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22.02.2018, 11:50
Moin Moin, Maik Machulla
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BLOG: ehfTV commentator Tom O'Brannagain writes about the reunion of the former Flensburg coaching duo in the upcoming Match of the Week.
 

Moin Moin, Maik Machulla

Every arena in the VELUX EHF Champions League has its own personality. I know that normally we only attribute this to people, but somehow each one is its own individual in all aspects.

The smells, the flavours, the sounds and the people. The Flens Arena at the northern tip of Germany is a little special, maybe because it's not just German, even though it's in Germany. It differs from the other arenas in said country, probably because of its close geographical and historical links to Denmark.

The arena goes into darkness, with red spotlights and blue strobes. The team waits in a covered tunnel as the opening strains of 2001: A Space Odyssey boom around the stadium to alert fans to the introduction of their team. The music morphs into A Fanfare for Common Man and segues into Bizet's Toreador Song from Carmen. In a strange way the music of the champions league is a soundtrack of my life.

What also strikes me is the vocal tennis rally that occurs there at matches. One end sings Flensburg, while the other end responds Handewitt as if the spectators at each end are from those respective towns. This time when the lights go up I won't see Ljubo on the home bench as I usually do, he's on the away bench. I'm sure his feet will find their way there. I'm also sure a warm welcome awaits him too, because this is a special club.

"Stand up and fight until you hear the bell,
Stand toe to toe,
Trade blow for blow"

When I first visited Flensburg in 2011, Ljubo was a team manager and Maik Machulla wasn't even around. Midway through that season Ljubo took over and no-one foresaw the effect he would have on the team.

A season away from the Champions League followed and Maik appeared on the team roster at the start of the 2012/13 season as a player. It's not until the FINAL4 triumphant season in 2014 that MM is named as a coach beside Ljubo. And yet during this time, he goes where he's needed. If they need a player, he will still play. This continued into the 2014/15 season. I was in Plock when Flensburg were decimated by injuries and Maik played.

"Keep punching till you make your punches tell,
Show that crowd what you know!"

And now the club has entrusted its future and its legacy to a man wholly untried at this level. But they did it before. Ljubo also was untested when he took the helm.

As so many teams seek the next big name to take them forward, this club dares to be different. They seem to value team above all else. The way they have treated players with serious injury and illness goes beyond just contracts. It's like they are a large family and loyalty is repaid with faith.

It's interesting that eight of the players who won them the Champions League are still at the club. In a team sport that sees a high turnover of players in clubs each season, I find that statistic incredible.

I once mused that SG stood for "Six Goals" but now I'm going for Scandi-German. That mix gives a unique personality to this club; "Flensburg tickt anders". They just tick differently.

As I contemplated Maik’s rise in the ranks, a line of poetry from my youth came to me:

"Solider Aristotle played the taws upon the bottom of a king of kings" (W.B. Yeats)

Aristotle rose to prominence to become tutor of Alexander the Great. He became the preeminent philosopher of the day. Yet he was just the pupil of a pupil in a great succession. He learned from Plato, who learned from Socrates. I'm sure that Maik was listening intently and watching all the while, when Ljubo was coaching, but one shouldn't underestimate his involvement in the greatest triumph of Flensburg's history.

I'm sure he was an ear to listen, a sounding board and maybe sometimes even a dissenting voice. The club has kept their succession plan in-house and only time will tell if the decision is the solid one. So far, so good.

I don't know him that well except maybe to say hello, but I saw a side of his personality once that suggests to me that he can succeed. After their miracle comeback win against Barcelona in Cologne, I found myself hitching a ride back to the hotel aboard the Flensburg bus.

Vranjes agreed as long as I didn't talk. It was torture for me as I sat facing Ljubo and Maik. I just wanted to wax lyrical about a miraculous game. All the way back to the hotel, Machulla kept prodding me to talk, asking questions and making comments, completely tongue in cheek, and every time I would go to open my mouth Ljubo would give me the icy stare and Maik would chuckle to himself. I could see then, that this was a great double act and a formidable coaching team.

And now for the second time this season they must shake hands across the white line, but this time in the Nordhalle. They sit evenly matched on points in Group B, the master and the former pupil, now peers in the EHF Champions League. Two men once joined at the hip, have cut the umbilical chord and stand alone in a place they once called home together.

Until you hear that bell,
that final bell,
Stand up and fight like hell!" (Toreador's song, from Carmen West)

For a team like Flensburg, who always seem to punch above their weight, the song that introduces them onto the court, could be autobiographical.


TEXT: Tom O'Brannagain, ehftv commentator
 
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