Looking back on a hard year with hope for the next one
The period that has just come to an end will of course be remembered for several reasons, but one of those is the now familiar feeling of long, intensive weeks filled with their share of Thursday evening fixtures. With month after month full of these so-called "English weeks" in the legs, the fact that not long ago our team was able to come together, gather one last burst of energy and sign off for winter with a win (1-0 away vs Admira) is not only a sign of Rapid's current character, but an important boost to allow everyone to relax and recharge in the right spirit.
And why shouldn’t the team be in good spirits? For, after a period of so many challenges we are able to look back at a league table with Rapid in a solid second place, more than just in touch with the top. Head Coach Didi Kühbauer understandably said that the group were looking forward to their holidays, but also touched on some more important points: "It's fantastic to see how the boys have developed. Yes - we reached our limits, but when you look at what the team have achieved this year - to be second, to have the best average points haul from the Autumn whilst being involved in the Europa League - I think that says a lot about this team." With so many games piling up on all fronts, it’s easy to lose sight of what Rapid have actually achieved. We shouldn’t forget that at the end of last season Rapid could hold their heads high having secured a strong second place in the Bundesliga, a feat which led to a place in the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds. It's only been around five months since then, and yet we’ve played 23 competitive games, with all the highs and lows that go along with them.
With the ever-changing backdrop of Corona keeping everyone on their toes, it’s also easy to forget that when we beat Admira 4-1 in our home opener back in September, 10,000 fans were still allowed to join in the celebrations at the Allianz Stadium. How far away that all seems now! Shortly after that of course, the numbers were sharply reduced before settling at a round zero. Games without fans will always be a sore spot for us, but at the very least our fixtures were able to go ahead consistently. There were plenty of other challenges going back to our summer break too, not least, the departures from our squad; captain Stefan Schwab was followed out of the door by Thomas Murg, with Tobias Knoflach and Stephan Auer also leaving. Thankfully some of the gaps have been filled by young players from right here in Hütteldorf, who showed they were up to the task as they were thrown in at the deep end! Think of Leo Greiml who had to step in to replace the injured Christopher Dibon; it was as recently as 2018 that he signed his contract with us on just his 17th birthday, and yet he has settled into the side as if he’s always been there. How about Yusuf Demir, who announced his arrival this season emphatically, with a wonder goal against Gent in the Champions League qualifiers? Sadly that strike came too late to rescue the tie, but after the previous hurdle of LOK Zagreb had been overcome, we were at least still able to look forward to European action in the form of the UEFA Europa League group stages.
Unsurprisingly our next tasks were not about to get any easier! In the form of Premier League side Arsenal we drew a giant of European club football, making it all the more painful to play out a valiant 2-1 defeat in front of just 3,000 fans (just days later no fans at all would be allowed in). With the situation in Austria always changing, the conditions for the players were tough. As Max Hofmann said: "We can't influence it, of course we’d love to play in front of our fans, we always miss that a lot, but we have to make the best of it and try to get some enjoyment out of it.” Hofmann would go on to do just that by taking over the captain’s armband from the next player on our injury list; Dejan Ljubicic, but the whole team was singing from the same hymn sheet too, going seven unbeaten at the beginning of the campaign for a record start tally that we hadn’t managed in over three decades. Our strike partnership of Ercan Kara and Taxi Fountas were instrumental in that, gelling well and always looking dangerous, but also grabbing the vital goals when they were desperately needed, as Kara showed when he stepped up to net the winner from the spot in a topsy-turvy 4-3 win over WAC. Kara, who was only signed at the beginning of the year, has now bagged 14 goals in 32 games: “The most important thing for me was to get settled in at Rapid and to work on myself. I’m pleased that everyone can see that more and more now!” Marcel Ritzmaier was another to settle in well since his late loan arrival from Barnsley in the English Championship. The former WAC player not only found the net with stunning strikes in early cup and league games, but he’s played his way into the first team by adding some excellent attacking impetus. There was a big moment this year for Srdjan Grahovac, as our dependable ‘fixer’ in defensive midfield got to wear the captain’s armband for the first time in our away win at Hartberg. I’ve got the photo hanging up at home and I’ll never forget it!"
The team showed great strength in a hard-fought 1-1 draw at home to Salzburg in a top-of-the-table clash worthy of its billing, and we also displayed a different side in another 1-1, when we somehow drew with FK Austria despite having over 30 shots in the only derby of the year (with both the number of shots and the scarcity of derbies being interesting statistics in themselves)! In European competition, a slip-up against Molde was put behind us thanks to two precious wins against Irish side Dundalk which kept us in the running, and despite the not entirely satisfying nature of the aforementioned results, there were plenty of signs that we’re heading in the right direction.
In fairness, our momentum began to slow around the international break in late November. First came the end of our unbeaten run with an unnecessary 3-4 loss to SV Ried denying us the top spot in the table, and then shortly afterwards our European dream was over as a 2-2 draw against Molde wasn't enough for second spot. Other setbacks were also to come along in December, notably a 3-0 defeat to WSG Tirol, and then an emphatic cup exit after a 6-2 loss in Salzburg. Such things can happen in football, and with so many injuries and matches behind us, Didi Kühbauer was quick to dispel any thoughts of a crisis in the west of Vienna: "We deserve more respect, more calmness - we certainly won’t be losing our cool, because what this team is doing is great."
And so the team kept their heads down and carried on, bringing us back to that final fixture of 2020 against Admira. Everyone put in a shift, played their part and won their own battles, such as Paul Gartler, who has recently been able to put his stamp on the position between the posts, enjoying his first clean sheet since coming into the side. It was more than just a 1-0 win, it was a fitting send off after an incredibly challenging period which was - for the most part - handled really well by Rapid.
As Didi Kühbauer put it: "Whenever there’s a little rut, people say that things are not working… I know there’s always pressure at Rapid, but it’s still the best club to be at!” Or, in the words of wing man Thorsten Schick: "These past few weeks we’ve taken a bit of a beating, but there’s a long way to go, and we’re right in the mix. Anyway, what matters are the standings at the end." Quite!
Photos: GEPA Pictures, Red Ring Shots, JUK.