St. Pauli and Hamburg are lighting up Bundesliga 2 this season. - © DFL
St. Pauli and Hamburg are lighting up Bundesliga 2 this season. - © DFL
2. Bundesliga

Hamburg city rivals HSV and St. Pauli hoping to Get Back to the Bundesliga


Hamburg is well known as one of Europe's coolest places, and the northern German city where the Beatles made their name is now rocking to the tune of HSV and St Pauli, with both currently on course for a return to the Bundesliga.

With an unbeaten Pauli leading the way at the top of the second-division standings and leading rivals Hamburg in second spot and just three points back, both sides are currently in prime position for a long-awaited return to the Bundesliga promised land as we rapidly approach the season's halfway point.

Indeed, it's been more than just one hard day's night for football fans in Hamburg. Pauli haven't seen top-flight football at the Millerntor since 2011 while HSV supporters are still mourning the loss of their 'Dinosaur' tag having suffered a first-ever relegation from the Bundesliga in 2018.

They did, of course, come close to a return last season as they reached the relegation/promotion play-off only to lose heavily on aggregate to VfB Stuttgart. Given VfB's subsequent lightning start to the Bundesliga season, there's no shame in that, and Tim Walter's men have picked themselves up and kicked on in the new campaign where they left off in the old.

Hamburg coach Tim Walter has his side right in the mix for promotion, after last season's play-off heartache. - Cathrin Mueller

It only seems logical - and fair, but whenever did that have anything to do with anything in football? - that Walter should get another chance to win promotion after successive third-place finishes. He has even recently signed a contract extension, but there is no doubt that when he was appointed in summer 2021, Walter was a gamble.

A former Bayern Munich reserve team coach, his only previous professional experience was a brief spell at Kiel and an even shorter tenure at Stuttgart. Yet it has proved an inspired choice, giving HSV stabilty on and off the pitch that they were never likely to have had with 11 different coaches in the 13 previous years.

Walter has stability in his squad too, notably Robert Glatzel, who finished second top scorer in the division last season with 19 goals, and who has struck 10 times in his first 14 league appearances this term. The former Cardiff City forward's supporting cast have been impressive too: ex-Borussia Mönchengladbach man Laszlo Benes has seven league goals already, one more than he managed in the whole of last season, while Bakary Jatta is just one strike shy of his 2022/23 tally. 

Watch: Glatzel, Benes and Jatta all on target in 3-0 win over Hertha Berlin

But Walter has also managed to bring together his squad at a club where - in previous years - everyone did not always seem to be pulling in the same direction.

Stephan Ambrosius is a prime example. Loaned to Karlsruhe last season, the Hamburg-born Ghana international returned to his hometown club surely expecting to leave in the summer. He stayed, probably expecting not to play, but he has proven a formidable back-up option when summer signing Guilherme Ramos has been sidelined by injury.

"Every second Stephan's played this season I've thought he was good," said teammate Jonas Meffert. "We only have first-choice players, and we'll need all of them before the end of the season," said Walter.

Hamburg's early staking of their credentials as promotion contenders has been mostly done at their Volksparkstadion. Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk have been using it as a home away from home for their UEFA Champions League matches this season, and HSV have looked like a side capable of playing in European club football's premier competition there too, winning all of their first seven home games to boast the best record in the division, scoring 17 times and conceding just four.

Watch: Hamburg's impressive Volksparkstadion

"At home, the games are always something special," said goalkeeper Daniel Heuer Fernandes after keeping a fifth successive clean sheet at home in the Matchday 12 win over Magdeburg. "It's simply so much fun." It's less fun on their travels though as HSV - the best team away from home in BL2 last season - have picked up just six points from their first seven trips of the campaign, which means Walter still has work to do.

John Lennon once said: "I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg." Something similar could be said of Walter, but is certainly more true of youthful Pauli boss Fabian Hürzeler, who only turned 30 in February.

Born in Texas to a Swiss father and German mother who were working in the US at the time, Hürzeler had even less coaching pedigree than Walter when he was promoted to first-team coach in December 2022 having been assistant to the man who had just been sacked, Timo Schultz.

Tipped by former Bayern reserves teammate and current Borussia Dortmund captain Emre Can to have a great career as a coach, Hürzeler has so far proven him right.

Fabian Hürzeler has made a big impression in charge of St. Pauli. - Oliver Hardt

Pauli were 15th and only out of the automatic relegation places on goal difference at the mid-point of last season. If the league had started in January 2023, Pauli would have won the title last season, seven points clear of eventual champions Heidenheim. They have recorded 12 more points than any other current BL2 team in the calendar year. If you are wondering, HSV are next best.

"The basis of the team which played a successful Rückrunde stayed here," said Hürzeler to explain how his team remain the only unbeaten side in the division 14 matches into the new campaign. "We have found a balance between defensive stability and being a threat in front of goal."

True enough, their successful second half of last season was based on a stingy defence: they conceded just 14 times in their 17 Rückrunde games last season, the best record in the division, and kept nine clean sheets.

They boast the lowest tally of goals conceded in the new campaign too. But they can also find the net: only Hamburg, Fortuna Düsseldorf and Hannover had scored more than Pauli in the division after 14 games, and there were a few 5-1 wins among their results. And they have managed this despite losing last season's leading scorer, Lukas Daschner, to Bochum in the summer.

Watch: St. Pauli's best goals so far in 2023/24

Not that Hürzeler has changed all his spots. "It would have been perfect if we had kept a clean sheet," he said after seeing his side hit top spot in the table following the 2-1 win over relegated Hertha Berlin in the German capital in early October. "That's always our main aim."

He too toes the squad unity line - "We don't make a distinction, if someone is a starter or not. We want to make every player better. That's our job." - but certain individuals have stood out.

Australia international midfielder Jackson Irvine captains the side with compatriot Connor Metcalfe another key member of Hürzeler's set-up. Eric Smith's versatility is a useful tool for his coach, while the goals of Marcel Hartel from midfield and Johannes Eggestein up front have underpinned Pauli's charge to the top of the table.

Watch: Eggestein and Hartel mastermind victory over Elversberg

Like Ambrosius at HSV, Eggestein is an example of his boss' flexibility. A fringe player last season, the former Werder Bremen forward has already found the net more than the five times he struck in the league in the whole of the 2022/23 campaign. "He's a symbol for the team, the way they work so hard," said Hürzeler of the industrious former Werder Bremen forward, whose goal against Hertha was his first for 11 months. "Hard work is always rewarded. He's a great professional, he always works on improving himself."

While Hamburg fans have been used to near-misses in recent seasons, Pauli supporters won't be getting too carried away either. They have been here before, most recently in the first half of the 2021/22 campaign when - under Schultz and with Hürzeler as assistant coach - they finished the Hinrunde top of the table. They tumbled to fifth come the season's end, but Hürzeler is prepared for the long haul this time.

"No, it's still too early," he replied when asked about whether his team are promotion favourites. "We know that the season is  marathon not a sprint. And we're preparing ourselves for that."

They are therefore pacing themselves, but shifting up a gear for the Hamburg city derby on Matchday 15 could help make the rest of the campaign at least feel more downhill.