Fabian Hürzeler has St. Pauli on course for a return to the Bundesliga after a 15-year absence. - © Imago
Fabian Hürzeler has St. Pauli on course for a return to the Bundesliga after a 15-year absence. - © Imago
2. Bundesliga

St. Pauli: Fabian Hürzeler's record-chasers on course for promotion

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Teams often suffer from second-season syndrome: somehow following great success as the surprise packages of the league with an inexplicable, almost comic inability to hit the proverbial barn door with a banjo. St Pauli fans will be hoping their club's specific ailment, Jekyll-and-Hyde-halves-of-the-season syndrome, does not strike in 2023/24. Happily, there is no sign of it yet.

Having said that, they would gleefully accept another dose of what ran through the club in the second half of the 2022/23 season. After a disastrous Hinrunde that left the club teetering precariously above the bottom three on goal difference, head coach Timo Schultz was moved out, and his former assistant, Fabian Hürzeler, was given the hot seat.

Surely most people - and even Pauli's passionate fans - did not expect what happened next as the youngest coach in German professional football, and the second-youngest ever in Bundesliga 2 aged just 29, produced a sensational Rückrunde. Pauli took seven more points than any other club, and finished - wholly improbably given their first half of the season - in fifth.

When the 2023/24 season opened with a five-game unbeaten run that included four successive draws, the expectations of Pauli supporters - inflated by last season's late charge - must have been downsized to simply being thankful for the no frills but certainly no thrills season that looked to be ahead. Then again, after what Hürzeler - born in the USA the son of a Swiss dentist and German mother - had done in his first nine months in charge, they might have shown more faith.

"We have become a lot more stable defensively and things are working a lot better up front," said Johannes Eggestein earlier in the season, revealing Pauli's obvious and yet so difficult-to-follow recipe for succes under Hürzeler. Fast forward several months, and they are comfortably the best defence in the league and the third-best attack.

Since those opening five games, they have lost just once and their thrilling 4-3 win over second-place Holstein Kiel on Matchday 23 opened up a six-point advantage to their nearest challengers as well as a seven-point jump to rivals Hamburg.

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Watch: Holstein Kiel 3-4 St. Pauli - highlights

The team's ability to pull rabbits out the hat when results appear to be lost has become a hallmark of their campaign, much to the delight of Hürzeler.

“I give my team a lot of credit for the reaction to this phase, in which everyone thought they were getting tired,” explained Hürzeler after watching his side drop a two-goal lead to Greuther Fürth - who came into the game in second place - before Elias Saad scored his second and Pauli's third to claim victory late on in the Matchday 20 showdown.

"I’m definitely proud of this reaction. Also, because I was concerned about the emotional atmosphere in the team after the cup evening. Such a reaction to such disappointment is special. It makes you realise what a special inner dynamic there is in this group."

That victory marked a Bundesliga 2 record-equalling 25th game without defeat, which they dropped a week later before quickly producing back-to-back victories which quietened talk of another impending Rückrunde collapse. Their strong start to 2024 was even more impressive given captain Jackson Irvine were on the other side of the world with teammate Connor Metcalfe helping Australia to the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup.

"I'm glad to be back even though the weather's not great," said Metcalfe after his first session in Hamburg. "Jackson and I watched all the games via live stream. It was good to see the boys are still doing well, it looks like they don't need us!"

They didn't, but Hürzeler certainly wasn't against the return of two of the most influential members of his squad, particularly when they combined for Pauli's fourth in the win over Kiel.

Pauli captain Jackson Irvine (c.) only missed one league game prior to Australia's Asian Cup campaign. - IMAGO/Andreas Hannig

Despite their ongoing success, this squad are not getting carried away - keeping things as un-flashy as their trademark brown shirts - and they appear laser-focused on earning promotion this time around.

"We have to keep our feet on the ground week in, week out, and can't afford to get ahead of ourselves," said midfielder Marcel Hartel following the Kiel victory. "Even when you're three-nil up it can get tense again, as we saw today. You have to be alert and go flat out for 90 minutes, simple as that. The three points are incredibly important."

Irvine added: "Today was about one thing only and that was three points. We had to win this game no matter what."

This determined talk must be music to the ears of Hürzeler, who - according to Eggestein - has not just a team but his whole squad pulling in the same direction. "That is undoubtedly one of our secrets," said the ex-Germany U21 international striker. "In training we have such great quality, that even if you're not playing games, you can still develop and feel part of things."

Hürzeler is just as committed to the cause. When speculation linked him to a job in the Bundesliga and suggested he had already held talks with a club, he replied that the story had "extremely irritated and annoyed" him, explaining: "Because I have already clearly told my bosses, and I will say it again, that I want to stay at St Pauli."

His contract expires at the end of the season, and though talks on an extension have already started, nothing has yet been decided. A bit like - as Hürzeler is aware - the team's fate this season. "Highlights are good," he said after the win over Fürth. "But we know that everything stands on a knife-edge."