Hoffenheim - All's well that ends well and thus it was for TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at a packed-out Fritz-Walter Stadion on the final Monday evening of May. A 2-1 victory over hosts 1. FC Kaiserslautern secured a 5-2 aggregate success in the relegation/promotion play-off, rounding out a miserable season, which had latterly looked destined to end in demotion, on a high note.
All-change under Gisdol and Rosen
The unanticipated turning point came at the start of April, with the appointment of Markus Gisdol as head coach and Alexander Rosen taking up the newly-created post of director of football. "We'd already been written off by then," Rosen admitted at the club's end-of-season 'Bundesliga survival' party.
Not entirely, perhaps, but the outlook was certainly far from rosy when Gisdol received his shotgun promotion from the U23s eight weeks earlier in the wake of Marco Kurz's short-lived tenure as head coach. A protégé of Ralf Rangnick, the mastermind of Hoffenheim's rapid rise from the Regional League to the top flight, Gisdol immediately managed to revitalise a demoralised squad - and support - noting subsequently that, "the players were able and willing to develop as a team within a short space of time. That's what made this minor miracle possible."
It was no magical turnaround, but that new-found team spirit which enabled 1899 to recover from further ensuing setbacks, a capacity which reached its zenith on the final matchday of the regular season. Admittedly they needed a rub or two of the green, as they came from behind courtesy of two late Sejad Salihovic penalties to earn the victory needed at Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund to keep their hopes of Bundesliga survival alive.
But how did things come to such a pass in the first place? The club had gone into the season under Markus Babbel gunning for a place in Europe. They ended it - four coaches, three sporting directors and the deployment of 43 players later - escaping the drop by the skin of their teeth.
The campaign could hardly have got off to a worse start, as 1899 were dumped out of the DFB Cup in the first round by fourth-flight outfit Berliner AK. Things were going far from swimmingly in the Bundesliga either, with big-name summer signings Tim Wiese, Matthieu Delpierre, Joselu and Eren Derdiyok failing to make the anticipated impact as the effective new backbone of the team from the South West.
The arrival of Andreas Müller as sporting director in mid-September, relieving Babbel of that function in order to fully focus on his coaching duties, did nothing to prevent Hoffenheim's gradual slide towards the bottom end of the standings. Two matchdays ahead of the winter break, Babbel was packing his bags, replaced on an interim basis by then-U23 coach Frank Kramer. Both those games ended in defeat and Kramer - since appointed head coach of Greuther Fürth - made way in the New Year for Marco Kurz.
Kurz and Müller brought half a dozen new faces on board during the winter transfer window, but of those only central defender David Abraham and, to a lesser extent, midfielder Eugen Polanski, would go on to make any significant impact post-Christmas. Far from improving under Kurz, Hoffenheim continued to leak goals - their final tally of 67 against was the highest in the division - and slipped from the relegation play-off place into the bottom two.
Hope for the future
By the time Gisdol took up the reins, the team were four points shy of 16th place, with just seven games remaining to turn the situation around. He started off on the right foot with a
3-0 home victory over fellow strugglers Fortuna Düsseldorf, and the chase was on. The return from longer-term injuries of midfield strategists Salihovic and Sebastian Rudy was an added plus for the new coach, as 1899 visibly regained confidence and fluency over the final weeks of the campaign.
Quite aside from their lack of success on the pitch, Hoffenheim also had to deal with the road accident that almost cost Boris Vukcevic his life at the end of September. The 23-year-old midfielder was left in a critical condition and placed in an artificial coma, but is thankfully now on the road to recovery. It has been a turbulent season all-round for 1899 Hoffenheim; with the first act of their own recovery successfully accomplished under Gisdol, the club are now aiming first and foremost for a degree of stability and continuity - with regard, as well, to the great rapport reestablished with the fans over the fraught campaign finale.