By Ed Aarons/The Guardian
Ever since Ralph Hasenhuettl made his debut as a gangly teenage striker for his hometown club Grazer, Southampton’s new manager has forged a career out of being patient. The first Austrian to take charge of a Premier League club was signed by Austria Vienna in 1988 as a replacement for Toni Polster, who had been sold to Torino the previous season for £1.2mn, and he went on to win three successive titles and earn an international call-up.
But nagging injuries and the presence of poster boy and part-time pop star Polster meant Hasenhuettl, despite scoring three goals in eight appearances for his country, missed out on selection for the 1990 World Cup and again in 1998, winding down his playing career in Germany, where he lived for two decades until his move to Southampton was confirmed on Wednesday.
“He talks more like a German these days than an Austrian,” says Andreas Heidenreich from the Kurier newspaper. “But it’s very good for the country to have our first Premier League manager. He’s very popular in Austria, which is a small country in world football, so people are very proud to see him move to England. He’s a very down-to-earth and that is the same style as he was when he was a player. He was never fancy – he was very good in the air but had limited chances because he was playing in the same era as Polster.”
After playing for Bayern Munich’s reserve side at the end of his career, it was in Bavaria that he was handed a first opportunity in coaching, taking over the youth team at third-tier Unterhaching in 2004 before being promoted to the first team three years later.
Hasenhuettl was sacked in 2010 and joined VfR Aalen, where he began to develop a gegenpressing style that has brought comparisons to Jürgen Klopp. Both were born in the summer of 1967 and they went on the same course to earn their coaching badges, yet whereas Liverpool’s manager was handed his chance by Mainz after retiring in 2001, the “Alpine Klopp” had to do it the hard way.
Having taken Aalen to the 2.Bundesliga for the first time, he moved to Ingolstadt in October 2013 and transformed a team threatened with relegation into champions the following season. He left after a successful Bundesliga campaign in which the tiny club finished 11th, taking up the challenge of guiding nouveau riche RB Leipzig through their first season in Germany’s top-flight.
RB Leipzig broke the record for the longest undefeated streak of a promoted team as they finished runners-up to Bayern and qualified for the Champions League but Hasenhuettl’s time in eastern Germany was brought to a sudden halt in the summer when he failed to repeat the trick, with the sporting director, Ralf Rangnick, stepping into his shoes while they await the arrival of Julian Nagelsmann. “I think he also wanted to take the next step – it’s very hard to keep Leipzig in the Champions League every season,” says Heidenreich. “It’s also not so easy to work with Ralf Rangnick ... ”
With Hasenhuettl having spent two weeks on trial at Chelsea under Glenn Hoddle in the mid-1990s, there was always a sense that the Premier League could be his next destination. “I didn’t really believe that I could sign there but it was fantastic inspiration for my career that I could train there for two weeks,” he said in an interview in 2015. “My talent in playing football was not the highest but I was very hard-working, interested to learn and get better, and this focus made me better and better.”
He has certainly applied that approach to management, spending the summer after he left Aalen riding between Borussia Dortmund’s and Borussia Mönchengladbach’s training camps on his mountain bike and spying on their sessions with a pair of binoculars. “It’s better to be incognito because otherwise everyone is talking to you because they know you – and you can’t concentrate on the training because everyone is talking to you,” he explained. “I was also in Italy when Germany were preparing for the World Cup because it was interesting for me. I’m maybe in this way a little bit crazy but it made me a better coach.”
Hasenhuettl, a talented piano player, will need to press all the right notes if Southampton are to recover from an awful period that has brought only one home win in the Premier League since November 2017. But if anyone can do it, then it is surely the manager who became known in Germany for his exuberant celebrations.
“He expects players to work very hard and is very demanding but is a very positive guy who brings a good atmosphere to his teams,” says Heidenreich. “After the matches, he often cannot sleep and has said that he sometimes stays up all night watching replays.” There may be a few sleepless nights to come.
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