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Sitting on the outskirts of Munich, nestled on the edge of the Bavarian forest, is the district of Unterhaching. 

With a population of just over 25,000, Unterhaching is the home of multiple Olympic medals in bobsledding, but the local football club now resides in the German fourth tier following relegation to the regional level last season.

The club’s glory years came at the turn of the century when they spent two seasons in the Bundesliga but by late 2004, ‘Haching’ were back in the second division and rebuilding when a recently retired striker was given his first steps into the world of coaching. 

By 2007, he was first-team manager and today he patrols the touchline at St Mary’s. Everyone starts somewhere and for Ralph Hasenhuttl, that somewhere was SpVgg Unterhaching.

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Hasenhuttl’s playing career largely took him around his native Austria along with stints in Germany, scoring at a rate of one goal every 3.8 games. His final stop did see him act as a mentor-player in the Bayern Munich U23s so his quick move into coaching was hardly a surprise.

Daily Echo: Hasenhuttl in action for KolnHasenhuttl in action for Koln

Initially tasked with turning around a struggling U18s side, Hasenhuttl worked closely alongside current Unterhaching Technical Director and then U19s coach Steffen Galm. 

Early on in our discussion, Galm is implored to clarify a new word he has just introduced: menschenfanger. Loosely translated to “human-catcher” a menschenfanger is someone that people naturally gravitate towards and Galm's experience, Ralph has always been one.

“We were both young coaches,” Galm explains. “It was his first year. I knew him as a player - he was a very good player, at the end of his career he was with Bayern Munich U23s as a leader. So we were glad at that time that he came to our club. 

“His greatest strength was that he was able to start the fire in the young players. They were in a very bad position in the league at that time when he came. And when he started they got new hope, played very well, and they stayed in the league. 

“He’s a real human. He’s a good person. He doesn’t look down at people. He’s a very normal person and I think the players respect that.”

Daily Echo: The home of SpVgg Unterhaching. Image by: PAThe home of SpVgg Unterhaching. Image by: PA

After steering the U18s away from foot of the table, Hasenhuttl was promoted to the first-team set-up as assistant to a classically old-school German manager, Werner Lorant, before continuing under another in Heribert Deutinger. 

It was at this stage that Patrick Ziegler, a talented young defender taking his own first steps into the professional football world crossed paths with Hasenhuttl.

“You could talk to him,” Ziegler, who was just 16 at the time recalls. “He knew how to handle people. How to make them happy, how to talk to them and I don’t know how long ago he had retired, a few years only, and you felt it. He was still sort of a player. That was my impression of him – you could talk to him.”

Admittedly as assistant coach, Hasenhuttl didn't have to take up the role of disciplinarian and could freely develop close relationships with his team. But even when elevated to the position of manager, he naturally adopted the “human-catcher” personal approach that is so evident on the South Coast these days.

“He was part of the team,” Ziegler continues. “He was emotional. He cares about people and he listens. It’s like this personal relationship, this caring about people, how to handle people. This was his strength back then rather than the tactical stuff. I think that’s why fans like him so much – because he’s like a guy you could meet in the pub and have a drink with. He’s emotional with the game and maybe some people see themselves in him.”

After a brief spell as interim boss in March 2007, Hasenhuttl was offered his first full-time managerial role in October of the same year. Haching finished the season a respectable sixth in the German third tier before besting that by coming fourth the following campaign. But stuttering form in his third year saw Hasenhuttl’s maiden managerial voyage come to a slightly bitter end. 

It's now more than a decade since Hasenhuttl departed the Bavarian club but the memories of him remain fresh.

Former Haching striker Robert Lechleiter, now U19s coach at the same club, says his own coaching philosophy has been influenced by Hasenhuttl's attacking approach and constant attempts to connect with those around him on a personal level.

Matthias Lust, part of Hasenhuttl's first coaching staff, tells of one way the coaches grew so close, as part of the Unterhaching Senior team. Not to be mistaken with the first team, the Senior team was made up of coaches and senior personnel with Hasenhuttl taking it fiercely competitively. Lust enjoys pointing out that the Senior team didn’t just play - they mostly won as well.

Their games only occurred every two weeks, but Hasenhuttl made sure he stayed ready for his fortnightly Senior Team appearances in everyday training.

“He even played with us!” Ziegler laughs. “We used to warm up with a game where there are four cones and one person in the middle. He used to play with us. He went outside 10-15 minutes before training and we played this game. He was part of the guys basically.

“He was good, he was good. He was a big tall guy so he had good strength, his technique was also good.”

Galm explains that Unterhaching has a long tradition of “finding their own solution” when requiring a new manager and as such he wasn’t surprised to see Hasenhuttl thrust with the role when the time came. Quickly he saw the same fire kindled in the first-team players as had been clear in the U18s three years prior. 

“Ralph’s now in his mid-50s and back then he was still not so young like many managers now but I think he has stayed young in his life,” Galm says. “He jokes and talks like a young person. He stayed young, he knows the language of the young people. He’s up to date.

“At that time, normally a manager came and says you do this, this this this this and don’t ask questions. But I think Ralph was a fresh manager. It was more fun on the training pitch. Very very very serious but fun. This is a very good balance.”

The balance between fun and discipline was at the centre of Hasenhuttl’s methods during a time when tactically perhaps he had yet to develop in the ways that would come in the Bundesliga and Premier League.

Daily Echo: Hasenhuttl when appointed as Saints boss.Hasenhuttl when appointed as Saints boss.

Having become renowned for his 4-2-2-2 system and high-pressing philosophy, Hasenhuttl was more focused on the intangibles in his early days - making sure the players were a reflection of the confidence and vitality he himself possessed.

“He was about giving the guys confidence and being emotional. That was football to him,” Ziegler says. “He was always a very confident guy. But I wouldn’t say from the start, like with (Julian) Nagelsmann, you could see this tactical mastery. But you could see his emotion and his willingness to do anything. You could see that. 

“He was still about discipline, it was still about how to behave, to do things together as a team,” Ziegler continues. “The tightness between the players was the most important thing. I remember we did a lot of team events to make us a good team. The older German guys, the coaches, you felt like a slave almost! No respect sometimes – and it was not like that with him.

“I think he developed tactically over time but back then he started more as someone who cared about relationships. And he tried things.”

Ziegler explains the lengths Hasenhuttl would go to in order to help the team bond, taking the players on cross-country skiing trips during the German winter break or veering into the nearby forest to sprint up hills  when the day-to-day grind got a bit too mundane.

Lechleiter says the connection between Hasenhuttl and his team was “immediate” owed in no small part to his willingness to get creative with his methods, offering something completely unique from the traditional German taskmaster manager most og the player had become accustomed to.

But speak to anyone who knew the Saints boss back then or since and it seems that the two key components behind everything he did and does is emotion and energy.

“He was always emotional. He gave energy to the guys,” Ziegler says. “He was never a quiet guy. I can never remember him quiet! But not rude. There’s a difference between giving the guys energy and being rude and just blaming them. He was very energetic and always tried to give his energy to the guys especially at half-time when it’s not the perfect result. I liked his style. Some coaches it’s like they’re asleep but he always had so much energy!”

For Galm, Hasenhuttl’s lack of tactical development was far from an issue with those intangibles he possessed the key to his seismic potential. “Tactically…millions of managers are good at that," he says. "But you have to lead a whole squad and I think this is his very very great skill. Players want to play for him.

“He was very powerful, very powerful. He goes on the pitch and he says to his players ‘We dominate. We have the ball. We don’t wait for the other team.’

“I’ve seen many managers who are very very good not make it that far. And I’ve seen many many managers who I didn’t think could go that far. But the personality of Ralph made me believe in his career. But on his way it was important that he had the fortune of the results, good teams. But Ralph is a leader. He’s a born leader. And I’m very glad he’s made it this far because I know he’s a good human and for me, it’s a pleasure to have such a person in this very very tricky business.”

The Hasenhuttl connection to Unterhaching doesn’t just exist in memories though, with Ralph’s son, Patrick, following in his father’s footsteps. Of course, that might breed more competition than connection particularly when Galm incites a controversial musical battle that’s sure to stir up the Hasenhuttl home.

“I know his son Patrick, he was a player for us, he’s very very proud of his father,” Galm says. “I know he’s a very good father, a very funny father. I think he plays a little bit of piano, but I don’t know how good. Patrick says he’s better than his father!”