In 2014, SC Paderborn 07 faced the likes of Werder Bremen and Mainz in their sole season in the Bundesliga. Fast-forward to three years later and they were competing with the same sides – except that they were Werder Bremen II and Mainz 05 II, and it was in Germany’s third tier.
The three sides were part of the bottom four of the division as they nervously tried to dangle above the chasm that was relegation to the Regionalliga, the semi-professional fourth tier. First impressions of Paderborn do not reveal their rollercoaster rise over the preceding few years, starting in 2013.
Paderborn finished second in the 2013-14 2.Bundesliga season, six points behind the champions Köln, and earned themselves promotion to the top tier. It was going to be their first season in the Bundesliga, an unlikely achievement which the Archbishop of Paderborn, Hans-Josef Becker, termed a “footballing miracle”. He didn’t see it coming, and neither did the town’s population of around 145,000.
An hour’s drive away from Dortmund, the city is off the beaten path, away from the spotlight. But for one year, one historic season, they were there.
No one has experienced the rise of Paderborn better than Markus Krösch, who joined the side in 2001 and stayed on for the rest of his career until 2014. Despite the side maintaining their second tier spot for most seasons, they were not the definition of a stable side, with 10 managers in their first nine seasons since 2005.
This was a side whose €6.2 million budget was one of the lowest in the league at the start of 2013. Paderborn are the archetypal provincial side – a low budget, a modest town, and no boastful footballing pedigree – which is why no one was thinking of promotion when the season got underway, especially after a difficult Hinrunde that saw them pick up just nine points from the first nine games.
André Breitenreiter emerged as the unexpected hero. A former Bundesliga striker, he had a modest journeyman career before he took over the reins at Paderborn, a bigger step-up to his first managerial stint at Havelse in the fourth tier. This was a big challenge for him, and avoiding relegation would have been the agenda, rather than promotion.
But by the winter break they managed to creep up to ninth in the table, before turning the screws in the post-winter Ruckrunde where they won 12 out of a possible 17 games, losing just twice. That form saw them go into the final weekend in second place, where they overcame an early goal against Aalen to secure a historic and unexpected spot in the following season’s Bundesliga.
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Promotion was sealed in front of a sell-out crowd at the Benteler Arena, a shocking turnaround in one of the most surprising promotions in German history. Breitenreiter waxed lyrical after their rapid elevation, jokingly stating that they should seize the opportunity to drink every type of beer in Paderborn. Little did they know but that would be one of the last opportunities they’d have to celebrate for years to come.
Tight financial restrictions, a modest 15,000 capacity stadium and Breitenreiter’s potential departure weakened the side as the hangover died down to reveal reality. They reached the promised lands against all odds and expectations, but were they going to stay there?
With next to no money to spend on strengthening a side devoid of major assets, they had to scrap in the market with a number of thrifty purchases, including Elias Kachunga, now at Huddersfield. But they crucially managed to hold on to their miracle maker, Breitenreiter, who stayed despite links to several other Bundesliga clubs. This was an inexperienced side, with most players having never played in the top tier before.
Paderborn started the season strongly with a landmark 3-0 win against Hamburg that defied all expectation. But it was Gameweek 4 that put them on the top of the world for a brief moment. A goal up against Hannover, Uwe Hünemeier’s clearance fell to Moritz Stoppelkamp, who controlled it with his chest, swivelled and swung at it from 82 metres into an empty goal, securing the three points for his club and a goal that he would never forget. Neither would his club; they were now first in the league.
Breitenreiter was right when he said it was too early to call their story a fairytale, but there was no denying that they were living the dream, with general manager Michael Born joking that the table would make nice “wallpaper in the fan shop”. This was certainly a miracle from the East-Westphalia side. They had a sole training pitch with no undersoil heating and a community that wasn’t used to seeing their local side in the top tier.
Football was banned in the city after 10pm after some of the locals complained about light and noise pollution, summing up the general interest in the sport. Players had to change in the caretaker’s adjoining flat, highlighting how fast the rise came for them. That’s usually the price of promotion, where after the celebrations die down, the struggles kick in. The 2.Bundesliga is fairly balanced, so a good run of form is as crucial as individual quality.
Even after adding an extra €9 million, they were rank outsiders, and despite sitting in pole position after four games, they would soon slide down. Whether they would be able to stabilise after the inevitable drop in form was a big question.
They travelled to the Allianz Arena as league leaders, a stadium whose capacity was nearly five times that of their own. They were expectedly shown up, receiving a 4-0 schooling. Despite club president Wilfried Finke’s assertion that they would come back with some points, the chances of them taking points from Pep Guardiola’s side were unlikely.
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That loss kickstarted an eventual loss of form, but by the end of the Hinrunde, they were 10th with 19 points. Paderborn’s pressing game was executed well enough to negate the huge gap in quality, and to their credit, they did not choose to go defensive.
Breitenreiter’s crew of unknown and the unheralded included players like as Daniel Brückner, homeless in his youth, and Süleyman Koc, who formerly served a prison sentence for robberies. Stoppelkamp hit the nail on its head when he described his side: “We slave away, we fight, spit, bite, scratch.” This energy was well channelled by their manager.
But all the momentum was seemingly sucked out during the break and they never truly recovered from the Ruckrunde’s opening game, a 5-0 thrashing to Mainz. Further drubbings to Bayern (6-0) and Frankfurt (4-0) exposed the side’s weaknesses, but they only hit the relegation zone for the first time in Gameweek 23, and were 15th with three games to go.
Sadly, they lost all three. Paderborn finished 18th, four points from safety, with a leaky defense responsible for conceding 65 goals. Their season was not a nightmare – far from it – and they went down with the heads held high, but it is here that their nightmare truly begins.
It is common for footballers to stay during the good times but abandon ship when the going gets tough. That summer proved to be more difficult than the previous, having to deal with the departures of several key players, most of whom were part of the previous two campaigns.
They did manage to secure the signings of experienced heads in Oliver Kirch and Marcel Ndjeng, while they spent close to a million on youngster Kevin Stöger. But the Stöger signing didn’t go to plan and demonstrated how money simply cannot be wasted at clubs like Paderborn. A million is short change in today’s football market, but not in the lower tiers.
The departure of Breitenreiter capped their struggles and heralded a return to the era of chop and change. Markus Gellhaus could only muster 10 points from the first 11 games and was given the boot.
His replacement was former Bayern Munich star Stefan Effenberg, which raised plenty of eyebrows off pitch, but too few points on it. Just two wins from 15 games capped off a disastrous appointment from the start. Effenberg was not the right fit for a spiralling club like Paderborn and the appointment of René Muller, his assistant manager, failed to save the club. A second relegation beckoned; a step closer to the wilderness.
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The current squad is unrecognisable from the one that won promotion, with just three players – Lukas Kruse, Thomas Bertels and Marc Vucinovic – left to reminisce of better times. They are a symbol of loyalty, of not giving up when the going gets tough. Most of the squad left, depleting the quality in the side, and thus was born a lack of unity and cohesion in the side. It is no wonder they’re struggling when they’re unable to play as a team.
René Muller was sacked in November 2016 after they were left a spot above the drop zone. His successor, Stefan Emmerling, was more successful, but they endured a terrible March, leading to his sacking after a 4-0 loss to Aalen. Steffen Baumgart became the fifth manager in two seasons, and he sparked an upturn in form with two wins and a draw form his first three games leading to hopes that the unthinkable would become a reality. Could Paderborn conjure magic from the throes of failure?
Sadly they couldn’t, or so it seemed. If Paderborn were complacent after both relegations, they will never be again after their travails this season. It’s been a rude awakening – they’re no longer in the bright lights. An unsettled team along with a horde of managers provides the recipe for failure. Promotion was more or less the bookmaker’s choice this year but for a number of reasons they found themselves in the bottom three.
In some respects, Paderborn’s decline mirrors that of Unterhaching, Breitenreiter’s former club. They spent two seasons in the Bundesliga from 1999 to 2001 but suffered back-to-back relegations like Paderborn, and after a decade and a half find themselves in the Regionalliga Bayern, the fourth tier. They didn’t take the right steps and vanished off the footballing radar, a fate that now awaits Paderborn in the regionalized semi-professional fourth tier. That was until 1860 Munich imploded in spectacular fashion, giving them a lifeline few clubs have ever been afforded.
Paderborn retained hope going into the final weekend, controlling their fate, but failed to find a way past Osnabruck in a goalless draw. That would have seen them stay up, but Werder Bremen II had different ideas, with an 84th-minute winner in their game versus Aalen that saw them finish a point above Paderborn. They missed the train towards the break they so needed to stabilise and return to a peaceful future in the higher tiers, and despair loomed large. Instead, they received unlikely help from Munich.
1860 Munich’s own struggles this season came to an end when they lost their relegation playoff to Jahn Regensburg, condemning them to the third tier. But their ownership issues are in contrast to Paderborn’s.
Wilfried Finke, the club owner, resigned last season but returned in December at the request of the board. Finke has taken Paderborn to the top, along with financing the stadium and training centre, so the blame can be pointed anywhere but at him. 1860’s majority owner, however, Hasan Ismaik, is at loggerheads with the fans and seemingly everyone around him, and failed to meet the deadline of 2 June to pay the football federation up to €10 million for their third tier license. That decision means that 1860 will go down to the fourth tier (or potentially the fifth tier).
The fillip for Paderborn is that they’ll most likely retain their spot in the third tier, pending 1860 actually dropping down and Paderborn finding the cash for their third tier license.
Paderborn will remain the answer to a pub quiz question in the future, but for all their troubles, consider this: which club of their stature wouldn’t trade in a lifetime in the lower leagues for a single season at the top?
No German club has ever been relegated from the Bundesliga to the Regionalliga in three consecutive seasons, and this record has somehow remained. The football has been put on the backburner, but the story is far from completion. Paderborn have been granted a lifeline from 1860’s own disaster, but much still remains out of their hands. If they do remain in the 3. Liga, it will be an escape for the ages.
Paderborn will surely serve as a cautionary tale to all small clubs about the perils of quick, unexpected success, regardless of relegation. Whether or not they stay in the third tier and resurface from the darkness remains to be seen, but as long as there is belief, any miracle is possible, even coming back from the depths of despair. Just ask Breitenreiter
By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_