Darmstadt are targeting an immediate return to the Bundesliga. Led by Aytac Sulu – the top-scoring defender in Europe the season before last; apparently supported by a certain Barack Obama; and drawing on the spirit of football’s bravest fan, Johnny Heimes, who would back against them?
bundesliga.com sat down with the Lilies’ captain after the club’s 2-2 draw with English Championship side Fulham – in which he scored at either end of the pitch - to find out more…
bundesliga.com: Aytac Sulu, you scored at both ends. How did that happen?!
Aytac Sulu: We’re now a bit more offensive, so our goalkeeper is also more offensive. When I wanted to play backwards, Ferro [Darmstadt ‘keeper Daniel Heuer Fernandes] moved a little to the right - and I couldn’t play the pass I wanted to any more. But: It’s better that this happens now than in the games to come!
bundesliga.com: But overall it was a good test, wasn’t it?
Sulu: Looking at the game as whole, we had more of the game, more possession. We won our 50/50s. We’re still missing a bit of match fitness but that’s normal at this stage. I think we’ll be ready for Greuther Fürth [on Matchday 1].
Watch: The best of Darmstadt's two-year stay in the Bundesliga
bundesliga.com: There is a lot of competition for places this season. Is that a good thing?
Sulu: Yes, definitely. We have two players for every position and everyone has the right to play. We have seen over the summer that there has been barely any dip in performance, regardless of who the opponent has been. It’s a big plus being able to measure yourself against a direct opponent in the team. Those who don’t play at first must keep their level up, stay determined and be ready when called upon.
bundesliga.com: In recent seasons Darmstadt would not have been one of the favourites for promotion, but that’s no longer the case. How do you deal with that pressure?
Sulu: I think there are many favourites in Bundesliga 2. Six or seven clubs have explicitly said that their goal is promotion, and the rest will be looking to bring them down to Earth. We have to consider also that we have signed many players who are new to the league. I don’t think we’re among the big favourites but we’re not going to sell ourselves short.
bundesliga.com: The perception of Darmstadt has changed a little. In Kevin Großkreutz and Hamit Altintop, you have prominent players in the squad. Coach Torsten Frings is confident that some teams will defend against you the way you did against teams in the top flight…
Sulu: Yes, we need to be prepared for that happening quite often. But we’re more than ready for that eventuality. We’re ready for anything: pressing opponents and also those who sit back.
bundesliga.com: Darmstadt have been significantly more attacking since Frings took over [the former Germany midfielder succeeded Norbert Meier in December]. Has he continued with this philosophy?
Sulu: I think so. We also play shorter passes now and try to have a player open all the time so that a long ball is not the only option. We have worked hard to improve upon this. Team spirit has been first and foremost.
Watch: A tribute to Johnny Heimes, who sadly passed away in March 2016 after a brave battle against cancer
bundesliga.com: You spoke of a “small upheaval” over the summer [Michael Esser, Jerome Gondorf and Mario Vrancic have joined Hannover, Werder Bremen and Norwich respectively]. But with you, Peter Niemeyer, Sandro Sirigu and Hamit Altintop the spine of the team is still there. Could this be an advantage?
Sulu: Yes, I think so. It’s a good thing to have experienced players who have been around for a long time. We also have players who simply ooze class. Kevin [Großkreutz] and Hamit [Altintop] are used to the second tier. This could prove to be a big bonus.
bundesliga.com: The mood in the squad seems to be extremely upbeat. You can feel the anticipation for the coming season…
Sulu: If you compare our preparation between this year and last then there’s already a huge difference. Perhaps it’s easier if players are willing to integrate. We now have a very good mix between players, old and new. The new players want to really get behind what Darmstadt is all about. It’s infectious.
bundesliga.com: Were you one of the first to know about Altintop’s contract extension last Thursday?
Sulu: Yes, I knew, but I couldn’t tell anyone! That morning I was told that we’d be getting a new striker, with Artur Sobiech coming from Hannover, and that Hamit had extended. I had to keep it to myself in training that day. It was difficult. My brother wrote to me asking “what about Hamit?” and I couldn’t even tell him!
bundesliga.com: Did you have direct contact with Hamit?
Sulu: Yes, I messaged him again and again, asking what was happening now and why it was taking so long.
bundesliga.com: He wanted to miss out on pre-season training...
Sulu: Haha! Yes, I was thinking that! But I have to say he’s relatively fit. He might not be 100 percent match fit but he still has his touch, as you could see against Fulham. He hasn’t forgotten how to play. With his ability I’d play an unfit Hamit! He knows when to change the pace of the game. This is very important for us.
bundesliga.com: Listening to you it is apparent that you’re very optimistic for the season ahead. What would constitute a good season for Darmstadt?
Sulu: Woah, that’s a difficult question to answer. Of course, I’m one of those that wants to return to the Bundesliga as quickly as possible. But in the second tier there are many teams who want to get promoted. We have to get used to the rough and tumble of Bundesliga 2. We need to start well and then take it from there.
Sulu was speaking to Tobias Schächter