The fairytale story of Michael Oenning and Vasas FC
Michael Oenning had, as he will tell you himself, “basically nothing to lose” when a call from Hungary arrived in December. Four years had passed since his sacking as head coach of Hamburger SV in autumn of 2011 - a mighty long time out of a managerial position for a man who had been considered a promising coaching talent before his unfortunate interlude at trigger-happy HSV.
“There were offers from time to time, but nothing that appealed to me,” the 51-year-old explains. He entertained thoughts of concentrating on other projects outside of professional football - a book, supporting talented late bloomers.
But then, shortly before the turn of the year, Hungarian Businessman Janos Jambor, an acquaintance from Oenning’s days at 1. FC Nuremberg, got in touch. Jambor, owner of Vasas SC, needed someone to guide the storied club to safety after a horrendous first half of the season (11th in a league of 12 teams). Oenning, who had no previous experience coaching abroad, didn’t wait long before taking on this delicate mission. “I drove to Budapest on New Year’s Eve, looked at things and started working the next day. Eleven months later I can confidently say I have not regretted this move for a single day so far.”
Jambor will agree, as the German coach has performed nothing short of a small footballing miracle in his one year in the 13th district of Hungary’s capital city: Oenning stayed up with Vasas, thanks to four wins and four draws in 14 matches and, this season, has sensationally led a young team to the top of the Nemzeti Bajnoksag by playing an extremely fluid 3-4-3 system.
The team kept their advantage of four points over their closest competitor Videoton FC with a 1-1 draw recently in the Rudolf Illovszky Stadium in front of 5,000 spectators. “If we come through the next three, four games cleanly, we’ll have to look where we can take things this season,” Oenning says. Excitement levels at the workers’ club from the Pest side of the capital are high. Vasas last won the championship in 1977 and spent the bulk of the last 30 years as a footnote. The fanbase is all the more inebriated by the unexpected success.
Oenning explains: “The people are happy. It’s a big wave of nostalgia, which also has to do with the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. Vasas is not only a football club. Five of the eight Hungarian gold medalists are with the club. The local people have a strong bond with Vasas and are incredibly proud. We have strong fencers, boxers, swimmers and women’s volleyballers. A new gold medalist was honoured before every home match this season. This ‘golden August’ has caused a wave of euphoria.” The excitment reminds him of the Ruhr area, the 51-year-old says. He’s rediscovered the joy of “honest football” in Budapest: “My young team is incredibly willing, they want to work and learn and not end practice after two hours.”
With a little luck, the story of this captivating “renaissance,” as Oenning calls it, may well be headed for a big happy ending.
Talk of a “Hungarian Leicester City” does the rounds. “There’s no answer to our way of playing football in Hungary at the moment,” Oenning says with the pride of a head coach who came to the Danube a fireman and became a footballing accelerant: “A fire was lit here, I don’t want to put it out.”