On the banks of the mighty Danube sits a city with a long and proud history, the city of Ulm. Located right on the border between Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, Ulm is a city of superlatives. Home to the tallest church in the world and the birthplace of Albert Einstein, Ulmer, the residents of Ulm, have a lot to be proud of. Matching the city’s rich past and tendency toward the extreme is its football scene. The first beginnings of the sport in Ulm can be traced back all the way to the late 19th century, but tangible success in the form of top-level silverware has always eluded the city’s preeminent team, SSV Ulm 1846, making it undoubtedly one of the best examples that there is a lot more to football than just trophies.
When the organization came into being in 1970 via a merger between TSG Ulm 1846 and 1. SSV Ulm 1928, there was a palpable weight of expectation on the shoulders of Die Spatzen’s (the Sparrows’) football department. After all, SSV had become the biggest sports club in the country in terms of membership numbers because of that amalgamation. Living up to that expectation proved to be quite difficult, however. Before the merger, both Ulm clubs struggled to be truly competitive in Germany’s new-look elite football system. Neither team managed to reach the Bundesliga – which was formed seven years earlier – and Ulm 1928, in particular, really struggled to get a proper foothold in post-war Germany.
After almost an entire first decade of heartbreak – Ulm won their provincial amateur competition four times throughout the 70s but always fell short in the promotion round – the Sparrows finally got promoted when a new league with automatic promotion was established in time for the 1978/79 campaign. Ulm triumphed in the inaugural Oberliga Württemberg season and finally reached the southern section of the fledgling 2. Bundesliga. What followed was a truly ridiculous sequence of relegations and promotions.
Following Ulm’s debut 2. Bundesliga season, in which they survived with an unremarkable 16th-placed finish, it was announced that, beginning in 1981, the league would become a single entity with 20 teams. The relegated top-flight sides and the best four of the two 2. Bundesligas would get a place in the unified league, and the rest of the teams would be determined based on their performances over the last three seasons. Due to Ulm playing in the Oberliga and then merely finishing 16th in the second tier, it meant that only coming fourth or higher in 80/81 would be enough to qualify.
Incredibly, they almost pulled it off. Heading into the last game of the season in fifth, Ulm still had the chance to overtake the already-qualified Stuttgarter Kickers who occupied that coveted fourth spot. For that to happen, though, Ulm had to win their game against Ingolstadt, which they did, and the Kickers had to lose to Bayreuth, which, unfortunately for the Sparrows, they didn’t. Stuttgart won 4-1 and Ulm, despite finishing fifth, were relegated back to the Oberliga.
The remainder of the 80s was spent bouncing around between the 2. Liga and the Oberliga on an almost perfectly biennial basis. At the end of the decade, Ulm’s luck ran out and they not only failed to get back up, but they even flirted with relegation to the fourth tier at one point. Things normalized in the mid-90s – Ulm won the Oberliga twice and yet again failed in the promotion round – but after three decades of mediocrity, this supposed powerhouse-in-waiting had lost its luster and was consigned to the status of a minnow by the time the new millennium approached.
Ten years after last kicking a ball in the second division, they finally returned to the 2. Bundesliga in 1998, but they were now operating on the smallest budget in the league and relegation was practically a certainty. However, things didn’t quite pan out that way. To be able to properly grasp what would happen in 1998/99, we have to go back to 1997 and the appointment of a certain Ralf Rangnick as the club’s head coach.
The “football professor” as he has come to be known had already put pen to paper on a deal with Ulm three years earlier but was forced to withdraw from the position due to health concerns. He ended up at fellow Regionalliga Süd (which had replaced the Oberliga in 1994) side Reutlingen, whom he turned from irrelevant also-rans who barely escaped relegation into one of the league’s powerhouses seemingly overnight. In 1997, he again turned up at Ulm – with whom he also spent a year of his playing career – and he would leave an indelible mark on the club. Having just recorded their worst league finish in half a dozen years, Ulm were in poor shape and Rangnick was just the man to fix that.
He abandoned the Sparrows’ drab, uninspiring, almost cliché ‘lower-league’ style of play in favor of his at the time still novel ball-oriented, “extremely potent pressing”, as he described it in a now-iconic contemporary interview with ZDF. Explaining his unorthodox Viererkette (back four), he went on: “We always try to outnumber the ball-carrying opponent with at least one player. Therefore it’s important to have a fundamental structure that gives the player the comfort of knowing that there’s always someone behind them to cover.” This new system worked wonders.
Ulm won the Regionalliga Süd in Rangnick’s first season in charge. That same year, in 1998, Thomas Tuchel, perhaps Rangnick’s most famous protégé and a starter in the backline, was forced to hang up his boots due to injury aged just 25 and moved into coaching. The Swabian minnows signed a few players on free transfers but weren’t able to make a significant splash in the summer window due to their budget constraints. Heading into the upcoming 2. Bundesliga campaign with a Regionalliga squad, the only realistic goal was staying up and even that appeared like wishful thinking at the time.
After matchday three, however, Ulm were top of the table, with wins over Wattenscheid and Karlsruhe to their name and having just destroyed an Arminia Bielefeld side that would go on to win the league that year. Seven matchdays later, the Sparrows were still unbeaten and still top of the table. They had taken the league by storm. Following a few high-scoring draws, Ulm surrendered top spot, although only briefly. On matchday 17, it finally happened: they lost their first game – a 2-0 to Greuther Fürth – but since Unterhaching also dropped points, they were still in pole position.
Order was seemingly restored with a 3-0 win over Wattenscheid, but then disaster struck. Ulm were on the receiving end of an embarrassing 5-1 beatdown by Karlsruhe and, worst of all, Rangnick announced that he was leaving at the end of the season to take over at Bundesliga outfit Stuttgart. The magic dissipated. After the winter break, Bielefeld got their revenge for the 6-2 loss in the Hinrunde by also hanging five on Ulm. A draw with a really poor Köln side and a 2-0 loss to Unterhaching followed; Rangnick subsequently resigned with immediate effect, admitting that promotion was now merely a pipedream for his Ulm team which had slipped from first to fifth.
His replacement, 36-year-old Martin Andermatt, arrived with no expectations whatsoever and perhaps that complete lack of pressure helped the players clear their minds. After draws with Hannover, Gütersloh, a Düsseldorf side that finished rock bottom that season, and Mainz – with none other than Jürgen Klopp marshaling the defense – Andermatt finally got the first win under his belt with a 4-1 victory over St. Pauli. His team was utterly inconsistent, but heading into the final matchday, they were sitting pretty in third, an automatic (and the last) promotion spot. But Karlsruhe were hot on their heels and even Hannover 96 still had the slimmest of chances of coming third.
Karlsruhe only mustered a 1-1 draw with Unterhaching which took them out of the equation, but Hannover beat Wattenscheid and that meant that if Fürth did the double over Ulm, 96 would get promoted. In a tense game at Ulm’s sold-out Donaustadion – with Rangnick in attendance – a nervous home team held firm and kept the clean sheet; this scoreless stalemate was enough to reach the Bundesliga, the Spatzenwunder was accomplished. Ulm, with the smallest budget and a squad that was deemed nowhere near good enough, became just the fifth team to go straight from the Regionalliga to the Bundesliga.
Unfortunately (and somewhat predictably), Ulm’s top-flight adventure was short-lived. Despite looking a good bet to stay up with just a few games remaining, the Sparrows completely capitulated when it mattered most. Their downfall started with one of the biggest defeats in Bundesliga history: a 9-1 home loss to Leverkusen; it was the first time a side shipped nine goals in a Bundesliga game since Bayern’s 9-0 thrashing of Offenbach in 1984. Felix Magath’s Eintracht Frankfurt came to town on the final day of the season in what was the textbook definition of a relegation six-pointer. Despite being dealt a points deduction, Frankfurt still managed to overtake the reeling Sparrows and only needed to avoid defeat to stay up and consign Ulm to demotion. In the end, they did more than just avoid defeat – a 90th-minute penalty from Horst Heldt sealed a 2-1 win, Frankurt stayed up and Ulm went straight back down.
From there, things went from bad to so, so much worse. Ulm finished 16th in the 2. Bundesliga and were relegated again, but the club was insolvent and didn’t receive a license for the Regionalliga. Not only that, but because of their insolvency, they had to drop down even further according to the statute of the local governing body which meant that they went from the second division straight down to the Verbandsliga (fifth-tier) and the reserves were now moonlighting as the senior side.
After a surprisingly successful season that culminated in getting promoted to the Oberliga, the club, still neck-deep in debt, had to be bailed out by the city. Inexplicably, they continued to spend well above their means in the hopes of returning to the professional ranks as quickly as possible. It was in vain, though, as they are yet to climb above the fourth tier. In 2008, the club was investigated on the suspicion of being guilty of various misdemeanors ranging from tax evasion to not properly compensating players. That same year, they qualified for the Regionalliga which would replace the Oberliga as the country’s fourth tier, so they technically got promoted (well, kind of), but stayed in the same division.
Despite improving their fortunes on the pitch somewhat, the organization was still in turmoil. The football department was essentially kicked out of the club and became a separate entity, coach Markus Gisdol left after just one season in favor of an Oberliga side, and several players were released due to being implicated in a match-fixing scandal. In 2010, the club filed for insolvency once more and was relegated back to the Oberliga – the exact same thing happened again in 2014. Fast forward to today and the club has been stuck in the Regionalliga since 2016/17 – at last, some semblance of continuity.
This season, things are actually looking up for the Ulmer. Having just strolled to victory over FSV Frankfurt, they are now joint-second and just three points off top spot. With 14 games left to be played, there are still more than enough opportunities to catch up with Freiburg II, but, conversely, another capitulation is also not outside the realm of possibility – we’ve seen it already in the Regionalliga West with Rot-Weiss Essen, who, after impressing for large stretches of the season, now look almost set to get pipped to promotion by Dortmund II. However, it certainly wouldn’t come as a shock if Ulm were to pull off a minor miracle and reach the 3. Liga as they have steadily improved under coach Holger Bachthaler. One thing is clear: they definitely wouldn’t look out of place among fellow Chaosklubs like Kaiserlautern and 1860 Munich.
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