Monday 6 July 2020

From the Amateur League's to 90 Minutes from the Bundesliga - Top Flight Football May Be on Hold For Now at Least but Heidenheim's Remarkable Rise Is Still a Story Worth Telling

When I started writing this piece after a 0-0 first leg in Bremen I was kinda hoping FC Heidenheim would pull off a famous victory in the second leg of their relegation/promotion play-off tie. Sadly, though, despite some late drama it wasn't to be. Seventeen years ago Heidenheim were playing in what is now the sixth tier of German football and tonight four promotions in that period could have became five and the club could have made it to the Bundesliga for the very first time in their history. And what has made the club's meteoric rise so remarkable is that, unlike teams such as Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, their rise has come without huge financial investment.

Heidenheim an der Brenz, to give its full name, is a small, perhaps unremarkable, town that sits in Baden-Württemberg in the south of the country on the border with Bavaria. This town of almost 50,000 inhabitants is famous for Opernfestspiele an opera festival held there every summer that draws visitors from all over Europe. It is, however, famous for little else and is hardly the home of a footballing megapower - in fact, it is anything but! 

The town's 15,000 capacity Voith-Arena where FC Heidenheim plays would have been the smallest stadium in the Bundesliga and may well be in the future if they do eventually go up. SC Paderborn have a stadium of pretty much the same size but they have just been relegated from the top flight. To emphasise the cramped demeanour of a venue that many may have considered not quite top flight standard, you only have to look at this season's Bundesliga runners up Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park home can at one end of the ground alone fit almost 25,000 into its famous südtribüne otherwise known as the yellow wall. With this season's average attendance of just 11.835 pre covid behind closed doors football, however, when fans do return Heidenheim will hardly need an 81,365 capacity stadium like the one Dortmund have any time soon whatever division they are playing in. But for a team that just 15 years ago were struggling to break into four figures in terms of matchday crowds, this is as good as it has ever been. 

Football in Heidenheim has over the years seen several clubs under several names but the current club, 1. FC Heidenheim 1846 as they are known in their current guise came about in 2007 when it split from a larger sports club. That club had been formed thanks to the 1972 merger of TSB Heidenheim and VfL Heidenheim. 1. FC Heidenheim 1846 as the name suggests, however, can loosely trace its history back to 1846 when a gymnastics club was founded in the town.

As small a time club, until their more recent accomplishments of the past decade and a quarter or so, Heidenheims's most successful period had come in the late 70s and early 80s. For short time the club played third tier football whilst several Verbandspokal (regional cup) wins saw qualification to the DFB-Pokal, the country's major cup competition. By the turn of the century, however, the club were plying their trade in what is now the sixth tier of German football.

Surely the biggest moment in Heidenheim's history, although they would not have known it at the time, came just after the aforementioned 2007 separation when Frank Schmidt took the over reigns as head coach at the club. Those at the club could not have realised the transformation their team would have with him at the helm. Having returned to finish his playing career at what was his hometown club, in 2004 as captain Schmidt helped guide Heidenheim to promotion to the Oberliga Baden-Württemberg, what is now the fifth tier of German football. But as coach, however, he would have an even greater impact - much greater. 

Schmidt's first season in charge as head coach saw promotion from the Oberliga and that was just the beginning. A second successive promotion followed as the club finished top of the Regionalliga Süd to find themselves in the 3. Liga, then recently created as a new nationwide division to sit in between the 2. Bundesliga and the Regionalliga. In five seasons of 3. Liga football the club never once finished outside the top half. The club finished sixth in its first season in the division then twice finished one point outside the promotion play-off spot before promotion as champions in 2013-14.

I first became aware of Frank Schmidt when watching the 2013 German documentary film Trainer! which follows the lives of three young coaches during 2012-13 season. Schmidt was one of the three coaches featured as his side narrowly missed out on a promotion play-off spot on the final day of the season. Whilst of the other two coaches one did not last the full season and the other was sacked at the end of it, Schmidt is still going strong at Heidenheim. Both considered shrewd tacticians, some have compared Schmidt to Jürgen Klopp. Now a Premier League winner with Liverpool, Klopp was one of several more established coaches who contributed to the documentary by giving their insight and expertise on football management. To be compared to such a man is surely a huge honour.

As well as rising up the divisions, there has also been cup success for Heidenheim under Schmidt. There have been five Verbandspokal triumphs in the WFV-Pokal since Schmidt took over which in his early years qualified the club for the main DFB-Pokal, a competition they have since 2014 automatically qualified for as a second tier side. Highlights of these DFB-Pokal appearances included defeating Bundesliga side SV Werder Bremen in round one in 2011-12 before then losing on penalties to another top flight side in Borussia Mönchengladbach after a 0-0 draw and reaching the quarter finals four years later, albeit without facing any top flight opposition. The clubs most memorable DFB-Pokal tie, however, undoubtedly came when they faced the country's number one side FC Bayern München in a quarter final tie last April.

Schmidt was no stranger to cup upsets and when his side travelled to the Allianz Arena his side were almost part of another very famous win. As well as that Werder Bremen victory in 2011 he had also as a player been part of an amateur TSV Vestenbergsgreuth side that knocked FC Bayern out of the cup in August 1994 and would have no doubt loved to have beaten them again. 1-0 down after 12 minutes his side led 2-1 at the break whilst in the second-half they came from 4-2 down to draw level only to lose 5-4 thanks to an 84th minute penalty.

One key player for Heidenheim before he moved to Cardiff City last year was Robert Glatzel who scored a hat-trick in that Bayern game but there have been plenty other players who have helped contribute to the team's success and none more so than club captain Marc Schnatterer. Having joined from Karlsruher in 2008, Schnatterer has been at the club almost as long as his manager and by some is considered Mr. Heidenheim, even more so than Schmidt himself. Schnatterer is a set piece specialist who has scored 122 goals in 407 appearances and reached doubled figures in seven of his 12 seasons at the club despite not really being considered an out and out striker. 

This season, however, it is Tim Kleindienst who has been the main man in the goalscoring department scoring 14 league goals compared to Schnatterer's 2. Kleindienst joined the club from SC Freiburg on a permanent deal at the start of the season having had a previous spell on loan at the club. Defensive Midfielder Niklas Dorsch who joined from Bayern's youth ranks in 2018 has also had another successful season this term after being named the fans player of the season in his first campaign. The clubs most important player in recent times, however, particularly this season, has arguably been goalkeeper Kevin Müller who joined the club in 2016. Müller has conceded just 36 league goals this term giving his club the second best defensive record in the league with only champions Arminia Bielefeld having conceded fewer (30). His success recently earned him a five year contract extension.

When Heidenheim moved up to the 2. Bundesliga they managed finishes of 8th, 11th, and 6th in their first three seasons in the division. Last season was campaign number five for them in the second tier and the club finished just two points off a promotion place despite having finished just two points above the relegation play-off spot the season prior.

Wanting to build on last seasons excellent campaign Heidenheim would have been disappointed with their poor start this time around but things quickly improved and some excellent form saw them three points behind third placed Hamburg when the league's COVID-19 shutdown began. With others also struggling, mixed results when the league restarted saw Heidenheim still keep in touch with the top three and it got better... Some disappointing results for third placed Hamburger SV in particular actually meant that when Heidenheim defeated them with a last gasp 95th minute goal in their penultimate game of the season they moved above them and into the promotion play-off spot. A 3-0 defeat against champions Arminia Bielefeld in Heidenheim's final match mattered not one jolt as a shock result in Hamburg saw their challengers lose 5-1 to SV Sandhausen and keep Heidenheim in the play-off spot just below VfB Stuttgart.

Heidenheim faced Werder Bremen who had finished third bottom of the Bundesliga in their play-off match and the first leg at Werder's Weserstadion finished in a goalless draw. This could have been considered a missed opportunity for the visitors against an out of sorts home side. In the second leg, Bremen took an early lead but excellent goalkeeping from Müller showed just why he was given that contract extension and kept his side in the tie. Heidenheim missed a couple of excellent chances early in the second half and will no doubt now rue those missed opportunities. Heidenheim did finally find the net four minutes from time through Kleindienst but the away goals rule meant they would need a second. Unfortunately for the home side, caught on the break in the 94th minute, they conceded a second. That was not the final goal of the match but scoring with the last kick of the game a penalty they were awarded several minutes later was not enough for the home side. 2-2 the final score and Bremen staying in the Bundesliga thanks to the away goals rule, Heidenheim stuck in the second tier for another season at least.

Tonight was a bitterly disappointing end to what has been another excellent season for 1. FC Heidenheim 1846. But having risen from what is now the sixth tier, where they played in front of sub 1,000 crowds at home, the club can nonetheless be proud of what they have achieved over the past seventeen years. Having narrowly missed out on promotion to the Bundesliga last season and came even closer this time around it will be interesting to see if Heidenheim can make it third time lucky. Certainly, no one would begrudge them a place at the top table if they do eventually make it!

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