ALTACH, Austria (Reuters) - The Alpine village of Altach boasts one supermarket, a small bakery, a furniture shop, one restaurant - and a team that sits proudly on top of the Austrian football league.
Despite not having spent a single cent on transfer fees this season and having seen their coach up sticks and join a bigger club, Altach spent the winter break two points clear at the top of the Austrian Bundesliga.
They have enjoyed emphatic wins over traditional powers Rapid Vienna and Austria Vienna and drawn with Salzburg, who enjoy the financial backing of energy drinks giants Red Bull.
To describe them simply as the Austrian Leicester City would not do them justice. As sporting director Georg Zellhofer pointed out, even last season’s shock Premier League winners are giants compared in comparison.
Altach’s Cashpoint Arena stadium, located next to a motorway but offering excellent views of the surrounding mountains, holds only 8,000 people although that is still more than enough to accommodate the population of the entire village.
The team, which had never played in the top flight until two seasons ago, gets by on an annual budget of around 6.8 million euros - less than many top players earn.
A quick look at the squad does not provide any obvious reasons to their success either.
Many are journeymen professionals who joined Altach when they were still in the second tier and there are no precocious teenagers or even big name veterans enjoying a swansong.
Instead, Altach’s success is down to a combination of prudent management, shrewd player signings and a lack of pressure to perform compared to the so-called traditional clubs.
“We are a healthy club, we pay our bills on time and we don’t overpay. We ensure that whatever we do, we do it well,” said Zellhofer, who said that signing the right players was often down to a “gut feeling.”
“I go through my network, through my colleagues,” added Zellhofer, himself a former player and coach. “I have developed a feeling for which players can fit in, which players are suitable for the club.”
In particular, Zellhofer said he looked for players whose career has stuttered but still have potential. Nearly all are signed on free transfers.
“We look at players who want a second chance... players for who things didn’t work out elsewhere,” he said. “We look at what went wrong before and take it from there.”
One case was Cameroon forward Louis Ngwat-Mahop whose topsy-turvy career saw him make a single, two-minute appearance for Bayern Munich before confusion over his French passport prompted the Bavarians to offload him.
He then played for Salzburg, Iraklis and Karlsruhe before joining Altach in 2012, where he has settled. “He is a typical story for us, he has enormous potential,” said Zellhofer.
Boris Prokopic was another example.
“Prokopic was a top player, he had an knee injury at Innsbruck but with us, he could once again play on the big stage and financially it made sense for us,” said Zellhofer.
Altach are one of only a few teams from the Vorarlberg region, which has more in common with Switzerland across the border than distant Vienna, to reach the top tier.
They finished third in their debut top flight season in 2014/15 to qualify for the Europa League, where they reached the final qualifying round. Last season saw them finish eighth, something Zellhofer said he was perfectly happy with.
But with many small clubs, success has undesired consequences as Altach cannot match offers from bigger Austrian clubs, let alone ones from abroad.
Coach Damir Canadi was lured to Rapid Vienna in November and replaced by Werner Grabherr, who kept the team at the top but could not continue on a long-term basis as he lacked a coaching licence. He now works in the marketing department.
Martin Scherb has since taken over the team.
Meanwhile, Dmitri Oberlin, their top scorer with nine goals, returned to his parent club Salzburg when they decided not to extend his loan.
That means Altach will effectively be making a new start when the Bundesliga resumes at the weekend but Zellhofer refused to be downhearted.
“We are not about one player, this is a real team even though Oberlin was the fans’ favourite,” he said. “Even if we finish fourth or fifth, that will be a huge success for us.”
As to whether they can go on and win the title, he replied: “Dreaming is allowed....but it will be difficult”
Editing by Toby Chopra