Fabian Hürzeler has only just turned 30, but the FC St. Pauli coach has already outstripped Jürgen Klopp’s start to his managerial career and has revived the Hamburg-based club’s Bundesliga 2 fortunes so radically this season that a long-awaited return to the top flight is now a possibility.
You have been head coach of FC St. Pauli since December 2022. Describe that period for us?
“At first when I started, of course I was a little bit surprised that the boss, Bornemann, called me to ask if I can help the club. The first thing was that I called my former head coach, Timo Schultz, and explained to him what was going on. That was the first thing I did. Then, afterwards, I was focussing a lot on the content on the pitch. I did an analysis of the first part of the season, I analysed what went well, what went not so well. Then I started immediately on the pitch with content, and I tried to talk a lot with the players, because I felt they were a little bit insecure in their heads and 80% of football happens in the head. If they feel insecure and they don’t feel happy with their performance then I have to talk to them a lot, I have to bring back their belief in their own strengths, because they have a lot of potential. That was the first thing I did. Of course, I also talked a lot with my staff, because it’s very important to have good staff around me. Staff who take a lot of responsibility on their own. I have a big staff team in all different areas and I think that’s part of my work and part of successful work if the staff, and everybody, knows what to do and everybody takes their own responsibility. Even the players have to take their own responsibility. Then it will work. These were the first moments, the first weeks. A lot of work, a lot of content on the pitch, a lot of talks to the players and talks to the staff. Then we were lucky that we had good games in the pre-season. We did really well in pre-season and got back our self-confidence. Even when there was a game that we didn’t get three points in, we got a lot of self-confidence. We played against Union Berlin, we played against Gladbach, where we won, we played against Lugano where we had a really good game. That gave the players a lot of selfconfidence back. Then there was the first game against Nürnberg and of course we also need a little bit of luck and we had that against Nürnberg. Then it went step-by-step and now the players, I say the players because they do it on the pitch and I just give them small things, small explanations, but the players are the most important thing. They do it pretty well at the moment.”
Before the defeat against Eintracht Braunschweig on the last match day, FC St. Pauli have won 10 games in a row (a club record), equalling the record set by KSC. What do you make of that? “So, for me, of course, I’m happy, that is the first thing, but I don’t read so much media and stuff. I always say that it’s not the Hürzeler show, it’s my players’ show and I’m just focussing on my job. My job is making the club, FC St. Pauli, successful. That’s why I’m focussing more on the development, more on the process of the team. I think the team still has a lot of things where they can improve. That’s my thing that I show them every day. Every day I show them video sessions, I show them every day that we can still improve. We can still improve. That’s important for me, that’s one thing. The other thing is that we know we where we were eight or nine weeks ago. That we weren’t playing so well and that we had a lot of critics, also in the media. That’s why I think humility, to stay humble and be humble, is a very important thing, a very important value. That is what I want to educate the players about and what I think is also important for the club”. FC St. Pauli have never won 10 games in a row, never before has a coach started the second half of the season with 10 wins in the 2nd division, etc. Records, records…what does that mean to you? “Of course, life has changed since winter, but I think that my education from my parents was also that you have to work hard if you want to achieve something, and you need to stay humble the whole time. That’s why, of course I’m happy that we had ten wins in a row and every win gives me happiness, of course it’s like that, but for me it’s not so difficult to stay on the ground, to stay humble and keep working. That’s my passion: to work as the head coach here. I come here to work every day with a smile, because I think that it’s something special, to be head coach of this big club. Therefore, I keep focussing on the job.” Describe for us what else is part of your playing philosophy. “Of course, at the moment it looks like I am a defensive coach and like to play defensively, but it’s not like that. I played for Bayern Munich for many, many years and there the DNA is that you must win, and you must have the ball. It was always such that we had the ball and I liked that as a player, so of course I like it as a coach. To have the ball and to dominate the game. We want to act on the pitch, we don’t want to react, and we want to have the ball, but I learned a lot in the last three years, also when I was head coach, that you also have to be very compact in the second division and be very good from set-pieces. We also train throw-ins, corners, free-kicks, kick-offs. These are things where we also have a main focus on it, because we saw it against Heidenheim, it was a throw-in where we made the goal. It was a game-changer or a match-winner. Of course, deep inside of me, I like having the ball, but I know that it’s not possible to have the ball all the time, especially in the second division where all the games are 50/50. Therefore, we also work a lot and I also put into my philosophy the work against the ball and from set-pieces.” How would you describe yourself as a coach? “I try to be, or I want to be, authentic, that’s the most important thing. I don’t want to play anything, because the players recognise that immediately. I try to improve every player, even the players who don’t play at the moment. I think that’s my goal, and also the goal of my coaching team: to improve everybody. I think that if the individual players improve the whole team will improve. I’m working a lot on details, so sometimes I think it’s annoying for the players, to work on details so much, but it’s important to me which foot the pass comes to, what speed it is moving, what the timing is and how the positioning is on offence. I work on a lot of details. The main thing for me is that you see the person behind the player, you know that the players are not machines. I think that’s the most important thing, that you treat them well, that the players feel comfortable being here and that they have a smile in the morning. If they don’t like to work and don’t like to train, they will never do anything on the pitch and they will never improve, so that’s the main thing I try to keep working on. I try to have a good relationship to the players and very good communication with them so that they feel good and like to come here every day. We work hard and train a lot and if you don’t have fun in training or on the pitch then it won’t work, so that’s the main thing I’m focussed on.” You were born in Houston, Texas in the USA and moved to Germany at the age of three. What connection do you still have to the United States of America? “I would say it’s still a good relationship. For example, during the World Cup I watched all of the USA games. I like the development of the MLS at the moment. I think the MLS is getting better and better, getting more popular and more famous, also here in Europe. Also for players, for German players, they are going to the United States more and more to try to play there. I went there on holiday, but it was, I think, five or six years ago, but I go there if I have time. I go there on holiday, because I like the culture, the people and the landscape. It’s really nice. I still have a good relationship to the United States.” You came through the youth academy at FC Bayern and became south/west Champions. Tell us about that time. “When I was really young, eleven or twelve years old, I went to Bayern Munich, and I think I was the worst player in the team there. Then I was really like, and I still am today, if I want something I want it really badly and I go for it, so I trained a lot and I got better and better and improved a lot in that time. The main thing was that I had really good coaches, as people. For example, I had Mehmet Scholl in the second team, I had Kurt Niedermayer, I had Heiko Vogel. They were great, great personalities who I learned a lot from. As a player I learned a lot from them, not only about how football works, but also how to be a professional soccer player, how to behave on the pitch and off the pitch. It’s also something different to be a youth player at Bayern Munich, because you always have to win, it’s a must. If you don’t win it’s a bad game. It’s also in my DNA and today I still want to win everything. That is what I learned there. I also learned, because I was always captain in my youth teams, to take a lot of responsibility. The coaches also gave me a lot of responsibility and it’s also a thing I try to do now as a head coach: to give players responsibility for themselves so they can make decisions. Of course, in the end. I make the main decisions, but I want them to look at scenes, to look at football and come to me if they have new ideas. That is also something I learned from my time as a player.” What experience did you gain with the professionals? “There I learned a lot about transitions in football. I had a coach, [Markus] Gisdol, and he was fond of this. He did a lot of transitions, stood very compact and then if you won the ball, he’d go for goal immediately. That was also the DNA of Hoffenheim, so it was also very interesting, the content I learned there as a player. It was also the first time I was away from Munich, from my family and my friends, so it also improved me in terms of my personality. The first time being away from your family is not so easy. I was pretty young, I lived in a hotel for the first month there and it was a new culture and new conditions around me, so it was really different, and I grew in terms of personality.” How is your life different from other 30-year-olds? “I can’t say how normal life is in your thirties, for me it’s normal to be here. Of course, I know that I am now a person who is also in the public eye and in the media a lot, so of course I’m not the guy who goes out celebrating all night. I like to go out with my friends for a good dinner, I also like to go play, for example, paddle tennis because I think it’s important to clear your head and for it to not just be football, football, football, the whole day. Since winter life has changed. I am at home a little bit more and here a little bit more at the moment. I also have to say that I have to work more here, but I like to do it. It’s not like I am complaining about anything, I am really happy to be here. I’m really happy to work so much and I have a great staff around me, so it’s not like I am sitting here at eight o’clock alone in my office. I have three or four people around me, so it’s fun and therefore I am not complaining about that.” What makes FC St. Pauli special and what distinguishes it from other clubs? “What makes it special, if you look back at history of St. Pauli is also the area of the city. There are a lot of workers and a lot of people also try to do social projects and bring politics into the stadium. I think that St. Pauli has great values. For example, against racism. They try to do everything for humility in the world and they also try to do a lot for the environment. These are things I can completely identify with and that is something that’s really special here. It’s not only about soccer, it’s also about other things which are very important in life. That’s why I can completely identify with it. It’s important for me to also know that St. Pauli isn’t just what you sometimes hear about as a cult club. To me it’s not a cult club, it’s also a club where we have ambition and where we want to reach something. It’s not only about doing politics in the stadium and doing social projects and stuff like that, it’s also about us wanting to be successful here and wanting to reach something. That’s also a main reason why I like being head coach here.” What was a particularly big culture shock for you as a Bavarian? “I would say no, because I am a very open person and very open-minded, so…. I’m not a St. Paulianer, because I was born in Houston, Texas, but I think here everything is very humble and I like that. It’s not like people are arrogant, they come to you and talk to you, even on the street, and they are always very respectful, so the treatment and the relationship between us and the crowd and the fans is very respectful. We have unbelievable supporters and that’s why I didn’t have any difficulty getting integrated here. The people here in St. Pauli are very open, I’m very open, they have great values, and I can completely identify with those values, so it makes it easy for me to be here. First, as an assistant coach I felt very welcome here, because there is also a feeling of family and sometimes it’s very small. Of course, I know St. Pauli is a big club, but you meet the guys on the street and in the stadium and you have a talk with them, so it feels like family. I like family and I also have a big family, so that’s something which is very important for me.” What has the feedback from the fans in Hamburg been? “At the moment we have lost once and won ten times in a row so of course there is a lot of positive feedback. I also know that if it didn’t go so well the people would treat us, the players and the people who are responsible for things here, very respectfully. They try to support us in every stadium here in Bundesliga 2 and they always travel far. For example, against Heidenheim, I think they travelled for 25 hours to see the game and they were singing for 90 minutes or even longer. They were still singing after the game for another hour. The game had already ended, and they were still singing! The support here is amazing. It’s not like that’s because of the success. Of course, now we are successful, but they are not supporting us because of the success, but because they feel that the players try to give everything on the pitch. If the fans recognise this they will support us until the end. That’s also what makes the St. Pauli fans very special.” At the weekend you will play against HSV in the city derby. What do you expect? “Of course HSV will be a big game. A great opponent and they are doing very well this season, so it will be tough. Like I said before, in the second Bundesliga the games always start 50/50, it’s always hard work and of course you also need a bit of luck, but we are looking forward to that game.” From 15th place to fifth place, six points behind the HSV and the promotion playoff place. What is possible, what would you still like to achieve with FC St. Pauli? “I don’t know, I can’t see into the future, but I always say to the team and to my players that they should keep focussing on their process. I am very demanding that they keep focussing in their process, because we still have a lot of improvements [to make]. It’s still hard work which we should do on the pitch, it’s still hard work which we should do in the gym. You all have big potential, but you can all improve. Even when you are thirty you can still improve. That’s what I have always said in every meeting here and that’s why I am not the coach who thinks about three or four weeks. I think about the next day and how to improve the players, how to improve the team, what should we do in training this week to improve. My job is to try to do the best preparation for them. The players should also focus on their development and their process. Of course they can have dreams, it’s normal that they have dreams, but I will say to them that if you are able to go the hard way, to go the way where we have a lot of resistance then you won’t regret it and then you will be successful. But I if you think we can go the easy way and you don’t work hard then you won’t reach anything and that’s the kind of things I try to explain to them and the message I try to bring to them.” Is promotion still possible with hard work? “With hard work you can reach a lot, but I don’t know where it will end.”