SPVGG Furth – The German Hoops

As regular readers will be aware, we follow with interest the progress of our old friends from St. Pauli in their quest to rejoin the Bundesliga. Joining them in the BL2 after being relegated last season will be another famous old German club with more than a passing interest for anyone who has encountered the Greuther Furth fans who follow Celtic on their European trips.

Bernd Stefes takes up the story of the Shamrocks from Nuremberg.

Finally, after decades of striving, the eternal bridesmaids of Greuther Fürth tied the Bundesliga knot last season.

Greuther Fürth had been in the second division since 1997. In most of the 15 seasons since, the side looked set for promotion, only to choke at the final hurdle – but not in 2012.

The German Bundesliga had a fresh face last season, Greuther Fürth.

Dynamo Dresden’s 2-1 win against Fortuna Düsseldorf on Monday April  9th handed Fürth – a team that has flirted with promotion so often only to fail to reach the top flight – their golden ticket into the top league. By losing, Fortuna missed their chance to overtake third-placed SC Paderborn, already effectively out of reach of the league leaders.

The top two teams from division two are automatically promoted to the Bundesliga, at the expense of that league’s bottom two teams; the third-placed team takes on the third-to-last Bundesliga team over two legs in a relegation playoff.

Fürth coach Mike Büskens had attended the game in Dresden, and told reporters afterwards that “the lads should really celebrate this one.”

He was referring to an impromptu party staged at the side’s home stadium on the Monday evening, where players and fans had watched the Düsseldorf defeat on big screens, knowing its potential significance.

Not only that, but they raised several eyebrows in the German Cup that year. The lower league underdogs made it all the way to the semi-finals, beating mid-table Bundesliga sides Hoffenheim and Nuremberg en route to the last four. That season’s champions, Borussia Dortmund, who were unbeaten in a record 25 Bundesliga games, needed extra time and some last minute madness to scrape past Fürth 1-0 and make the final.

The Shamrocks had looked on course for promotion so often in the past, only to stumble across the finish line. Fürth finished fifth seven times and fourth once in their last ten attempts at reaching the Bundesliga.

Their quest at top division football goes back an awful long way. Spielvereinigung Greuther Furth is one of the long-time German football clubs that, until then, had never been able to make it to the top flight since its formation in 1963.

Formed on the 25 September 1903, Spielvereinigung Furth chose GREEN and WHITE as their club colours and a SHAMROCK for their crest which is the reason why the club has the nickname of Die Kleeblatter (the Shamrocks). This particular shamrock is taken from the Furth town coat of arms.

The club’s most famous supporter is Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State. He was born in Furth and watched a lot of games at the Ronhof as a boy. Being a Jew, he had to get out of Nazi Germany to escape the Holocaust. Still today he takes a very great interest in the football team of his birthplace and his big hope is that the Shamrocks will gain promotion to the Bundesliga before he has to leave this world. He is an honorary member of the club something like Rod Stewart and Billy Connolly at Celtic Park.

The Ronhof is the club’s home ground and talk about picturesque! A few years ago it was modernised and became known as the Playmobil Stadium after the well-known toy company which was one of the club’s sponsors. Nowadays the stadium is the Troili Arena, much better in terms of not sounding as though it’s made out of Lego bricks, although bothe names are easier to pronounce for English speakers that the stadium’s original name, the wonderful “Sportplatz am Ronhofer Weg gegenüber dem Zentral-Friedhof (Sports ground on Ronhof Lane opposite the central cemetery).

The Shamrocks were a major force in the early years of German football and were national champions in 1914, 1926 and 1929 as well as runners-up in 1920. (Those were the days when there were only regional leagues in Germany and the championship had to be decided on a play-off basis. This was the system that prevailed until 1963 when the Bundesliga was formed).

After their golden era of the 1920s, the Shamrocks went downhill and had to live (and are still living) in the shadow of their big local rivals, 1 F.C. Nurenberg, winners of nine German Championships between 1920 and 1968 and one of the best supported teams in Germany.

In 1963 Greuther FUrth failed to qualify for the new nationwide Bundesliga and were a second division side until 1983 when they dropped into the local Amateur Oberliga Bayern with a further bout of relegation in 1987 into the Landesliga Bayern Nord; consequently their financial siituation went from bad to worse.

The Martin Bauer Tea Company now saw its chance to exploit the Shamrocks’ tradition and their beautiful Ronhof ground. On 1 July 1996, Spielvereingung Furth amalgamated with T.S.V. Vestenbergsgreuth and Martin Bauer (already the latter’s sponsor) poured money into the new club.

The result was promotion back to the 2nd Bundesliga in 1997 after 14 years in the wilderness of non-League football.

In the summer of 2002, the club introduced the ‘famous’ green and white hooped jersey that we must hope will remain the Shamrocks’ favourite for many years to come.

Nevertheless, after missing out so many times in recent years, Greuther Fürth finally had their chance last season to test their mettle against Germany’s best on a weekly basis.

The adverts on the posters for the 2012-13 Bundesliga season tickets billed it as, “Furth now has 34 new holidays.” And who doesn’t love the holidays?

Except last season’s holidays were more like the ones where the kids whine, the mother-in-law comes to visit, the mood of the wife is becoming increasingly lousy and the planned trip to the countryside falls flat because it’s pouring rain. For the shamrock, the 34 Football League holidays in one were all that and more.

Even before the first holiday took place at all, the general mood had received its first damper as the Shamrocks were shown the red card in the first round of the cup by third division Offenbach.The league season got off to a similar start. No less than FC Bayern guested on the first day in the Ronhof. Against the future champions Fürth felt the chill wind of the top division – despite passionate fighting SpVgg lost 0:3 with Bayern hardly getting out of second gear.

Matchday 2 saw a brief cheer. Mainz is famous for its grapes, but they turned sour for the home side when Felix Klaus secired an away win for the Franconians. But what began brilliantly soon got into a bad habit of losing points at home. Lots of them. Worse still, it wasn’t until October, when the first snowflakes were sweeping through Fürth that the Ronhof fans got to witness their first home goal of the season. The otherwise hapless Edu was the celebrated man for the history books.

The rest of the year was the same, with the team stuttering along at the bottom of the league, with the highlight in November being avoiding defeat at home to visiting local rivals 1FC Nurnberg. A little trash talk between Sararer and Shepherd added some heat to the cold temperature that day.

There was always going to be a mini Bundesliga to be played out between the strugglers and the newly promoted clubs, Dusseldorf, Augsburg and Fürth. On matchday 17 Augsburg came calling. Schwabians are renowned in Germany for their thrift and these stingy Augsburgers were determined not to leave any more than a point behind. Another must win game that wasn’t won.

Fürth started the season with Mike Büskens in charge as head coach. He was used to setbacks while boss at schalke but a 0:3 defeat against Mainz was a horror too far. Ironically, whether Helmut Hack already had his discharge papers prepared to be signed before the away game in Gelsenkirchen is not known. However, the “Oranje Fürth” (the away kit this season was a fetching orange white and green number) showed that Mike’s team still had some breath in it and the Shamrocks won with a late goal iat the home of the Champions League starters.
It was a last gasp: Büskens had gone, the task was now to make the sinking ship again seaworthy.

And was a successor already in the stands? Great excitement as Hack sat chatting in the VIP seats with The Special One, none other than Jose Mourinho. as it turned out, he was there on a spying mission as the opponents that day were Borussia Dortmund. Don’t expect to see any Fürth players on their way to Stamford Bridge in the near future either.

The choice of coach fell on Frank Kramer. A timely appointment as there was resentment stirring in the engine room after the 0-3 debacle against basement competitor Hoffenheim which made the fans livid.

Early in the new year saw the return derby fixture at the home of the noisy and much unloved neighbours. “Do you not dream of Europe,” sang the Cluberers (‘Club’ is the nickname of FC Nurnberg). They’ll be having nightmares of their own after this derby as  John Geis gave Fürth the victory with a long range cracker. The Fürth fans  knew after the holiday Derby: “Soon Paderborn Aue and Aalen are on the menu, but today is celebration time again.”

(Aalen is the name of a team in the second division. It translates into English as ‘Eels’. So, Eels will be on the menu soon… it’s quite funny in German)

By the 34th matchday the Shamrocks were down already and were little more than a lifeboat for Augsburg to get the three points they needed (1:3). The holidays were over. It was the opponents who usually had a good time (although fortunately not the neighbours from the east end). A small consolation for a poor season that brought the winless Shamrocks at home an entry in the history books.

Lack of cleverness and lack of ruthlessness in front of goal cost Fürth one last decent result. Quite an apt summary of the whole season really.

“I would have liked to have seen what would have happened to our opponents if we had taken the lead,” Kramer later mused. So would every other Fürth fan in the stadium.

Despite the lack of a happy ending probably the end of the grueling season felt liberating for the players. Gone are the days of setbacks and undeserved defeats. “If one now goes in the cabin, you will not meet many who would like to continue playing ten games,” admitted Kramer.
He also might have been a breathing a little easier that his commitment turned out not to be a mission of complete failure. At least two wins and a draw could cheer Kramer in nine games.

If not the fans, then at least the coach has no fears about having to reboot the squad in Bundesliga 2 next season. One of the few sensible sentences he once read, Kramer says, was: “A path is made by walking it.” If he was trying to sound like Sepp Herberger of “The ball is round” fame then he did a fairly good job.

What the future will look like not even Kramer is probably sure. The fact is that a total rebuilding job is on the cards. SpVgg is in total upheaval. The bloated 38 player Bundesliga squad has now slimmed down properly. Eleven professionals have already left the club, keeper Max Grün (Wolfsburg), with the homegrown Edgar Prib Edgar and John Geis sitting on packed suitcases. Lasse Sobiech will also return to Dortmund. These players are under contract until 2014 so at least some money will come to the club. Frankfurt was rebuffed with a first offer for Prib. There seems no shortage of interest from the “upper third of the table in the Bundesliga” (Schroeder). “We need to consolidate ourselves in the new season and develop something again, not like Hertha BSC who make a bit of debt in the short-term and hope that the store runs eight weeks later again,” says Kramer.

Furth will return to its roots with relegation. Young players will again be promoted from the youth academy but it will take a while. Fürth have a good reputation for developing players, many of whom go on to successful careers at other teams in the top division. But in the last two years things have stalled.  Thomas Pledl (1860) and Jung Bin Park (Wolfsburg), young talents, were brought in from the outside, but only Ilir Azemi managed the leap into the first team squad from within the ranks. Kramer has identified two or three players in the U23 team but nothing more. Twelfth place in the Regionalliga Bayern suggests there aren’t too many in that side who will satisfy the demands of the Second Division.

On the shopping list will hopefully be a striker and a defensive midfielder. When Frank Kramer returns from his summer holiday in Majorca, the new way of SpVgg will be a little further paved. “We’ll see then how the new team is growing together,” says the coach.

We’ll be following their progress in NTV again this season.

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