Against all expectations SV Ried have repeated their feat of last season by topping the Austrian Bundesliga at the halfway stage of the campaign.
Although Ried scaled the same heights to become winter champions last term few were predicting a similar outcome this time round. However, careful planning, together with a potent combination of creativity, promising young talent and a good deal of courage, have helped them to 32 points at the midway point, level with SK Rapid Wien.
To put their achievements into context, Paul Gludovatz's side come from a town with a population of just 11,500 – 150 times smaller than Vienna. Competing financially against the likes of FC Salzburg, who may play before 31,000 spectators on a good day, is not an option.
Furthermore, Die Wikinger had to contend with the loss of a raft of established players in the summer with Oliver Glasner and Ewald Brenner retiring and Daniel Royer, Thomas Schrammel, Martin Stocklasa, Peter Hackmair and Florian Mader leaving for pastures new.
The loss of Glasner was a significant and particularly cruel blow. The experienced defender suffered a head injury in an aerial challenge against Rapid in the third league game of the season. Several days later, while preparing for the club's UEFA Europa League third qualifying round second leg against Brøndby IF, he complained of headaches and dizziness in training and was taken to hospital in Copenhagen, where a blood clot was discovered on the brain. The 37-year-old veteran had no option but to call time on his career.
Coach Gludovatz reacted by thrusting the inexperienced Thomas Reifeltshammer into the deep end, and the 23-year-old soon established himself as a central pillar in defence and one of the best performers in the Austrian top flight. It was a similar story for midfielder Marco Meilinger, the 20-year-old midfielder who has more than compensated for the loss of Royer.
"We're always ready to give players a chance," said former Austria Under-19 coach Gludovatz, who is 65 and in his fourth season in charge. "That's the way we do things here, and it's not such a bad thing that no player is irreplaceable." Reifeltshammer added: "
The fact that we have become winter champions is no fluke. We work very hard so that everything fits. Everyone at the club does his bit to fulfil his role, and it's paying off."
Despite their success, the club are keeping their feet firmly on the ground. The players are anything but aloof and nobody has mentioned winning the title, or retaining the Austrian Cup, even if both are well within their grasp. The only question that remains is whether people will continue to regard Ried as miracle workers or just a consummately well-run club.
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