In the last week of October, FC Magdeburg had their biggest game of the season: a Cup tie against Bayer Leverkusen, a team from the top range of the Bundesliga and regular Champions League participant. It was a fight David vs. Goliath with an unlucky ending for the small club. It was however, a sign that the team is still capable of playing excellent football. And that not all hope may be lost.
Ever since the end of the GDR, FC Magdeburg have tried to reach the realms of professional football. And always failed. Sometimes it was incredibly close, sometimes the gulf between the wish to win promotion and reality of amateur football in the 4th division were as wide as the Baltic Sea. This has become a tradition for Magdeburg over the last 20 years or so.
The Biggest Fish in the Pond
When the Oberliga, the East German pendant to the Bundesliga was dissolved in 1991, and the teams to be integrated into the top 2 division of the western league, Magdeburg managed to secure a play-off spot to qualify for the 2nd Bundesliga from 1991/92. Just as the whole season stood under no good sign, this round of matches saw Magdeburg play 6 games, losing 4 of them with 2 draws. The opposition: Union Berlin, BFC Dynamo and Stahl Brandenburg. Surprisingly, it was the latter who won the play-offs and qualified for the 2nd Bundesliga. With this, the club had set their agenda for the following two decades.
The Amateur-Oberliga, as the 3rd division was forthwith called, was a smorgasbord of former GDR clubs which fell on hard times and some newcomers. Some of the clubs had new names but were the same core: BFC Dynamo turned into FC Berlin but were still disliked by many. Lok Leipzig picked their old name again: VfB Leipzig; 15 years after the Fall of the Wall, the club ceased to exist. There was Halle, the eternal rival and Stendal, another local rival. These clubs normally had no long history in the GDR top flight, if they featured there at all. Lastly, there was Sachsen Leipzig, also disliked and a new arrival in this league.
Arguably, Magdeburg were the biggest fish in the pond. Yet, promotion never happened. All of a sudden those clubs named above performed better, a lot better than Magdeburg. The blue and whites it seemed were insecure and carrying with them the expectations of the big name.
During the 1993/94 season, Magdeburg had to play Union Berlin, Energie Cottbus, and Halle in order to qualify for the newly established Regionalliga. It was a close finish but the team from the Elbe failed to qualify, losing out on goal difference and finished 7th. Since the bigger names were now out of the way, one would have assumed that in the following season 1994/95, promotion was at least achieveable. The result was an abysmal season that saw Magdeburg finish 12th. Things improved a little in 95/96 when a top-10 finish was achieved.
During these years, the average gate figure plumeted from just around 1000 to 444 in 94/95 and increased again the following year. Once there was more competition, the team better balanced, Magdeburg pushed for promotion and duly won. It was close as the graphic shows.
There seems to a simple explanation to this. Once Magdeburg face opposition that know how to play, who appear to have a game plan, they play, too. If there is a team such as SV Kahla, only known in East Germany for the procelain manufacture, there is a chance the team will leave the pitch as losers. In the season 96/97 both games ended in a draw.
Fast forward 2014.
Once more Magdeburg have had a very bad period during the season losing 4 times in a row between the end of September and Mid-October. During this period, Magdeburg have not played badly. It seems they were unlucky in most games and were dominant throughout.
Then there was the game against Leverkusen. David vs. Goliath, we have all heard those comparisons before. Clearly, for Leverkusen there were motivational problems. Once they conceded after 28 minutes, they became increasingly frustrated. There is a proverb in Germany stating that the DFB-Cup has its own laws. And more often than not this happens to be true. In extra time Magdeburg took the lead again with a superb goal. That Leverkusen were extremely lucky is not to say that Magdeburg lost their nerves totally. Quite the opposite. It was very good goal keeping from Bernd Leno for Leverkusen to get into the next round.
Opponents not Victims
This is a bold statement and probably harsh on some team and may cause some consternation. But this is essentially what Magdeburg need. There has to be an opponent that knows how to play in order to give Magdeburg room for their own game. This is somewhat also a narrow approach. But history of the last 20 years suggests that the lesser known the opposition the more tightened up are Magdeburg and thus more likely to bottle the game. The evidence suggests that if the team is well balanced, which it has been since 2013, then there is every chance, bigger opposition will run into trouble against Magdeburg. It happened to AC Milan in 1974, it happened to FC Cologne, Bayern, Karlsruher SC in the 2000 DFB-Cup. At the end of the season Magdeburg once more got promoted after destroying BFC in the play-offs. Alas, financially, Magdeburg is a minnow and the joy did not last long. Those lessons have been learned.
What has not been adhered to is implant a game plan against any kind of opposition, either sitting deep or playing forward. If any one coach could tackle this problem, Magdeburg will only have to care about the balance within the squad. Of course, this is no blue print to success but it will make live easier for the club, the fans, whose patience and nerves more often than not were tested more than was healthy since 1991.
Last season, no one expected Magdeburg to play for promotion. Until April it looked as though they would get through only to lose 1 crucial game against the main comeptitor and they have finished the season in second place. That this automatically awakes desires, is also a normal development. Yet, it would be beneficial, if the club could avoid getting ahead of themselves and tackle the task that are directly in front of them: beating Meuselwitz, Halberstadt and the likes. It is all a matter that is largely decided in the head.