This site has made no secret of its admiration of Hertha Berlin; it’s been mentioned a few times on the site. Recently, though, the club has seen a renaissance that has allowed it to compete with big spending clubs like Bayern Munich and not-Red-Bull-RB Leipzig. A major reason for that is Pal Dardai, the 41-year-old manager who is destined for great things to build on greatness already achieved.
Dardai is a rarity in modern soccer as his career has been essentially dedicated to one club: Hertha Berlin. The Hungarian signed with Hertha in 1997 at age 21 after a successful professional career in his home country. The midfielder made almost 300 appearances for the club over 14 seasons and holds the record for most matches played in a Hertha shirt. In 1999, Bayern Munich attempted to sign him but he turned them down to remain with Berlin.
After his playing career ended, the club hired him to run the youth team. He had spent his final year of his playing career as a player-coach for the U-23 team. This allowed him one last year of actual playing while earning his coaching badge. His path seemed obvious – after some time with the Hertha Academy he would eventually work his way up to the senior team.
Then his real home came calling. The Hungary national team fired its head coach and approached Dardai to come in as a bridge manager. In less than a year of managing the national side, Dardai began to lay the groundwork for Hungary’s later success at the 2016 Euros.
How did he do this? He did something different: he talked to his players. Specifically, he introduced intense video analysis to the team’s practices and games. Then he would spend time with players after practice or during matches looking at film and discussing tactics with them based on what they were watching. This is common for large clubs with multiple staff members, but for the Hungarian national set-up it was quite new and consequential.
Back in Berlin, however, things were not as rosy. The senior club was in the relegation zone, which prompted the Board to fire manager Jos Luhukay. Dardai was still working with the club’s U-15 side in addition to his Hungary work, so the Sporting Director promoted him to managing the senior club in tandem with his national team work. His first year’s task was simple – avoid relegation. Hertha played less than attractive football that season, but they avoided the relegation playoffs by virtue of better goal difference.
In the offseason, he had a number of tough choices to make. The first was what team to manage – Hungary asked him to focus on them or leave full time for Berlin. Since he has spent almost his entire soccer life with Hertha, he left his country for his club.
Back in the Bundesliga, Dardai acted decisively. He offloaded a number of older players who were underperforming and brought in his own. Since then, the club has enjoyed two consecutive Europa League qualifications and its best run of form since the 2008-2009 season. In the most recent season, Berlin were in contention for a Champions League place until late in the season.
Pal Dardai undoubtedly has a good coaching mind and the ability to get the most from his players. In a loaded Bundesliga where past champions can slip into relegation races quickly, the next few years will be a good test for him and the club, as well as if he can or will escape the comfort of the club he has served for so long.