BY KEVIN O’NEILL
Although you are probably familiar with Bayern Munich’s multi-talented David Alaba and Stoke City’s explosive but unpredictable attacker Marko Arnautovic, it is exceedingly rare for Austrian football’s trials and tribulations to reach our ears.
Granted, an impressive record in qualifying for this year’s European Championships brought some uncommon attention to the country’s footballers who had not previously reached the Euros through the qualifying process – though they did compete in the 2008 edition as co-hosts with Switzerland.
That the Austrian team, however, completely flopped at the summer’s tournament in France – losing twice in the group stages against Hungary and Iceland to return to Vienna in underwhelming fashion – was indicative, in some ways, of the unflattering way in which many people view the game in a landlocked Central European country with a domestic top-flight, the Austrian Football Bundesliga, that always plays second fiddle – in terms of attention, finance and prestige – to the neighbouring Bundesliga in Germany, to where many Austrian clubs tend to lose their better players.
Of course, there have been occasions when clubs from Austria have caught the eye of fans outside their Alpine surroundings with both Viennese clubs, Austria and Rapid, reaching the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in the seventies and eighties, and SV Austria Salzburg (now FC Red Bull Salzburg) finishing runners-up in the 1993/94 UEFA Cup.
Both Vienna clubs are also performing capably in this season’s UEFA Europa League and could reach the knockout rounds.
And they, along with SC Rheindorf Altach who have never won the league, and Sturm Graz, who competed three times in the Champions League group stages in the late nineties, are among a handful of clubs currently battling to break RB Salzburg’s recent domination of the Austrian Bundesliga.
While in terms of producing truly outstanding players, Austria has been able to offer the world the likes of Andreas Herzog, Hans Krankl, Toni Polster and Matthias Sindelar.
But aside from when Austrian clubs and players perform reasonably well in European competition, the domestic game is hardly spoken of outside its own borders – and certainly never makes much noise, if any at all, among British football supporters and media outlets.
And perhaps a key reason why Austrian football barely ever registers with British folk is the absolute paucity of their own to play or coach there.
For in recent seasons, there has only been very slight British links to the Austrian game.
The London-born striker Gary Noel, who played for a number of non-league English clubs including Carshalton, Croydon, Dulwich Hamlet and Lewes before venturing to Austria in 2011, represented four different teams in there, most recently First Vienna FC, the oldest club in the country who twice played in the UEFA Cup in the late eighties but now find themselves in the third-tier.
The only other link I could find, having researched the topic in recent weeks, was the appearance of 26-year-old attacker Khurram Shazad, a former college player in the United States who initially came through the ranks with Halifax, who since last year has played for WSG Wattens, helping them to promotion to the second tier last season.
And then, tucked away in the country’s fourth-tier in the tourist friendly Kitzbuhel district that borders Bavaria in Germany, is a young coach called Sean Caldwell who previously worked for Ashford Town and Brentford in England.
Now operating as assistant manager of FC Eurotours Kitzbuhel under long-serving boss Alexander Markl, the Staines native said that in Austria he has found a perfect place to live and learn the nuts and bolts of club management.
“It was the culture and the people that brought me to Austria in the first place. Everybody is incredibly welcoming and friendly, and there’s always a good atmosphere in the winter when the area is packed full of tourists on their ski holidays. It all makes Austria a very good place to live in,” he said.
In actual fact, it was with skiing in mind, not football, that Caldwell first set-off for Austria – and Kitzbuhel – about ten years ago.
Initially, he went there for leisure purposes. But that all changed when he befriended the Greek coach Niko Kardakaris, who had been combining the role of guiding the FC Eurotours Kitzbuhel Under 7/8s with managing a small local senior club called FC Reith who were competing in the second bottom rung (eight tier) of the Austrian league.
Soon, Sean was asked to assist with the Under-7/8 group while also working as Head Coach of the club’s Under-17s. And within a short period, he was also recruited to be Kardakaris’ assistant in Reith.
Together, they helped turn around what had been a poor start to the 2015/16 season, so much so that Caldwell was invited to take the role as assistant manager in Eurotours Kitzbuhel.
“I had always wanted to coach abroad and when the opportunity arose in Austria, a place I was very familiar with through holidaying, I was delighted to give it a go,” Caldwell told The Football Pink.
“I saw the initial stages as a great chance to learn to speak German better, and to pick up more experience in helping very young players develop. After helping out with Reith, getting the chance to work alongside Alexander Markl with the Kitzbuhel first-team was something I had to do. It was a very good opportunity to start working with senior players, although that was never the intention when I moved to Austria. But when opportunities to improve as a coach come along, you really need to take them,” Sean added.
When Caldwell was installed beside Merkl, who has served Kitzbuhel for 13 years, the club had just suffered the first relegation of Merkl’s lengthy reign which previously saw Kitzbuhel rise from the fifth-tier to the third.
But the club, said Caldwell, has grown significantly in the last decade or so, with Merkl always insisting on developing the club infrastructure and the standard of its training facilities and those in place at their home ground, Stadion Sportplatz Kitzbuhel-Langau, where on a good day home attendances can reach around 700 (about ten per cent of the town’s population).
Equally, there are times when home gates plummet to around 200 or so.
Regardless of results and attendances at any given time, one of FC Kitzbuhel’s most admirable qualities is that it always looks to invest in its facilities, said Sean, who was thrilled to be involved when both Stoke City and FC Koln availed of the club facilities in their most recent pre-season preparations.
“The standard of our pitch and partner hotel is very high, and on top of that we have a floodlit grass training pitch and 3G astro training pitch, all on the same site, alongside the basic changing room facilities which are due for an upgrade in the next year or two,” he said.
But the club is not interested in simply honing its facilities and has serious on-field ambitions, too.
For now, the burning desire is to win promotion and restore Kitzbuhel to the third-tier.
But with only one team promoted from their division, achieving the short-term goal is not straightforward, Caldwell said.
It helps, however, when your team appears to be superior to most of the other 15 teams in their division, apart from nearest challengers SVG Reichenau, who at time of writing were just three points adrift of table-topping Kitzbuhel with the midway point in the league just around the corner.
The division itself, said Caldwell, tends to be extremely competitive even if Kitzbuhel, Reichenau and third-placed SV Telfs appear to be a step or two ahead of the competition.
“The gap in each Austrian league can be very big between the first and last placed teams,” said Caldwell.
“If you want to compare the standard to England, I would be confident our team could push towards the top of Conference National, if not the bottom half in League 2. The teams in the last positions in our division are more suited to Conference North/South but that said, it is a highly competitive league and anybody can beat anyone on their day. In fact, the Austrian Bundesliga is not too dissimilar in that some teams, in my opinion, could hold themselves in the English Premier League, while others are more Championship level. You can see by the success of Rapid and Austria Vienna in this season’s UEFA Europa League that their standard is really quite high.
“In Kitzbuhel, we have some technically very good players and the league is very physical. Personally, I like the work-rate and fighting spirit of the Austrian players, and you certainly see some English footballing mentality in some of the boys. When this combines with their technical skill, you end up having some very good players. However, I would say the general game/tactical understanding is not as good as in England. Players are not taught how to think for themselves from a young age and youth development needs a lot of work over here. A lot of the players are naturally physically strong and fit, so while Austria has started to produce a better standard of player for the national team, it is nowhere near the numbers where it should be,” he added.
Indeed, added Sean, the Austrian league should be considered a reasonable alternative for British players struggling to find their way in the lower leagues, pointing to the impact made by former Aldershot striker Tom Richards since he joined the Kitzbuhel ranks this season.
“Yeah, Tom has settled in well. He came to us purely to get football on a regular basis, which he found hard to come by in the Conference. It is a perfect opportunity for him, and for any young English player, to come and play football in an amazing environment in the middle of the Austrian Alps in a very competitive league. Up until now, Tom has done very well. We have a very dangerous front four and he certainly plays his part as a big threat to opponents,” said Sean.
But nowhere in the world, he continued, can be absolutely perfect and Austria is no different.
The local diet and freezing winter temperatures make it hard for foreign players and coaches to fully adapt to the surroundings.
It can take time but Caldwell feels that once you find your own way of doing things in the new environment, to make things more to your personal liking, Austrian life is ideal for anybody looking for a new challenge in a beautiful part of Europe.
“There are certain things to get used to,” he said.
“The food, for example, is not particularly healthy with lots of carbohydrates and meat involved – and then there’s the quite large alcohol intake in the local diet. Because of that, I tend to cook for myself rather than going out to eat too often. The weather in the summer can be incredibly hot (35 degrees) but in winter we almost certainly have to train in between -10 to -20 degrees at least once. Look, these things come with the territory and is the reason why we have a six-week break in the winter and only around six weeks in the summer, too.
“But when I left England the idea was to work in Austria for one or two seasons – then maybe in Germany, France, Italy and Spain. I had the idea to travel about a bit and gain experience of many types of football and coaching styles. But plans can change quickly in football and I can’t see myself leaving the club, if we achieve promotion this season. I am very happy where I am and enjoy first-team football more than I thought I would because I always intended to stay in Academy/youth football. Because of the enjoyment I’m getting in Kitzbuhel and the fact the league is going well and we’re in the last 16 of the Regional Cup, I’m not thinking about anything but Kitzbuhel for the moment. What I really want to do is to keep learning, developing and pushing myself in a competitive environment on a daily basis. I am certainly doing these things in Austria, so who knows, maybe I’m here to stay,” added the UEFA ‘B’ Licence coach.
So, perhaps in the next few years we might see Caldwell coming even more to the fore in domestic Austrian football.
And maybe, just maybe, his involvement in the Austrian game, and him spreading its word, could eventually lead to more British players and coaches to follow his example by stepping out of the ordinary and into unknown waters where job satisfaction and achievement, while mainly going under the radar, can make one’s sporting life extremely rewarding.