Club of the Month: Holstein Kiel

Photo: PA

ALL over Europe, smaller clubs have been coming up through the ranks. In Italy, Spain and England, some of the less celebrated football institutions have achieved promotion not once but twice in a relatively small timeframe. In Germany, the Bundesliga has seen the rise of Ingolstadt, Hoffenheim and Darmstadt. Below the top flight, there are other clubs making their mark. In Bundesliga 2, Holstein Kiel are an example of rapid acceleration from the regional leagues to the second level of German football.

Holstein Kiel are not a new club by any means. Founded in 1900, they were German champions in 1912, thanks to a 1-0 win against Karlsruher in Hamburg in the final. The winning goal was scored by German international Ernst Möller, who four years later was a casualty of war, just like his team-mate Willi Fick. The Holstein team included a number of players who appeared in the German Olympic team of 1912.

For many years, though, Holstein Kiel disappeared from view, although in 1965, they almost gained entry to the Bundesliga. To quote the club’s press chief, Wolf Paarmann, the club made a lot of mistakes in the 1980s and 1990s and had a bad public image, playing in front of 200-odd people.

Their current trajectory saw them rise from the Oberliga Nord in 2008 to the Regionalliga Nord into 3.Liga and back to the region in 2010. In 2013, they were promoted from the Regionalliga Nord and then won a place in 2.Bundesliga at the end of 2016-17.

Kiel is the capital of the state of Schleswig-Holstein. The city has a population of just under 250,000 and is closely linked with sailing and handball. Compared to some of the league’s bigger clubs, such as Union Berlin, St. Pauli, Nürnberg and Dynamo Dresden, the media profile is quite low, which Paarmann says suits Kiel. “People are very relaxed and we can concentrate on the sport and build a strong team spirit at the club,” he says.

Paarmann credits the club’s coach with driving the Holstein Kiel to its current position near the top of 2.Bundesliga. Cologne-born Markus Anfang arrived in 2016 after his predecessor started the 2016-17 season badly. Anfang had previously been a youth coach at Bayer Leverkusen. “He was relatively unknown at the time,” recalls Paarmann. “But his system worked for our team. He likes an offensive style with lots of running and pressing.”

Holstein Kiel won promotion in 2016-17, finishing runners-up to MSV Duisberg. “Suddenly, we realised that the city was behind us, with 10,000 people attending a party at the town hall to celebrate promotion and since then our crowds have almost doubled at our games,” says Paarmann.

The attraction of second tier football has meant that Holstein Kiel’s homely stadium is packed for every home game. The ground, the Holstein-Stadion, has a capacity of around 10,500 but will be expanded in the near future. “Our stadium is not big enough for 2.Bundesliga, but in time we hope to have a 25,000 ground with the facilities that enable us to generate income. The stadium belongs to the city, but our training facilities, which are excellent, are ours.” 

The Holstein Kiel squad

Goalkeeper Defence Midfield Attack
Kenneth Kronholm

32 year-old German-American. Ex-Elversberg.

Patrick Herrmann (29)

Formerly with Osnabrück.

Kingsley Schindler (24), Hamburg-born, signed from Hoffenheim. Marvin Ducksch (23), German youth international, on loan from St.Pauli.
  Niklas Hoheneder (31) Austrian u-21 international signed from Paderborn. Tom Weilandt (25), on loan from Bochum. Aaron Seydel (21), joined from Mainz in the summer.
  Rafael Czichos (27), captain. Saudi-born who was previouslty with Rott-Weiss Erfurt. Dominick Drexler (27), former Aalen midfielder from Bonn.  
  David Kinsombi (22) signed on a free from Karlsruher. Steven Lewerenz (26). Hamburg-born, signed from Würzburger Kickers.  
  Johannes van den Bergh

(31) – ex-Borussia Mönchengladbach, but signed from Getafe.

Alexander Mühling (25), right-sided midfielder, ex-Sandhausen.  
  Dominik Schmidt (30) Berliner signed from Münster. Dominic Peitz (33), Versatile midfielder, ex-Karlsruher.  

Holstein Kiel, nicknamed Die Störche (the storks), have surprised many teams this season, but the prospect of winning a second successive promotion and gaining entry to the Bundesliga, is not something people are thinking too much about. “It is a very big step,” insists Paarmann. “It is not our immediate target as our stadium isn’t good enough and clubs like Bayern Munich, Schalke and Dortmund are so far away from where we are. If it happens, we will deal with it, but it is not our priority.”

Perhaps the immediate concern is keeping together a group of players who have outperformed this season. “Many of our players were too good for 3.Liga and have adapted well in the second league. Some had found themselves playing in a lower level than their ability and had not had the chance to show what they could do. Now we are in the second league, they have that chance and our system is working well for them,” says Paarmann.

Their star player so far this season is arguably Dominick Drexler, a 27 year-old from Bonn who was previously with VFR Aalen.  Up front, a young striker on loan from St. Pauli, Marvin Duksch, and a former German youth international, is their leading scorer with 10 goals. And at the back, Holstein Kiel rely on their skipper, Saudi-born Rafael Czichos. Despite regular interest being shown from English scouts, the club aims to retain its best assets. “We don’t want to sell as we want to keep this team together for as long as possible. We’ve been on an interesting journey and we want that to continue,” says Paarmann.

Holstein Kiel’s 2017-18 season

Home                                                                                        Away

1 Sandhausen D2-2   2 Union Berlin L3-4
3 Greuther Fuerth W3-1   4 Regensburg W2-1
5 Kaiserslautern W2-1   6 Erzgebirge W3-0
7 St.Pauli L0-1   8 Duisberg W3-1
9 Bochum W3-0   10 Heidenheim W5-3
11 Arminia Bielefeld W2-1   12 Darmstadt D1-1
13 Dynamo Dresden W3-0   14 Nürnberg D2-2
15 Ingolstadt D0-0   17 Braunschweig D0-0
16 Fortuna Düssel. D2-2   18 Sandhausen L1-3
19 Union Berlin D2-2   20 Greuther Fürth D0-0


Many thanks to Wolf Paarmann for his time.


The perils of being promoted

SPAL enjoy the moment. Photo: PA

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN have made a perfect start to the Premier League season, but as any cliché-spouting football manager will tell you, the competition is a marathon not a sprint. First-time success in the top flight in England – or any other major league – is hard to achieve and the likelihood is the Terriers will be thankful to have survived come the end of the campaign. There are not many occasions like Nottingham Forest’s 1978 Football League championship triumph or even RB Leipzig’s Bundesliga success of 2017.

For most clubs, retaining their top division place is the priority and the prospect of relegation is a painful thought. Across Europe’s “big five”, the status of the second tier varies significantly. Football Benchmark’s latest paper, Aspiration and Reality[1], looks at the structure and mechanics of these leagues and, unsurprisingly, the two most successful competitions come from England and Germany.

Indeed, these two are the only ones that attract double figure average attendances – Germany’s average was almost 22,000 in 2016-17 and England’s 20,000-plus. However, it should be noted that these statistics were boosted by the presence of Newcastle United (51,000 av.) and VFB Stuggart (51,000), both of whom were promoted back to the top tier.

The gap between the top and second levels is considerable across most of Europe and is expected to continue widening, which underlines the importance of so-called “parachute payments” for relegated clubs.

Although promoted clubs benefit from the lucrative media rights that the top division offers, it is a big ask to successfully transition to their elevated status in life. Increasingly, new challengers are finding themselves in exalted company – for example, Italy has had a stream of unfancied clubs arriving in Serie A – Crotone, Sassuolo, Carpi, Frosinone and now SPAL and Benevento. While this provides some romantic stories for the media, competing against some of the luminaries of Italian football is daunting for small clubs that have worked their way through the system. The question is how long they can sustain that level, although Sassuolo, who were tipped to make a swift return to Serie B, enjoyed European football in 2016-17. Generally, Italian promoted clubs have to work hard to stand still – and in 2016-17, the average position of the three who came up in 2016 (Cagliari, Crotone and Pescara) was 16th, with Pescara relegated back to Serie B.

In Germany, the story was different in 2016-17, with Freiburg and Leipzig finished seventh and second respectively. This season, the Bundesliga will benefit from the crowd potential of its newly promoted clubs, Stuttgart and Hannover, but it is unlikely that the two teams will produce title-chasing teams in 2017-18.

In Spain, Girona – more famous for its airport than its football – could fare better than people think. The club, playing in La Liga for the first time, has been bought by the City Football Group, owned by Sheikh Mansour, the owner of Manchester City. Spain’s top division is less of a hurdle for promoted clubs, as the performance of last season’s three clubs demonstrated. Only one, Osasuna, suffered relegation and over the past five years, only three have gone down straight away.

In France, Troyes have returned for the third time in five years to Ligue 1, but the team from the Champagne region will be hoping that the 2017-18 season does not go the same way as their two previous Ligue 1 campaigns when Troyes suffered relegation. In 2016-17, only one of the three promoted clubs went down at the first time of asking, but in recent years, five of nine clubs have lasted just one season.

The demands of the English Premier are already putting pressure on Newcastle as their manager, Rafa Benitez, has gone public in admitting his squad is not good enough. It is now 90 years since Newcastle United won the top prize, marking them as one of the great under-achievers in modern football, with a record that suggests that even with the many advantages they have, critical mass is not enough. Hence, smaller clubs like Burnley, Bournemouth and Watford have had more success in recent years than one of English football’s truly large and systemically important institutions.

The three clubs that went up to the Premier in 2016 produced an average finish of more than 17th, making it the hardest league to endure. In fact, two of the three, Middlesbrough and Hull, were relegated at the first time of asking. The odds are that at least one of Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield will suffer the same fate as almost half of all promoted clubs in the past five years have lasted just one season. The best performance has been West Ham United’s 10th place in 2012-13.

Which makes it all the more vital that the promoted clubs don’t become overawed in the early weeks of the season. Down the decades, some clubs have come out of the traps with all guns blazing. In 1971-72, Sheffield United topped the ladder in the early weeks of the campaign but had to settle for mid-table respectability. Watford, in 1982-83 managed to finish runners-up, while Crystal Palace’s “team of the 80s” had a great start to 1979-80 but ran out of steam and were placed 13th in the final reckoning. It is, indeed, a marathon, but Huddersfield (if you take 40 points as survival) only have to get another 34 points.

[1] KPMG Football Benchmark: “Aspiration and reality: Europe’s second-tier leagues”, August 2017.