Two things immediately strike the casual observer upon glancing over the German Bundesliga table. One is the extraordinary 11-point lead established by Borussia Dortmund less than two-thirds of the way into the campaign, and the other is the name of the team currently occupying third spot.
It's fair to say that, back in the heady days of summer 2010, no-one expected that team to be Hannover 96. Frankly, and as in the previous eight seasons, the men from Lower Saxony were ranked among the candidates for relegation. However, the side captained by USA international Steve Cherundolo has emerged as one of the true surprise packages in a remarkable Bundesliga season, and currently lie ahead of the usual suspects such as Bayern Munich (4th), Hamburg (6th), Schalke (10th) and Werder Bremen (14th).
"We had a fantastic first half of the season. None of us had a clue where we might finish up, because none of us suspected we’d play the football we have,” the long-serving skipper told FIFA.com. “But we worked really hard and effectively in pre-season. Obviously, we didn’t think it would go quite as well as it has, but you get into a rhythm after a while. We’ve come to a point where it feels relatively easy and we’ve come together as a team. We’ve started the second half of the season well too, and although we’ve just lost to Schalke, it was unlucky.”
On course for best-ever finish
The club, founded as the name suggests in 1896, won the old German championship in 1938 and 1954, but the last trophy of note arrived some 20 years ago with a German Cup triumph in 1992.
The best Bundesliga position ever achieved by Die Roten was in 1964/65, a sensational fifth place as a promoted club. This term, should Cherundolo and Co prove capable of maintaining their scintillating form, there must even be a chance of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League. Boasting 11 league wins, seven defeats and just one draw so far, their pre-season target of avoiding relegation appears done and dusted, but the players are keeping their collective feet firmly on the ground.
"It's not the right time to amend our target, and I don’t think we will either. We’re taking each game as it comes, we’ll look to win them all and play to the limit. Anything other than that wouldn’t be smart or effective,” said the US international.
Team unity the key
Cherundolo has a ready explanation for the club’s current brush with the higher reaches of the table. "This team is a genuine unit. Our team spirit and collective determination is one of our great strengths. The club has done well to bring this group together, we’re all ambitious and hungry for success. Our training is totally geared up to winning at the weekend. The coach and his staff know exactly how to work with us and get the best out of us. And we’ve also had that little bit of luck you need, but which we lacked last season,” the right-back explained.
Coach Mirko Slomka must take much of the credit for the club’s remarkable turnaround in fortunes. Almost exactly a year ago, the former Schalke boss took the helm at the club where he began his coaching career in 1998, then supervising the U-19 squad.
The early months of Slomka’s tenure were fraught at times and Hannover just scraped to safety last term, but director of sport Jorg Schmadtke and powerful President Martin Kind opted to keep the faith with the likeable boss. The board has now been amply rewarded for their loyalty.
Slomka’s patent recipe
“Mr Slomka came to us with a long-term plan for the team,” continued Cherundolo, recalling the first few weeks of the coach’s reign. “We lost the first six games after his arrival, but he’s stuck at it. I remember how well we worked in training at the time, even if it wasn’t exactly the best of starts.”
The 2010/11 campaign has been a total contrast so far. Slomka, who appointed Cherundolo club captain before the season, has worked closely with Schmadtke and Kind to fashion a team finally capable of bringing back the good times to the state capital of Lower Saxony.
Of the current group of players, Côte d’Ivoire hitman Didier Ya Konan has blossomed and flourished under the new regime. The striker arrived in the Bundesliga in August 2009 from Norway’s Rosenborg and currently has 19 goals to his name in 42 appearances. He has also provided nine assists over the same period, and boasts ten strikes and four assists from the first half of this Bundesliga season alone.
Healthy battle for places
However, even the on-fire Ivorian international is not guaranteed a place in the starting line-up, as Cherundolo emphasised: "No-one can be certain of a regular place here. I’m the captain, but even I have to work hard every single day. There’s a very positive and constructive battle for places,” said the 31-year-old.
The team’s success is reflected in the attendance figures at the club’s magnificent AWD Arena home. The stadium has been filled to 88 per cent of its capacity this term with an average attendance of 43,172, easily a record since Die Roten regained their top-flight status in 2002.
The man capped 65 times by the USA finished his conversation with FIFA.com by thanking the fans and underlining the vital role played by the home support. "The football we’ve laid on for the fans this season is actually much more important than our current league position. Our supporters are proud of their team and delighted at the way it’s going. They know we work ourselves into the ground for them every day, and we’ll keep doing just that, because we want them with us all the way."