Jan Schlaudraff was hovering by the exit door at Hannover 96 18 months ago; on Thursday, he hopes to fire the German club into the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals.
"I can't see Schlaudraff playing for us again," Hannover president Martin Kind told the German media in September 2010 after being asked about his 'problem child'. "The decision has been made; he's had his chance." Yet Schlaudraff was not someone who could be forgiven the impetuousness of youth; he was 27 and his career apparently lay in tatters.
Last week a similar question, this time put to coach Mirko Slomka after his side's 2-2 draw at R. Standard de Liège in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League round of 16, elicited a rather different reply: "Jan is very important to us. He will be a big player for us in the second leg, and hopefully lead the team into the last eight." What, though, has turned Schlaudraff into a vision in red?
His talent was never in doubt. He made his name at TSV Alemannia Aachen, helping them gain promotion to the Bundesliga for 2006/07 and then immediately looking like he had never known any different. In the last 16 of the German Cup he further fuelled his burgeoning reputation by inspiring a stunning 4-2 victory against FC Bayern München. The Bavarian giants were certainly impressed: that summer they made Schlaudraff their own.
"This is the right step for me," he said at the time. It was not. Undermined by injuries, he never managed to clamber up a daunting pecking order that included Miroslav Klose, Luca Toni and Lukas Podolski, and was restricted to eight Bundesliga appearances before departing in summer 2008, to Hannover. Reuniting with Dieter Hecking, his mentor at Aachen, was supposed to revive his career; several disagreements meant it was soon in jeopardy.
Kind's harsh criticisms summed up the mood but now Schlaudraff was listening. He mended his ways, reformed and reinvented himself as an attacking midfielder – a position he had experienced at Bayern – and this season he has already played more games than in any campaign since leaving Aachen. He is now an integral member of the team, and tellingly he says his turnaround "was down to the collective – the coach, the team and the club management; and myself."
He added: "If I'd been in a team where I didn't feel welcome, it would have been much worse for me." Now he is repaying Hannover, renewing terms recently with a deal tying him to the club until 2015. Duty calls again on Thursday when he returns after missing the first leg through suspension as Standard visit with a place in Friday's quarter-final draw at stake. Once, Schlaudraff may have shirked the responsibility; not now.
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