Union Berlin, Urs Fischer and the managerial departure that left staff in tears

A few weeks ago, after Union Berlin lost 2-0 at Werder Bremen, extending their run of successive defeats to 10 matches, I sent a WhatsApp message to one of the supporters who was in the away end to ask him about the game and the mood.

The link to the YouTube video that he sent back tells you all you need to know about how Union Berlin fans felt about Urs Fischer — even when the club was going through the worst sequence of results in their history.

Three thousand supporters were singing the coach’s name over and over again.

Before that Bremen match finished, the club posted a message about Fischer on their official (English) Twitter account: “Urs won’t read this. But he is still the greatest coach we’ve ever had. Results come and go but Eisern and love remain.”

Ultimately, coaches come and go too and, in a development that would have been unthinkable at the start of the season, the Bundesliga club announced on Wednesday morning that Fischer and Union had parted ways. 

Outside the club, the news was met with a sense of inevitability, bearing in mind Union are bottom of the Bundesliga, without a win of any description since August and have lost 13 of their last 14 matches in all competitions.  

Inside the club, the news was greeted with great sadness. Staff at the club’s home at the Alte Forsterei were in tears.

Fischer wasn’t liked at Union Berlin, he was loved — and it is easy to see why.

Appointed in 2018 after spells in his native Switzerland with FC Zurich, Thun and Basel, Fischer won promotion to the Bundesliga with Union in his first season and then took a team widely tipped for relegation to 11th place. In each subsequent year, they went one better than the last, qualifying for the Conference League, Europa League and, finally, the Champions League last season.

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Urs Fischer celebrates leading Union Berlin to the Champions League (Selim Sudheimer/Getty Images)

It has been an astonishing story and Fischer — named manager of the year in Germany in August — has been at the heart of it.

All of which makes it hard — almost impossible in fact — to make sense of how everything has unravelled this season. 

Union have lost nine successive Bundesliga matches since winning 4-1 away at Darmstadt in late August; they are out of the DFB Pokal following defeat at Stuttgart; and have taken one point from four Champions League fixtures.

At another club, the fans would have turned a long time ago and Fischer would have been sacked. But Union aren’t just another club, and Fischer isn’t just another coach.

In the matchday programme ahead of the Bundesliga game against Eintracht Frankfurt on November 4, Union’s president Dirk Zingler wrote about the need to “successfully master the present. Of course, this includes checking who we entrust with the demanding task of getting our team back on track… The answer to the question… is Urs Fischer. And not out of gratitude for his achievements in the past, but because we are convinced that he is an excellent trainer who can solve this difficult task”.

That wasn’t a hollow vote of confidence. Zingler meant every word and stands by those comments today. 

But both Zingler and Fischer knew how difficult the situation had become. They respected and trusted one another, and had been in regular dialogue about the future, not just in the days leading up to his departure. Both agreed some time ago that if Fischer were to leave, it would be done amicably and mutually.

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Urs Fischer remained beloved by Union Berlin fans (Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images)

An understated man who never gave much away in press conferences but always made a point of shaking everyone’s hand afterwards, Fischer had started to look worn down. Some wondered how easy it was for him to leave football behind, especially as his family remained in Switzerland throughout his time at Union.

Looking back, you wonder what psychological damage was done to Fischer and the players during the dramatic Champions League home match against Braga in early October, when Union led 2-0 but somehow conspired to lose 3-2, conceding a 94th-minute goal. As the ball crept inside the far post, Fischer slumped into his seat in the dugout and shook his head in disbelief.

The pain of that defeat was written all over his face at the press conference later. “At some point the question arises: how many more blows can you take?” Fischer asked, mindful that Union had now lost six matches on the spin and, for the second Champions League game in succession, conceded a winning goal in stoppage time. Little did he know at the time that Union would lose their next six fixtures, too.

From afar, it would be easy to look at Union and wonder if they got ahead of themselves at the beginning of the season, started to believe their own hype, raised expectations internally and forgot where they had come from. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. 

Although Union signed the veteran Italian defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus and the Germany international Robin Gosens from Inter Milan in the summer, as well as adding other high-profile names in the shape of David Fofana (on loan from Chelsea) and Kevin Volland from Monaco, their overriding aim never changed. 

“Our goal is Klassenerhalt: to stay in the league,” the club captain Christopher Trimmel told The Athletic in September, the week before the Real Madrid game at the Bernabeu. “There is almost no other Champions League club who will say that. But that is the only goal here. And until we reach that goal, that’s all we’ll talk about.”

That task was brought sharply into focus by the recent Bundesliga losses against Eintracht Frankfurt (3-0 at home) and Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday (4-0 away), leaving Union anchored to the foot of the table.

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Nathan Tella seals Bayer Leverkusen’s 4-0 win over Union – Urs Fischer’s final game in charge (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

It was not just the defeats, but the fact that Union were conceding so many goals – 26 in 11 league games compared to eight at the same point last season. Union’s defensive foundations under Fischer had disappeared and the dismal run couldn’t continue.

On Monday, Zingler and Fischer got together and decided between them that it was best for both parties to make a change. If that makes Fischer’s departure sound easy, it wasn’t. The meeting between Zingler and Fischer was emotional and that was reflected in the statement that Union released 48 hours later.

“Together, we have now come to the conclusion that the time has come to take a different path,” Zingler said. “This is a very sad moment not only for me personally but certainly for the entire Union family. It hurts that we have not managed to break the negative run of recent weeks. 

“I am grateful and proud when looking back on the time we have spent and the successes we have celebrated together. As painful as this separation is, Urs Fischer is leaving as a friend who will always be welcomed by us with open arms.”

There was a sense — and only Fischer knows whether this is the case or not – that a weight had been lifted from the 57-year-old’s shoulders. 

Whether the players were still with him or not, there are only so many times that a manager can stand in front of the same squad after yet another defeat and try to make it sound as though everything is going to be fine.

“The last few weeks have cost a lot of strength,” Fischer reflected. “We’ve tried a lot, and the team has put in a lot of effort, but it hasn’t paid off in terms of results. I am very grateful for the confidence I have always felt here. Nevertheless, it feels right to make a change now. Sometimes a different face, a different way of addressing a team, helps to spark a development.”



Iron in The Blood: ‘Too many defeats put the whole thing in danger’ for Union Berlin

Initially, that different face will be Marco Grote, Union’s under-19 coach, who will be joined by his assistant Marie-Louise Eta. 

The early indications are that Grote and Eta will be given the next three fixtures –the Bundesliga matches against Augsburg and Bayern Munich, with a Champions League tie at Braga in between – while Union search for Fischer’s successor. What is clear is that Union will not be recruiting from the regular list of Bundesliga candidates. 

As for Fischer, he needs a break. Fly-fishing is his thing and it is easy to imagine him losing himself by the water over the weeks and months ahead. “I can completely shut everything else out,” Fischer told Textilvergehen, an Union Berlin blog, in an interview last year.

It’s the end of an era for Union – but one they will never forget.

(Top photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images)

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