saw him skip past two defenders, sprint 30 meters and sweep the ball in from the edge of the box. Son is on the radar of top clubs across Europe, but Hamburg director of football Frank Arnesen insisted this week that the club are determined to extend his contract beyond 2014.
Fink too has been delighted with Son’s form saying “that’s what he practices in training every day and it shows that it pays off doing more work than the others.”
Dutchman van der Vaart has been a revelation on his return after a four-year absence. Doubts about the former Real Madrid player’s fitness were allayed on his debut at Eintracht Frankfurt, when he was the best player on the pitch.
Indeed, Hamburg’s often mocked transfer policy is starting to pay dividends. Around this time of the season, German football bible Kicker likes to poke fun at clubs with a list of ”transfer top flops”: in recent years Hamburg buys have featured heavily, but this time out not a single HSV acquisition makes the top 20.
What’s more, Kicker marks keeper Adler as the best player in the entire Bundesliga this season, ahead of Thomas Muller and Frank Ribery. Struggling Wolfsburg must be ruing the day they decided to release Petr Jiracek during the summer: after a horror challenge that saw him stupidly sent off against Frankfurt, the Czech has been at the core of a solid HSV midfield.
Normally chaotic Hamburg also seem to have turned the corner when it comes to man-management.
This week, left-back Dennis Ago announced that depression was the real reason he missed the start of the season. In a country sensitive to players’ mental health following the tragic suicide of Robert Enke, Hamburg must have known that they had to tread carefully when the German international told them of his condition.
“I thought it was just a phase and I tried to drag myself through it, but there came a point when that was no longer possible,” Aogo said. ”When the body stops working, the problem goes to the head.”
“I was depressed and I no longer felt myself.”
After help from the club, a player who represented Germany as recently as February is raring to get back into action.
“Today, I can say that I feel really good and that is a great feeling.”
Not long ago Hamburg seemed in danger of losing their proud record of being the only club in the Bundesliga never to have been relegated.
Now, the whole club is echoing Aogo’s mood.
There’s no Bundesliga action this week because of the international break but live German football will be back on Eurosport2 next weekend.