Crisis has come to Magdeburg

With Magdeburg as of yesterday having the third-worst start of the decade, the time has come to take a long hard look at the club in general, including management and the whole shebang.

Basically, it all began with the first season in Regionalliga Nord after Magdeburg had played in the lowly Oberliga for several years. In the 2006-07 season a hardly improved (in terms of new players brought in) 1. FC Magdeburg team finished third in the Regionalliga Nord, one point and 5 goals behind eventually promoted VfL Osnabrück. The first very faint indicators of problems were visible even then, if you cared to look, for example in the way the team blew a 5-point lead in the last three matchdays. Also in the way the team played over the whole season. Hardly a game was won due to FCM’s superiority, but rather due to their ragged fighting spirit.

Unfortunately, as I already indicated, too few people saw these issues. It was even more unfortunate that neither the board, nor the managing director, nor the manager saw these issues and took them seriously. At the end of the season, Magdeburg lost several players, among them talented forward Aleksandar Kotuljac, and also reliable scorer Sven Kubis. Instead of loudly clamoring for necessary transfers, manager Heyne declared in the wake of missing out on promotion that the team were strong enough even without Kotuljac. Magdeburg were left without any reliable strikers, youngsters von der Weth and Kullmann were still out of their league in senior football, Danny Kukulies never materialised as dangerous and Eric Agyemang – the actual replacement for Kotuljac proved inept, scoring an impressive zero goals in 18 league matches. All of this idiocy was only surpassed by the signing of left winger Dennis Tornieporth who within weeks turned into a crybaby-like nuisance.
Still, this mess would not have been enough to relegate the club at the end of the season, if the German FA had not resolved to introduce a new league below the two Bundesligas. To qualify, Magdeburg would have to reach at least the #10 spot in the table, but sure enough, Magdeburg came in at 11, a mere four goals behind #10. Naturally, manager Heyne was fired during the campaign, only months after club president Rehboldt had publicly announced he would like to talk about a lifetime contract with the manager – not the first of his gaffes. New manager Linz was brought in, received additional support in the form of striker Najeh Braham, striker Christian Reimann and allrounder/striker Steffen Baumgart. But even though the team managed to clinch the coveted number 10 spot on matchday 36 by beating Union Berlin in their home stadium, Linz was powerless to prevent a shocking 0-1 home defeat at the hands of Rot-Weiss Essen the following weekend.

The following season, Magdeburg found themselves in the new Regionalliga, one of three fourth-tier divisions in German football – with one promotion spot each. Confident in Linz’s ability to form a team capable of gaining said top spot, the board extended his contract until June 2010. Now here’s the thing: we don’t have two-year seasons in Germany, so why give the guy a two-year contract? That’s stupid, I hear you cry, but fear not: The board has a plan. If we don’t get promoted in the first season, we’ll win promotion in season two, they said. Now I’m not quite sure why anyone would believe that a manager who cannot mount a title challenge in year one would be able to do so in year two, but then again, I’m not on the board either. Well, Linz brought in a couple of new players, and Magdeburg let go a few, as usual. Jarakovic, brought in from Belgium in the previous season and never really got his feet on the ground, went back to Belgium. Florian Müller, one of the few glimmers of hope in the relegation season, joined Alemannia Aachen in the Second Bundesliga. Agyemang, Kullmann, von der Weth and Baumgart left as well, with the last fellow the only actual loss. All in all, fifteen players left the club, and eight new players were signed, among them such experienced people as ex-international Mehmet Dragusha (poor chap) and ex-Bundesliga player Catalin Racanel. Winter transfer Braham saw his contract extended until 2011 (so much for a two-year plan, you see).

I probably would not be writing this, if that two-year plan had worked out, but alas it has not. Actually, when Linz was axed after proving unable to win any match against the top three teams of the league and an embarassing 0-3 defeat agains VfL Wolfsburg’s reserves, the question whether or not there even was a two-year plan at all must be raised. Linz‘ successor was Steffen Baumgart who managed to at least win the Landespokal, and then went about restructuring the squad. That included getting rid of Braham, Reimann, Dragusha and a number of other players who were replaced by young talent, mostly. Sadly, the new signing with the highest profile injured himself early on and is now out until late November. As a replacement Magdeburg last week signed Lars Fuchs on a free transfer. But nevertheless, Baumgart seems unable to translate his ideas of football – which worked very well in season preparation – to his team, as evidenced by five out of six league halftimes. In essence, Magdeburg field two different teams at the same time: 6 players and a goalie in defense, and four players in the attack, but neither part seems too interested in what the other is doing during the match. This is a new problem, as compared to a Magdeburg team that was clueless in attacking play (during Heyne’s tenure) and a Magdeburg team that did not function as a team at all (during the second half of Linz’s tenure), and it is a problem that deserves some patience to see whether or not there is a solution that Baumgart can find.

But let’s go back to the other sections f the club that are problematic. Starting with the youth department. In 2007, after the botched promotion race, the Under-19 team won promotion to the Bundesliga. Then the team underwent a full switch, i.e. most team regulars were too old for the U19 Bundesliga, instead the U17 moved up – and consequently was relegated with only 14 points from 26 matches. The next year, the Under17 in the newly-created Nachwuchsleistungszentrum missed out on qualifying for the new U17 Bundesliga, and again in the 2008-09 season. For a fourth-tier team it is most important to have its youth teams play in the highest possible leagues, so as to attract talented youngsters and not have them end up at the youth academies of Bundesliga clubs. Magdeburg currently has only one youth team at the top level: the Under15 team plays in the new U-15 Regionalliga Mitteldeutschland, a lucky break, but apparently the team is not up to it, losing 1-5 in their first match. What’s worse, Magdeburg’s main rivals in Saxony-Anhalt have managed to not only bring their U19 to the Bundesliga, but also plan to bring their U17 to that level in this season. What does the youth coordinator at 1. FC Magdeburg have to say? „It’s more important we develop players for the senior team.“ Yes, that is important, but isn’t it also important to expose them to as high a level of football as possible?

We’ve seen that there is certainly a lack of competence in the youth department (and I’ve not mentioned how the Under23 team was first pushed into the new fifth-tier Oberliga, only to then disband the team and field a totally unexperienced Under21 side without much support from the club. They finished last too, 20 points from 30 matches.) and a high degree of inexperience in senior side management. But certainly there is competence in the financial management of the club, right? Well, think again. Magdeburg have had the highest average attendance in their division last season, but the club still does not manage to accumulate a larger budget than other sides, such as Chemnitzer FC. How is that possible? Magdeburg’s income consists of two large chunks – there is sponsoring money and matchday income, each accounting for about half of the budget. So far so good, but if Magdeburg have such high income from the high average attendance, then why can they not create more money? About half of the matchday income goes to stadium rental thanks to a very talented managing director who did not manage to capitalize on the club’s position as the only team that can regularly fill the stadium to a significant degree. For practical purposes, this means that if Magdeburg’s average attendance is double that of Chemnitz, they should have about the same income, but then Magdeburg’s ticket prices are higher than in Chemnitz, and so there should be more revenue at Magdeburg, as Magdeburg have an average attendance that is 1,300 people higher than Chemnitz’s. But still, Magdeburg have about the same budget. This can only mean that there are deficiencies in terms of acquiring sponsorship money. While I acknowledge that the economic situation in Magdeburg is difficult and that a lot of companies that have branches in the area are from the former West Germany and are largely disinterested when it comes to sport sponsoring. However, it should be possible to acquire larger funds, especially considering the popularity of the club in the area and its deep roots in the population.

I now come to the last object of my adoration, club president Volker Rehboldt. Mr Rehboldt was a welcome change from some of the gambler-like and bland club presidents of old. But he has since developed a dangerous habit of producing gaffes like the life-time contract. Rehboldt has always been a purveyor of calm and solemn budgetary policy, but he is also responsible in large parts for the decline of the club since 2007. There is hardly any doubt that going a bit more risk by signing a decent replacement for outgoing players would have resulted in a more successful league performance in 2007-08 that very likely would have ended in the professional 3rd Liga. Since then, the board and the club president have acted in an irresponsible manner, first declaring a two-year plan, but then backtrackung and firing Linz in the middle of year one.

The question is what to do about all that? The supervisory board has to step in and act, preferably by replacing both president and managing director. The question of whether or not there is a suitable successor can not govern the issue of whether the people currently at the helm are capable of guiding the club into professional football – and quickly too. This question is settled thoroughly by a look at Magdeburg’s past placements: 2006-07 3rd in tier III, 2007-08 11th in tier III, 2008-09 4th in tier IV. 2009-10 13th in tier IV after three matches. The current board do not know what to do.

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