It's been a whirlwind season for Hertha Berlin and now, with eight games left to play and Pal Dardai back in charge for the remainder of the season with the Old Lady sitting just outside the relegation zone, tensions are high at the Olympiastadion.
Perfect time, then, to face city rivals Union Berlin in your first derby as a coach. Pal Dardai sits down with bundesliga.com ahead of his first Berlin city over the Easter weekend to discuss having two Berlin-based Bundesliga clubs, his side's battle against relegation and what it takes to motivate his players for the fight ahead...
bundesliga.com: First of all, a belated Happy Birthday. Which day did you allow yourself to indulge in more glasses of red wine? On your birthday last week or after the 3-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday?
Pal Dardai: "I think the birthday on Friday was more. After the game against Leverkusen, I had a few over on my balcony, we talked a lot, looked at the goals and everything that happened on Sky, which is something you gladly do after a win, and we didn't drink much. I think it was more of an evening for cigars, we talked a lot and enjoyed each other's company with a cigar that day."
bundesliga.com: Was your son and Hertha defender, Marton Dardai, allowed to drink a glass with you, or perhaps even smoke a cigar?
Dardai: "It's very interesting. I have three sons, Palko wouldn't touch a drop of any alcohol, then I have Marton, who would say it's not really his thing when I give him a glass of wine but would drink a bit at something like a birthday. And Bence, the youngest, when he has a taste, he'll say 'Dad, that's good'. So all three are different. I think with Marton it's difficult, he doesn't really drink, maybe later."
bundesliga.com: That was a very important win for Hertha. How was the atmosphere after the game? How big a relief was this for the team and what is the significance of the win?
Dardai: "It does have meaning because if we take away the first half against Stuttgart and the second half against Dortmund, then we've looked really good, very organised, created chances and taken nothing. We started the game well and this time we were effective, you score the goals and it was a really great day. But it wasn't much of a big celebration because you're still low in the table, you know what the situation is and need to keep that intensity going. It wasn't a relegation game where you win and then breathe a sigh of relief, it doesn't work like that. We have to keep working hard, which is hard to do with the international break as half the players are away, but those still here have to keep working, they're staying healthy, so we have a good bunch of 15 or 16 players still here and they have to be ready, who knows what will happen. That's why we'll keep working hard."
bundesliga.com: After the game, you criticised your defence a bit, why? They managed to keep a clean sheet.
Dardai: "Yeah, though there were shots on goal and scoring chances and if they were more effective or we had a stroke of bad luck, then it could be 3-3 at half-time and I don't want that. It's an organisational matter. If there are players on my side but the other side is empty, it can come back to bite you later, I don't want that. So it had to be addressed, there were also times when we defended too deep, against the plan, which you have to take control of as a coach and it requires some criticism because you can't just say that everything is wonderful, that won't help us progress and I feel that we can do even better."
Watch: Highlights of Hertha's 3-0 win over Leverkusen!
bundesliga.com: The next game on Easter Sunday is against Union Berlin at the Alten Försterei. What emotions does that game bring out of you and what is the importance of this game for you as a coach? It is, after all, your first city derby.
Dardai: "Back in the day, we had friendlies with Union and the older gentleman tournaments every year, which I experience live and play against Union. But if I'm completely honest, I think the derby story is generated more by the media. We get on well with the Union players, I think the two sets of fans get on fine, they never have huge problems such as violence. Both clubs have great fan culture and core fan groups, we're very proud of that and we see in the winter indoor tournaments that they get on well, even though there are 30 percent Hertha fans and 60 percent Union fans. Nevertheless, there's a good atmosphere, regardless of who wins. Also the players, among each other, of course, will give everything for 90 minutes to win for them and their fans, to make them happy after the game and enjoy the effects of winning a derby. Based purely on tradition, I think we have more of a derby feel against Schalke, not a city derby but a different history. And here, even when we play against Union's youth teams, the coaches get on well, they share information, help each other out, play friendlies against each other as they have a good academy. I think it comes from the media. It's important for us because we want to do it for the fans and have a good feeling, but in terms of tradition, it's not like 1860 and Bayern. It was once an east and a west club, Union Berlin have become a big business with the Bundesliga. I have great respect for them and now we play each other regularly. It's always a great day, everyone looks forward to it, but it's always fair."
bundesliga.com: Even in the pandemic, the derby electrifies the entire city. Does the team feel that? Does it call for special preparation? Do you need to explain its importance to the new and foreign player, or do they already appreciate its importance?
Dardai: "To explain it properly, of course, you do that but you don't want to have over-motivated players as you'll end up with five yellow cards and a red after a few minutes, you need to manage it. And in our situation, it's important no matter what, you need to win if you want to have a more relaxed atmosphere and add another win, that would be a nice situation. But at the moment, Union are a good team, a compact team, though they make mistakes and we know that, we also do and they know it. That's simply analysis and tactics and preparation, then you need to be in good form on the day, if we have that, then we'll win."
Watch: Hertha were 3-0 winners in the meeting with Union earlier this season
bundesliga.com: What do you think of the development and performance of Union and the work being done by Urs Fischer?
Dardai: "I believe it's not just down to the coach's work, of course, he's doing a great job, but the entire club throughout the years, as I've observed, deserves huge respect and should be proud of it. I see it in the youth work, with the senior team and the stadium, how they activated the fans and the fan culture, it's great. They should be proud of that and nevertheless, we're Hertha BSC, don't get me wrong but when you look at the academy, it's no accident that many big players came from it. I think we've gained an advantage over the years and the experience. If you look at the last 20 years of the Bundesliga, when I first came here in 1996, we were promoted again. We have a huge tradition, huge amount of experience. It's great for the city but while we talk about Union having more points, we have the experience of everything that has happened in the Bundesliga in recent years, which gives us a small advantage."
bundesliga.com: It is likely, within a strict hygiene protocol of a pilot project, that there will be a few hundred fans allowed in the Alten Försterei. They are likely to be Union fans. Is that a problem for you?
Dardai: "No, absolutely not. No player would say that's a problem. It's important that they're there, it's an extra motivation for us and if we lead, then it will be an advantage for us because we don't know what they'll do to their own team if we take the lead. I don't see any disadvantages, if it's possible with the hygiene concept and people can come into the stadium, it's simply great."
bundesliga.com: In the end, who is number one in the city? They who earn the most points in the two meetings, or they who finish higher in the league?
Dardai: "I say that the number one in the city is the next, or the first, to win the DFB Cup final. They have the right to say we're number one. Everyone is working so long and hard to make their fans happy but both Union and Berlin have a lot more to do in terms of setting goals and achieving them."
bundesliga.com: Do you believe this city can handle two clubs in the Bundesliga? And if so, why?
Dardai: "I think it's very good and again I'll mention the youth teams. We're talking about five million people, 3.5 in the city, and very many young kids who want to become footballers. And if we and Union can take in 40 kids in every age group, they're in good hands, and that counts. They learn, they develop as people, both clubs do that very well and therefore, the longer both clubs play Bundesliga, the better it is for the city, the sponsors and the parents. What both clubs do for the youth and the fans is exemplary and it's great to have two clubs."
bundesliga.com: Who contacted you in January and offered you to take the head coach job at Hertha again? How long did you think about it and what discussions did you have with the Dardai family? Or was it immediately a matter of the heart?
Dardai: "First of all, Arne [Friedrich] and Carsten Schmidt got in touch and said they wanted to talk. I said yes and invited them to my home, my wife was there, they then outlined what they wanted and I said no because this wasn't planned and the situation wasn't straightforward. I already thought about what they wanted and if you're honest, we're exactly where we imagined we would be. Only with some kind of miracle, with two wins, then everything will be better but I saw the team's body language among other things, it's difficult and you don't have two months to build something. I believe there are the small things, consider the way we played against Augsburg, then we lose against Leverkusen and then where are you. But thankfully, the players listened, remained disciplined, I told them at half-time what wasn't working and luckily for me, the team listened and knew what I wanted and we won both of these games. They were the two crucial games that if we did not win, it doesn't matter how much a player costs or what the situation is, it gives players self-confidence and then you know what. We're happy that we won these games and we can build something from this, if we continue to listen and work together, then we'll have no problems."
When you took over on Matchday 19, Hertha were 14th with 17 points. After eight games as coach, you're still 14th with seven more points. Admittedly, the top six were among those eight opponents, a tough block of games. The rest of the fixtures is significantly easier. Where does the journey go for the final eight games?
Dardai: "You can never say what is easy and what is difficult but in terms of the psychological situation, there was nothing to be gained, only with a bit of luck and despite that difficult run of games, we're not in the relegation zone. Now we have a run of games that look somewhat better for us but they will be fights for life and death, which you have to win. Of course, they have quality but if we keep working hard and have some good fortune then we'll be fine but there are question marks over who will have Corona, who will be injured. Last week, I had a full squad, in Dortmund, there were important players I couldn't take with me, it's a big variable. When everything runs smoothly, we shouldn't have any problems."
bundesliga.com: How important would it be to have the likes of Sami Khedira, with his experience and as a leader, on the pitch, or will it be okay without the 2010 World Cup winner?
Dardai: "I believe a healthy Sami Khedira helps us, as a person and a player with his experience, aura and intelligence but he's not fit. We tried but unfortunately, he hasn't been able to help as we had imagined because of the calf injury, which we have to sort out. I'll be delighted if he can help us out at the end of the season but I cannot have any great hopes for an injured player because he hasn't played much in recent years. Primarily, I'm happy that [Lucas] Tousart, [Matteo] Guendouzi and [Santiago] Ascacibar do such a good job in the middle, then I'll be happy if [Matheus] Cunha stays fit, if [Dodi] Lukebakio maintains the form he showed at the weekend, with [Jhon] Cordoba and [Krzystzof] Piatek we have goal scorers, so what we have built here works and it has to continue that way. If Sami can come in and help, then great, but at the moment it's the other way around, this team can help him because he's not fit. Therefore the question has been manipulated."
bundesliga.com: Centre-back and captain Dedryck Boyata is also missing but you found a good replacement in the young Marton Dardai. The 19-year-old is playing well and consistently. How do you rate his performances as his coach?
Dardai: "First of all, it's important to say that I'm talking about three players here, Marton Dardai, [Niklas] Stark and [Lukas] Klünter, when you analyse them you see they work together. The opposition cannot press us, we can play through the first line of the press, all of them are incredibly quick, they can run 30 metres in under four seconds. Marton Dardai is among the top 10 over 10 metres and I know how he is. When you ask a coach from the youth academy, it's no surprise to see how he's playing. For you and many others, you ask how can he do it at 19, that's the way he is. At 15, he played like a 30-year-old and they say the same now at 19. He just has to stay healthy. He gets a lot of respect from me because he's also studying in his room all the time but can come to training and stay concentrated. It works not only because he's so good but because that backline is so good and when you have Maxi Mittelstadt or another from the wing coming in to help, they do a great job in my opinion and are making a good impression."
bundesliga.com: A good coach shows his qualities when making individual players better. You've mentioned some players, where it has worked but didn't mention Deyovaisio Zeefuik. Which buttons have you pushed with him?
Dardai: "I'm not telling you rubbish, you can check the statistics. That's my strength, also with young players, to get the best out of players. A kind word with some, a cruel word with another, some with more training, others with less, to judge that and figure it out. With him I said 'Okay Deyo, please listen to what I said on TV, that's not alright. I see your pace, you come from Holland, I know you're a different footballer'. I know how Dutch players play and think because my coaching methods are 80 percent Spanish and Dutch, and I asked him for a bit of patience and to learn. Eventually, he came to me and asked for a word, where he just wanted to say it was good training and that he's finally happy and just wants to be part of the squad, which is important to him. I said, let's do it this way, we haven't spoken yet, you don't know me yet. With Pal Dardai, there are players who go from the stands right into the starting 11, that's the way it is. He looked at me and wondered if I was talking nonsense but I only tell players the truth. And that's what happened. I threw him straight in, he was surprised but did his job very well. I took him off because of match fitness, wondering if he could go longer than 60 minutes, then built on that, playing with three at the back with Deyo, three at the back with Maxi, Lucas Tousart in front, it works. Up front, they have begun to figure it out among themselves, when they do that and we remain solid at the back, then we can become a top team. But that took weeks and it takes time and I'm happy that Deyo worked his way in, it's great. And wait, I'm not alone in this. I have a coaching team, the fitness coach, the assistant coach are a part of this, sometimes I ask them to have a word, I cannot do it all by myself. It takes a bit of manipulation to get the best out of them."
bundesliga.com: Apropos players with the name Dardai, Marton's brother Palko, who also played for Hertha and is now in Hungary with Fehervar FC, is injured and has to miss the U21 European Championship in his second home Hungary. How is he, physically and mentally?
Dardai: "I think Palko is enjoying the situation he's in. It's a very good club, well organised, a good place and he's getting game time, which is not easy in Corona times, getting into game mode and changing clubs. Now he's had a bit of bad luck, it's not a bad injury but he cannot take the risk with a muscle tear and withdrew from the tournament. But he has settled in well, the players rate him and the club is happy with him. I expected it would be half a year of settling in and then going for it the next year but he's already going for it and that's positive, so he should keep playing, playing, playing, gaining experience in men's football. The road to Germany or other countries is there and if he stays at Fehervar it's also great because it's a great club. His first sentence after he arrived was 'I'll never leave here' because it's a good club with good people and well-organised. Palko is a kind-hearted person, so that means a lot to him, he's getting used to it, already knows some people and it works well."
bundesliga.com: Would you like to be the head coach of Hertha beyond 2022?
Dardai: "First of all, it's important for me that we don't get relegated, then we can sit down and discuss many things but I won't jump over the primary target, staying up. It's difficult and will be difficult, so you can ask me in the press conference after the last game. I won't talk about that today."
bundesliga.com: Which headline would you like to read about yourself at the end of this season?
Dardai: "One weekend before the last game, I want to read that the rescue was perfectly executed and that means that we made it and the final game is not important, I'd gladly read that."