The boss reflects on the first chapter of his Premier League adventure, and explains how he's developed such a strong bond with the Saints support.
It’s the week after Southampton’s Premier League status is secured and Ralph Hasenhüttl is out spending time in the local community.
The manager is showing his support for Saints Foundation, the official club charity, who have organised a host of activities in various child-friendly locations across the city.
It’s no surprise to see Hasenhüttl throw himself into it. From ten-pin bowling to mini golf, a kickabout in Hoglands Park to bouldering, Westquay to Sprinkles; he relishes the competition every bit as much as the youngsters who seem in awe of his presence.
The reason it’s no surprise is because he’s such a people person. A lot of Premier League bosses would either decline this request or appear awkwardly out of place, but Hasenhüttl has made it his mission to form a bond between club and fans, and is clever enough to know these kids are the next generation.
Right from his very first game in charge, a worrying 1-0 defeat at Cardiff in early December that left Saints in the relegation zone and five points adrift of their unfancied hosts, the new man at the helm has made a point of sharing a moment with the club’s supporters at full time.
Perhaps that relationship, between team and fans, had been weakened over the previous 18 months, as Saints went from beating Inter Milan, reaching a cup final and consistently finishing in the top half of the table to fighting for their Premier League lives.
But Hasenhüttl is a glass half full kind of guy, and with a difficult situation comes greater room for improvement. By starting from scratch, you can do things your own way.
Such is his appetite for work – he spends hours analysing videos – this chance to explore the city is a rare one.
“Now that it’s light for a little bit longer outside, maybe we have time after work in the evening to go out a little bit and ride the bike or take a run,” he says.
“It’s nice if it’s light outside. It’s a nice part of England, with the sea and the Solent.
“It’s good that we have things in the city for our young people and that helps them to spend time in an atmosphere with friends, playing football or playing mini golf – something like that.
“It’s important for a city that you take care of what the young guys do besides school.
“Some of the guys play football in a club and I think they enjoyed us playing together in the park. It was nice and I enjoyed it very much.
“The bouldering was new for me. It was nice in that building – maybe I will go there again in the summer break.”
Normally, he says, cycling is a more familiar release from the pressures of top-level management: “I like to do it very much in the mountains, so it’s easy here because it’s flat!” Hasenhüttl lets out a laugh that suggests this interview should go pretty well.
That strengthening bond between club and fans was his number one priority on arrival from the Bundesliga, where he most recently managed RB Leipzig through the 206/17 and 2017/18 seasons.
Hasenhüttl spent two decades as a player and manager in Germany, but takes great pride in becoming the Premier League’s first Austrian boss.
The reference to cycling in the mountains is another nod to his homeland, who he represented on eight occasions as an international centre-forward of the late 80s and early 90s.
Beyond the upturn in results, what’s endeared Hasenhüttl to Saints fans is his emotion on the touchline, passionate celebrations and honesty in interviews, when he is not shy to reveal his own vulnerabilities.
He admits he knew very little about Southampton prior to being contacted about the job, and had doubts in overcoming the language barrier.
His English has been excellent from day one, but Hasenhüttl, by his own admission, “wouldn’t be a manager if I wouldn’t criticise something”.
“To tell everything and say everything I wanted to say was not so easy to find the right words,” he explains.
“There are still problems with some vocabulary, but the good thing is that the message is in the right way and the players understand what I mean. That’s the most important thing.
“It was a big question for me: how it works without speaking German. New league, new language, new team, new players, new staff… everything new.
“The first half-year is for sure the most difficult, but I think we adapted and were accepted very quickly from everyone here and that helped us a lot.”
One of the biggest culture shocks, Hasenhüttl declared at the time, was working over Christmas.
“This season was not so difficult because I had a half-year off before, so it was not a big problem that I didn’t celebrate the Christmas time!” he smiles.
“Next season I think it will be more difficult, because we will have four or five months of intensive work to do and then normally you go into the winter break in Germany, but here you come into the most demanding and intensive period, so next season maybe it will be more difficult for me. That will be a very big question, how we manage this.”
On Saints, he adds: “I knew there were a few players who made a big development here and then went to a bigger club, like Sadio Mané or Virgil van Dijk.
“They are why you know the name of Southampton, because they were going from here to bigger clubs.
“I also knew that a few other big players had come from here, like Gareth Bale, Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan. And I knew it was on the south coast! But that’s it, I think.”
There’s something quite refreshing about the way Hasenhüttl speaks. As much as he tends to say what the fans want to hear, it doesn’t strike you as a deliberate tactic. He just tells it how it is.
He only managed Leipzig for two years, but still thinks the world of his previous employer, where he finished runners-up in his first season – the club’s first top-flight campaign – and sixth in his second, competing in the Champions League and reaching the quarter-finals of the Europa League.
ralph hasenhüttlthe first half-year is for sure the most difficult, but i think we adapted and were accepted very quickly from everyone here and that helped us a lot.
on his first five months in charge at st mary's
In Saints, he feels he has found a comparable working environment conducive to success – even if he thinks such lofty league finishes are out of reach at a time when both Champions League finalists and, potentially, both Europa League finalists (likely at the time of writing), play in the Premier League.
“I wanted to get to a club where I found something similar to what I had with my last club: a club that is open-minded for new things, likes to work with young players and develop players.
“That is something that gives you a lot of feedback and positive moments. That is what I was searching for.
“If it was a club from the Premier League – the best league in the world – and you have the chance to work there as the first Austrian ever… I think there are some things out there that are not so nice as this.
“The club and the structure of the club feels very similar to Leipzig, I think: a hard-working club with a lot of expertise in a lot of positions, which is exactly what I want to see and like to work in.
“On the other side, the stadium is maybe a little bit smaller (the Red Bull Arena has a capacity of 42,959), but the only difference is we are here at a club that is not targeting the Champions League.
“It is not possible in the Premier League at the moment to be better than the top six if they do a normal job, because there is so much quality that they have.
“It is not really a problem for me, because I have played in the Champions League and I have had this as a manager once.
“It was nice to have, absolutely, but it’s not a must for me. Playing in the Premier League for me is like the Champions League because you have six of the big clubs, so you feel 12 times a year you are playing in the Champions League.
“They are such huge clubs that you play against and this is demanding enough.”
Hasenhüttl’s self-belief is infectious – he believes he could manage anyone – and that confidence has rubbed off on his players.
The likes of Nathan Redmond, Saints’ Player of the Year, and James Ward-Prowse, whose upturn in form earned the midfielder an England recall, are prime examples of individuals whose performances have improved tenfold in the second half of the season.
But for all the possibilities that may arise in the future, Hasenhüttl is a footballing romantic who loves “the journey”. When the time comes for him to tackle a new challenge, he wants to leave a lasting legacy at St Mary’s.
“It’s not my goal to be a legend,” he leans back in his seat. “My goal is to help the club as much as I can, and if I look back in ten years on the time I was working in Southampton, I want the people to say, ‘we enjoyed this time very much when he was here, we enjoyed the passion he gave us and the wins we celebrated together’.
“If this was something special (for the fans), then it was for me also, and I will keep it in my mind and in my heart. That’s the way I want to work here.
“It’s one thing to be successful – that’s nice – and if you are successful, maybe they love you, but not only because of this.
“It’s more than only celebrating when you win. Sometimes it’s more important to feel their commitment if you’re losing, because you need the warm words more than everything else.
“This commitment between us and the crowd is growing and I can feel it. It’s 11 players, plus the guys sitting on the bench, plus the staff, all doing everything they can for this club to be successful.
“As long as they feel this, they sympathise if you are not playing good. That’s the key thing if you want to be successful for the longer term.
“That’s our goal. Our goal is to make them happy, our goal is to do everything so they can have good weekends, and they know this. That’s the reason why they give us the credit.”
ralph hasenhüttlit's more than only celebrating when you win. sometimes it's important to feel their commitment if you're losing, because you need the warm words more than everything else.
on building his relationship with the saints fans
Hasenhüttl’s rawness is clear again when asked about the first time he saw Saints play – beaten by Tottenham at Wembley as he watched from the stands. He puffs out his cheeks, buying some time to deliver a diplomatic response.
“It was a bad example, I think, from looking at a new team and seeing them play against a very strong opponent, losing 3-1 without any chance to get something,” he surmises.
“I was not surprised because I knew it would be very difficult. With everything that happened after this and after the Cardiff game, when we were five points behind them, we knew it was not going to be easy, but I never took the easy way out and was always focused on the difficult ways.
“The more difficult it is, the happier you are when you’ve done it. At the moment, we are all very proud that we had a successful first half-year.”
Hasenhüttl started work the following day, two days before the Cardiff game, but it was not until the end of his first full week’s training that he got the desired response from a group of players now being told to work with greater intensity and given less days off.
“It’s important that you immediately have a few positive moments,” he reflects.
After losing at Cardiff, Saints won back-to-back games for the first time in 20 months, scoring six goals against Arsenal and Huddersfield combined.
“If you come in, change a few things and lose the first five games, I don’t think there is a belief in everything you speak about,” he continues.
“The most important wins were the first two wins, because they (the players) see, ‘ok, it is not nonsense that he tells us, it can help us win games.’
“That gives you a massive booster for what you tell them and how you work with them.
“After the first two or three weeks, after the wins over Arsenal and Huddersfield, you could see in the training sessions very quickly how open-minded and how fast the guys are learning.
“That is the moment you see as a coach that these guys have a good core, a good understanding and also the quality to do what we want, because it’s not 100 per cent clear when you take a new team that they are not good enough or don’t listen well enough.
“You could see there is some potential that we can develop. If you see this as a coach, you know in this moment this way can be a successful one.
“What happens after the first two or three weeks showed that we were right in that moment.”
In a Premier League table reset on December 15th, the weekend of the Arsenal game, Saints would be level on points with Everton and Leicester, who finished eighth and ninth respectively. And that’s without a win in the last five.
With safety assured, planning can begin for next season and beyond. Typically transparent, Hasenhüttl vows to shake things up.
“The goal is to build a new team for the summer,” he declares. “To bring some new players in, sell some players and get a good restart after pre-season.
“To reach 40 points as soon as possible, that’s the target, and to be consistently taking points – one or three. If you lose, don’t take it as a loss, take it as something you learn from.
“Every defeat we’ve had so far we’ve said, ‘ok, that means we learn and don’t do the mistake once again.'
“If you can minimise losing the points after being in the lead or reduce it 50 per cent, I think we are in a very, very good position. That must also be a goal and a target for next year.”
By Hasenhüttl’s standards, they appear modest objectives, but the boss is reluctant to be quoted on a specific league position.
That’s not to say he isn’t allowing himself to dream – and actively encouraging his supporters to do the same.
“Maybe you cannot win titles, but to celebrate after a good season with the fans is also fantastic,” he concludes.
“In England, you have the chance for two cup wins, so if you have a perfect cup season suddenly you are in the final and you can win a title – it’s also possible for smaller teams.
“If you play a good season in the league, it’s fantastic, because every game you win in the Premier League is something special, and that’s enough for me.”
For now, climbing the Premier League table will have to wait. Anyone for bouldering?