No matter which way you look at it, global football in 2016 was dominated by the remarkable story of Leicester City. As 5000-1 outsiders who narrowly avoided relegation one season only to go on and win the league the next, the Foxes will forever be remembered for what was one of the greatest achievements the sport has ever witnessed.
Any clubs attempting to recreate their meteoric rise will subsequently have their efforts referred to as “doing a Leicester”, and Rheindorf Altach, from a sleepy village in the far west of Austria, are aiming to do exactly that with an extraordinary story of their own.
Thanks to the large sums of money pumped into the club by their owners, the Austrian Bundesliga has been absolutely dominated by Red Bull Salzburg over the last decade. Since 2007, when they won their first league title after being taken over by the energy drink company, Salzburg have won seven league titles (over double the amount they managed under their previous moniker, Austria Salzburg), with no season seeing them finish lower than runners-up.
Each of the previous three campaigns have resulted in them comfortably lifting the title, with Rapid Wien proving to be the only side capable of getting anywhere near the league giants. As a result, many assumed – with good reason – that more Salzburg dominance was on the cards this season.
But that hasn’t proven to be the case. Despite the comfortable nature of their Bundesliga title wins, Salzburg have continually failed to impress on the European stage, something that has concerned their owners and resulted in a dramatic decrease in funding. Like Celtic, Salzburg’s owners (and, to a certain extent, their fans) care little for successive league wins if they don’t lead to success on the continent, and the club’s inability to make it past the last-16 of the Europa League – let alone the Champions League, where they are yet to progress from the playoffs – has been a cause for concern in recent years.
Once the focal point of Red Bull’s effort and, most importantly, money, Salzburg’s inability to succeed in Europe has resulted in funds being diverted to RB Leipzig, the little brother who now finds himself at the head of the family. Impressive players like Naby Keïta, Dayot Upamecano and Bernardo have all been shipped over to Germany in an attempt to help continue Leipzig’s impressive, albeit controversial, rise up the ranks, leaving Salzburg underfunded and understaffed, and once again opening up the playing field in Austria.
Enter Altach. Hailing from the eponymous municipality of just over 6,500 people, and lying mere miles away from the border with Switzerland, the club stands alone as the Bundesliga’s sole representative from the west of the country. (Salzburg are, ironically, their nearest top-flight “neighbours”, with over 200 miles separating the two.)
A difficult season in which they lost exactly half of their games resulted in Altach narrowly avoiding relegation last year, with eventual bottom-place finishers Grödig finishing just five points behind them. Yet, for a team that had only previous featured in the top flight between 2006 and 2009, an eighth-place finish seemed about right. Altach had impressed by reaching third at the end of the 2014-15 campaign on what was a dizzying return to the Bundesliga, but achieving top-flight stability always seemed to be the main objective for a club that were aiming to permanently break away from the Erste Liga.
To achieve this, the club initially hired Damir Canadi, a rather average journeyman as a player who, despite not setting the world alight, had done an impressive job at helping to establish Lustenau as a respected team in the top half of the Erste Liga. With Altach aiming to build on two successive second-place finishes, Canadi proved to be the perfect fit for his new club, and, in his first full season, guided them to a comfortable league win thanks to a 14-point gap over their nearest challengers.
After enjoying the highs of a third-place finish (and the Europa League spot that came with it), the club stuck with Canadi despite their struggles the following campaign. It’s a good job they did, as the manager’s tactical nous, coupled with his ability to spot talent in the most unusual of places, saw Altach shoot up the table once again. By the start of November, and with 14 rounds completed, they sat in second place, equal on points with leaders Sturm Graz and four ahead of stuttering Salzburg. Then, disaster struck.
Canadi, the architect of Altach’s joy over the past three years, was lured away by one of the big boys. It was inevitable, really; the 46-year-old had received plenty of well-deserved praise and admiration for his achievements at Altach, so it was only a matter of time before one of the giants of the league came calling. Rapid Wien, who were languishing in fifth spot, already nine points behind Graz and Altach, offered Canadi his first opportunity to manage one of Austria’s most successful clubs, and it came as a shock to no one when he decided to take them up on their offer midway through what was proving to be an excellent season for his overachieving minnows.
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Fitting a pattern that has been exhibited with great effect in neighbouring Germany, Altach continued to build on the foundations they had laid down by hiring from inside the club. Canadi, alongside sporting director Georg Zellhofer, had worked closely with reserve team coach and marketing director Werner Grabherr, who, at 31, became the youngest ever head coach in Austrian football.
Altach were narrowly held at home to a 1-1 draw by Graz in Grabherr’s first game in charge, but the young manager made an immediate impact as the club aimed to avoid a post-Canadi slump. Back-to-back wins against Mattersburg and Ried saw Altach start December three points clear at the top of the table, and, despite suffering a rare defeat away to Salzburg in their next game, further victories at home to Wolfsberger and Rapid Wien meant that they headed into the winter break with a two-point lead at the top of the table.
Grabherr continued the good work started by Canadi and built on the tactical foundations laid down by the former manager. Utilising a well-organised and defensively solid 3-5-2 formation – one that could easily morph into a 5-4-1 when needed – the young coach proved as adept as his predecessor at getting the best out of a combination of youngsters and oft-overlooked seasoned professionals, several of whom have remained with the club since their years in the second tier.
Philipp Netzer, formerly a member of Austria Wien’s reserve team, is one such player who has continually impressed this campaign. Traditionally a midfielder, the club’s captain has dropped into the back of Altach’s three-man defence, a position from which he has shown great defensive capabilities as well as the desire to drive forward from deep.
In front of him, Louis Ngwat-Mahop – who, like Netzer, joined the club whilst they were still in the Erste Liga – has shown why it was that Bayern Munich saw so much promise in him as a fresh-faced teenager. After having his contract with the Bavarian club terminated due to a scandal involving a fake French passport on the eve of an Asian tour, the Cameroonian has slowly but surely risen back up the ranks thanks to spells at Salzburg, Iraklis, Karlsruher and, now, Altach.
Echoing Netzer, Ngwat-Mahop featured primarily as a centre-forward and winger in previous seasons but has dropped deeper this campaign to become one of Altach’s most important and versatile players. With Boris Prokopič often alongside him, the 29-year-old now finds himself part of an impressive midfield that is as resolute as it is creative.
However, it is in attack where Altach have sparkled so much this season. Switzerland under-21 striker Dimitri Oberlin has set the Bundesliga alight with his performances this campaign, resulting in him currently sitting in second place in the top goalscorers. In a sadly ironic turn of events, it seems the 19-year-old’s performances were seen by parent club Salzburg as being too good and, possibly in an attempt to derail their main rivals, his loan spell at Altach was brought to an end in December. It now looks as if he’s going to be shipped abroad, leaving Altach without one of their star performers.
However, if Altach have proven one thing this season, it’s their ability to work as a team and extract the best from each and every player. Nikola Dovedan, another young forward on loan at the club, has continually shone across the front line. With seven goals and five assists under his belt, the youngster has been just as important as Oberlin, and, with the Swiss striker now back at Salzburg, the onus is on him to build on the impressive performances that characterised his first half of the campaign.
Despite doing so well in such a short amount of time, the wins against Wolfsberger and Rapid Wien would prove to be Grabherr’s last, as his lack of a UEFA Pro Licence meant that he was only ever able to be signed on a temporary basis. With the two-month winter break proving to be an ideal time to find a successor, Grabherr returned to his day job as the club’s marketing director, paving the way for former St. Pölten boss Martin Scherb to take control for the second half of the season.
With a revitalised Salzburg lying equal on points with them at the top of the table, it’s now or never for Altach, who, after having to deal with the disappointment of losing, in one way or another, two managers in just two months, now have 15 games left to try and pull off one of the biggest shocks in the history of Austrian football.
Scherb’s first outing since being dismissed by St. Pölten over three years ago resulted in a decent enough 1-1 draw away to Admira, but, with Salzburg being victorious in their game, the hard work has only just begun. Whatever happens, this season will forever be remembered by both Altach fans and neutrals alike, but residents of this tiny village detached from the rest of the country will be praying that they can end the campaign with a fairy-tale league victory
By Ben Cullimore @bcullimoreftbl