You can’t be that fundamentally bad at football and play in the Premier League
#9: STEFAN MAIERHOFER
Signed: August 2009 from Rapid Vienna, £1,800,000 rising to £2,800,000
Left: August 2011 to Red Bull Salzburg, approx £1,000,000
He was: A novelty gift without the novelty
Our return to the Premier League in 2009 precipitated a raft of transfer activity in the close season, but with our strength in the Championship overwhelmingly being going forwards – our 80 goals scored being comfortably the highest tally in the division in 2008/9 – it was decided that we would make just one major acquisition in the striking department, the club record signing of Kevin Doyle from Reading. The idea seemed to be to partner him with last season’s top scorer Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and to have Andy Keogh, Chris Iwelumo and Sam Vokes providing the back up options. Theoretically, that gave us a wide variety of differing styles of forward to choose from, albeit that all barring Doyle had no experience in the Premier League and therefore had everything still to prove. Those plans were rocked when Iwelumo broke his foot on our pre-season tour to Australia and he was ruled out for three months. At this stage, we determined that we would need a replacement for him who could perform a similar role. However, the season kicked off with no further signings made up front, which meant unexpected game time for Keogh as Ebanks-Blake picked up a hamstring injury in the opening day home defeat to West Ham.
Rapid Vienna came to the West Midlands in late August as they took on Aston Villa in a Europa League qualifying tie, eventually knocking out the hosts at Villa Park on away goals. 6’7” Stefan Maierhofer came on in the second half and caused the home defence problems, having a goal disallowed and generally unnerving them with his unorthodox presence. This seemed to spur us into action and we signed him on 31 August 2009 for an initial fee of £1,800,000, with a further £1,000,000 payable should we secure survival in 2009/10. He was coming off the back of a 27 goal season for Rapid, so had some form of record behind him as well as being a big galoot.
The problem with all of this was that no-one seemed to have watched him particularly closely – giving Villa a bit of a fright is of no great stock in itself, I’ve seen Marlon Harewood score a hat-trick against them in the past – and the deal smacked of us panicking right at the end of the transfer window. Had we scouted him properly, we’d have seen that he didn’t really look much of a footballer at all; he was very slow, his basic technique was poor and he was as ungainly as you’d expect from such an oddly proportioned chap. Also, being tall doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re any good in the air; there had long been talk that Steve Morgan was keen on us signing “someone like Peter Crouch”. Crouch is around the same height as Maierhofer, but he’s never been someone who you’d think would be competent at dealing with balls hammered miles above his head in the way you might play to a Niall Quinn or a Duncan Ferguson – he has never been that kind of player. And so it followed that Maierhofer was no good in the air either. He couldn’t jump, he never looked to get a run on a centre half, he got routinely beaten in aerial battles by defenders way shorter than him and in any case, this isn’t how we best used Iwelumo in 2008/9 so the comparison point seemed odd. It wouldn’t have taken many (or perhaps, any) proper viewings of him to see that this wasn’t a great idea.
He came off the bench to score on his Wolves debut at Blackburn – stabbing a loose ball in from a Matt Jarvis corner, a mere consolation as we were 3-0 down at the time with two minutes to go – but it seemed very quickly that Mick McCarthy had seen enough to be wholly unconvinced; he was confined to brief substitute appearances where he uniformly failed to impress. He couldn’t help us hold the ball up if we were looking to see out a narrow win, he didn’t offer any kind of tangible goal threat and more often than not, caused a Marouane Fellaini-style panic in our own defence if we brought him back to defend set pieces. I’m sure we’ve all played in five a side teams where some guy turns up who hasn’t played before, and immediately looks like he’s never kicked a ball. Maierhofer was the professional equivalent of that. He was sent off at Everton in one of his substitute appearances following a clash with Tim Howard and made just two starts, both at Old Trafford, one in the League Cup and one in the league. The latter was the infamous game where we made a host of changes to our team in anticipation of our upcoming six pointer at home to Burnley, although it should be pointed out that of our starters against United, Marcus Hahnemann, Michael Mancienne, Ronald Zubar and Kevin Foley would be regulars for much of the remainder of the season, which made a bit of a mockery of the Premier League deciding to fine us. Maybe they did it because we started Matt Hill and Maierhofer, which probably is going a bit far. Maierhofer was replaced after 54 minutes by the now fit Iwelumo and by now enough was enough for Mick. With us moving to a system playing one up front in January, there were fewer opportunities for the supporting cast to Doyle and it now seemed that the Austrian was very much at the back of the queue, as he wasn’t even getting on the bench now. Iwelumo was sent on loan to Bristol City in February 2010 to regain some match sharpness and having notched a couple of goals for the Robins, we recalled him once the initial month had passed and being the charitable sorts that we are, sent them Maierhofer instead in March. He made just three appearances for City, notable only for him having to go in goal for the closing stages of their game against Nottingham Forest – always the equivalent of a dog in the playground at the best of times, let alone when it’s some giant beanpole going between the sticks to add to the visual comedy. His goalscoring (ie none) and goalkeeping (one clean sheet out of one, you can’t argue with that) exploits failed to impress Gary Johnson and he cut the loan spell short in mid-April.
Unsurprisingly, he was told that he had no future at the club in the summer of 2010 – when we had to pay the remaining £1,000,000 to Rapid on account of our 15th placed finish, taking his fee close to £3,000,000 in the process – and was loaned out to 2.Bundesliga outfit Duisburg for 2010/11, scoring eight goals in 27 appearances for them and by all accounts, being reasonably popular with their fans. No permanent deal was in the offing and he returned to Wolves ahead of the 2011/12, making a surprising return to the matchday squad for the season opener at Blackburn and coming on for Stephen Hunt in injury time. This proved to be his final appearance for us as he was sold a fortnight later to Red Bull Salzburg for around £1,000,000. He had a handy first season for them, scoring 14 goals, but was more of a fringe player in 2012/13 and ended up joining 1.FC Köln – then in the second tier – in January for the remainder of the season. He scored one goal in 14 appearances there and a spell out of the game followed – which would become a running theme in his late career. His Facebook feed at the time seemed to indicate he was trying to become a model at this point, which seemed an amusingly deluded career path. He ditched the Derek Zoolander act in March 2014 when he returned to England and joined Millwall to the end of the 2013/14 season. He helped them to Championship survival, scoring two goals in 11 games but a long-term stay at The Den was ruled out by his wage demands and his reported desire to find a Premier League club. Good luck with that one Stefan. The likes of Chelsea and Arsenal managed to resist the temptation to snap up a 32 year old striker who had more in common with Stephen Merchant than Steve Bull, and he ended up signing a short-term deal with Wiener Neustadt in November 2014 before rejoining Millwall in January 2015. This time he couldn’t help prevent relegation as he scored one goal in 10 games before spending yet more time out of the game, remaining unattached until February 2016 when he joined Slovakian team AS Trencin, going on to win their domestic league and scoring twice in 10 games along the way. He remains a free agent presently; given how many times he has reappeared out of nowhere over the past few years, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he’s retired from playing.
Maierhofer’s signing was a mark of inadequate scouting and frantic transfer activity with time running out; it’s also an odd signing in that it seems to have been one of the very few during Mick’s time here where he didn’t play much of an active role. There are footballers who don’t look the greatest aesthetically, but they get the job done. There are players who help you play in a less than pretty way, but they’re effective at what they do. There is still the time and the place for a big man up front in English football. Unfortunately Maierhofer just wasn’t ever going to be up to the mark, aesthetics or otherwise; frankly, he simply isn’t a very good footballer, and it’s not even especially hard to work that out. If Jermain Defoe picked up an injury ahead of next month’s transfer window, Sunderland presumably wouldn’t look to sign any old 5’7” striker to replace him and so us buying Maierhofer primarily on the basis of his height rather than his actual ability was never likely to end well. You can get away with looking a bit gangly and awkward in the Premier League, but you can’t get away with not being able to control the ball and if you’re signed as the “big man” option, it would be helpful if you could head the ball. Big Stefan could not, as he resembled a less mobile and a slightly stretched out version of Christophe Berra playing up front. All round, he has to go down as one of our most poorly scouted signings with an extremely low return on our investment; a net cost of £1,800,000 for 180 minutes of league football.