The scarcity of the grass on AEK Athens’s one usable training pitch is as evident as the furrows on the brow of the club’s German coach Ewald Lienen as one of Greek soccer’s most successful and historic clubs fights for its Super League life.
Operating on a shoe-string budget following a period of financial turmoil in which virtually an entire first-team squad was sold off in order to secure a licence and preserve their top-flight status, the «Union», as it is known by supporters, has been left with a patchwork roster of youth team and unknown Greek players.
The result is that AEK has suffered its worst-ever start to the season and is stuck at the foot of the table.
Thanks to the arrival of Lienen, who was appointed on October 10, AEK enjoyed a mini-resurgence in form, briefly moving off the bottom with two wins in three games.
But a 1-0 loss to Panthrakikos in their last outing on Monday left it stranded once more, a point behind fellow strugglers Aris, Kerkyra and Veria.
Pessimism is still rife among media observers and fans as to whether the club can avoid its first ever relegation, but Lienen has other ideas as he attempts to guide AEK to safety working under extreme financial constraints.
“We’ve almost destroyed the second pitch but it is four weeks until the other one is fully ready and recovered so we are stuck with this muddy one for the moment,» Lienen told Reuters in an interview.
“It’s difficult to have a really quality training session with the state of the pitches, that is a big problem but I wish it were the only one. It’s more about the players; most of them are on really low salaries and have delays in their payments… even more so the club staff who are also on low wages.
“But what gives me great strength and hope is that in spite of this situation, everyone is willing to come in and do their jobs to the very best of their ability. This is one of the reasons why I love the club.”
AEK’s squad is made up of 25 Greeks and just five foreign players, with an average age of 22.5, and Lienen revealed that the younger players in particular are struggling to provide themselves with the basic lifestyle needed in terms of the correct nutrition that is necessary to recover from training sessions and matches.
“This has an impact on our daily work, not for psychological reasons but for practical reasons and we are trying to fix it by helping them more,» Lienen said.
Despite taking over during the most difficult period in the club’s history, the former Panionios and Olympiakos boss remains upbeat. «It motivates me even more,» he said.
“I knew about the situation economically and its position in the table and really I look at it as an opportunity. I have always liked the club and the chance to get them back to their rightful place.
“We have to hope that the team gets better and we get some more money back into the club through new investors, if not it will be very difficult. But I see the chances that are in this project as it’s certainly not possible to get worse.”
AEK, which stands for the Athletic Union of Constantinople, is one of Greek soccer’s most historic and successful clubs.
Formed in 1924 by refugee Greeks who fled to Athens during the Greco-Turkish war, the club has 11 league titles to its name as well as 14 domestic cups. Most significantly, it has never been outside of the top flight.
Lienen is trying to help the current crop of players handle that weight of expectation and avoid the drop.
“The main challenge has been dealing with the inexperience and indiscipline,» Lienen explained. «For me it’s not so much about age, it’s about character.
“Players have to understand that all of this is about teamwork and they have to do the best they can for each other, be humble and behave correctly inside and outside the dressing room. We are trying to unite the group further and we are working very hard on a daily basis on this,» he added.
Lienen is above all a realist, and despite some encouraging results of late, he is under no illusions that the club are in for a long hard winter and the focus is simply on survival. «At the moment we don’t have the right and should not even think of anything more than staying up,» he said.
“We have to give everything to survive both economically and out on the pitch. This means that probably we’ll need 35 points and this is still a big target. We have to go for this and we won’t think of anything else as it simply damages the psychology. As soon as you think you are there, you get knocked down again.”