Following four years battling it out in Germany's third tier, Kaiserslautern are headed back to Bundesliga 2 after the Red Devils emerged victorious in their relegation play-off against Dynamo Dresden.
"The whole region was longing for this," an elated Dirk Schuster said after his side scored twice without reply in the play-off second leg at Dresden's Rudolf Harbig Stadium.
Defender Kevin Kraus, meanwhile, described the 2-0 aggregate triumph as, "Absolute happiness," the 29-year-old assuring that he and his teammates were all set to party on an unforgettable night for both the team and their 3,000 travelling supporters.
In what was a highly eventful season, which even included a very late coaching change, the two-time Bundesliga champions went from fretting over their third division status to climbing up the standings and even almost blowing their promotion chances altogether at the death.
"I'm so proud of this team," Schuster, who only took up the reins from Marco Antwerpen on 10 May 2022, enthused. "We had a bit of luck in some ways, but overall we deserve the promotion; we threw everything into the [second leg]."
Kaiserslautern were in 15th position and hovering just above the relegation spots after nine games of the current campaign. They hauled themselves back into a challenge for a top-three finish by the mid-season break, however, with the likes of wide player Philipp Hercher (six goals and ten assists for the campaign) and winter signing, ex-USMNT international Terrence Boyd (eight goals in 15 appearances), helping to turn the team's fortunes around going into the final straight.
Yet successive defeats in their final three games almost put paid to Die Roten Teufel's previous good work, with Eintracht Braunschweig eventually joining runaway division winners, Magdeburg, in sealing the automatic promotion spots. Club officials decided to gamble, relieving Antwerpen of his duties and drafting in Schuster, who had previously overseen successive promotions with Darmstadt, for the two-legged play-off.
In the double header against Dresden - who finished 16th in Bundesliga 2 - Kaiserslautern fans were left fearing the worst after a scoreless draw at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion. Yet second-half goals from forward Daniel Hanslik and Hercher in the return fixture put paid to those worries and FCK could celebrate a significant jump back into the second division.
"You could feel it among [everyone connected with the club]," coach Schuster explained. "They all had just one goal: they wanted to get out of the third division and I'm very proud that we were able to give them this gift."
Out on his feet after Tuesday's second leg, club captain Jean Zimmer said, "I'm too exhausted to be happy. It's amazing that we're finally out of the 3rd division. I've rarely seen such a more together group than this one."
In all, Kaiserslautern - who were founded 121 years ago - won 18 of their games during the regular season and boasted the best defensive record in the third tier, with goalkeeper Matheo Raab keeping a joint-best 16 clean sheets during the campaign. They did, however, score the fewest goals of the top-five finishers, which might be something coach Schuster will look to address for the 2022/23 season in Bundesliga 2. "We'll want to have a good part to play up there," the 54-year-old teased.
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