“I wouldn’t have done this for any other club.” Huub Stevens was adamant. He’d just accepted what, to many, seemed like the impossible job. Schalke hadn’t won a league game in four months and were still recovering from a 7-0 whipping against Manchester City in the Champions League. “Our first job is to clear their heads,” the 65-year-old admitted about his traumatised players. “What matters now is the future, not the past.”
Yet the Dutchman’s appointment had everything to do with the past. It had everything to do with the greatest moment in Schalke’s modern history. And it had everything to do with a legacy that, more than 20 years before, he and a group of extraordinary players had forged.
Nine championship finals and six wins: that was Schalke’s record between 1933 and 1942, a period of dominance which saw them become the premier footballing force in Germany. Inspired by stars such as Ernst Kuzorra and Fritz Szepan, their rapid short passing game had obliterated all comers. An innovative attacking style – affectionately nicknamed der Schalker Kreisel (the Spinning Top) – had seen the Ruhrmen go nine years without losing a single home game.
The post-war period had proven especially fallow, however. Save for a solitary championship in 1958, they had failed to win the league trophy once. A bribery scandal in 1971 saw 13 of the club’s players indicted and banned. Relegation in 1988 completed the ignominy, with 84 goals conceded throughout a torturous campaign. It was only four years later, in 1992, that they managed to re-enter the Bundesliga.
It was a much-needed salve for Gelsenkirchen, the rusting city from which Schalke sprang up in 1904. Previously a powerhouse of the German economy, the 1977 global steel crisis had decimated its diverse community of Turks, Italians and Poles. Deindustrialisation saw most of the local mining industry dissolve, and with it the stable employment that sustained its working-classes.
Saint Barbara, to whom the city’s miners would often pray for protection, had seemingly abandoned her city. Often, it felt like the community was held together purely by blue and white stitches. “For many fans, the club symbolises nothing less than the meaning of life,” said Jens Lehmann in his autobiography, The Madness is On The Pitch.
The future Arsenal man knew the club’s struggles intimately. He’d signed his first professional deal there in 1988, when the club was still reeling from relegation. Lehmann had been a crucial part of their return to the top flight, a steadfast presence in goal as they qualified for the UEFA Cup four years later. For the first time in two decades, European football was returning to the Parkstadion, and with it the spectacle of glamour sides like Lazio, Valencia and Celtic.
Early hopes for the season soon gave way to disaster, however. A 4-0 opening day loss to Stuttgart began a terrible run that saw Die Knappen win just two of their first eight games. After a derisory 2-1 reverse against Leverkusen in September, coach Jörg Berger was sacked. His replacement was familiar to Schalke fans. Less than a week previously, Huub Stevens’ Roda had been knocked out by the Germans in round one of the UEFA Cup.
Stevens inherited a club on its knees, but he was no stranger to adversity. The Limburg native had nearly drowned in a river when he was just eight, pulled to safety at the last moment by a vigilant neighbour. As if that wasn’t traumatic enough, his father died in a road traffic accident just eight years later. “I quickly learned to cope with setbacks,” he admitted in an interview with Spox in 1998. “My family was not wealthy, so I had to assert myself early on the road. I almost drowned, so I know what real stress means. And after my dad’s death, I built an emotional tank around me that protected me.”
Stevens embarked on a solid career, joining PSV and making a handful of appearances for the national side. He retired in 1986 and, after a brief spell managing PSV’s youth side, he moved to Roda. A stern disciplinarian, Stevens immediately instituted a ban on players wearing earrings or having long hair. His natural good looks and volatile temper led some to compare him to Jack Nicholson. Stevens’ no-nonsense approach, however, soon attracted the attention of Schalke’s general manager Rudi Assauer.
‘Assi’, as he was affectionately nicknamed, had rejoined the club himself in 1993. With his stylish suits and Cohiba cigar, the former Borussia Dortmund defender was a calculating presence behind the scenes. Raised in the iron and smog of the Ruhrgebiet, this locksmith’s son knew Schalke’s importance to the local community, combining his passion for the area with a businessman’s understanding of the boardroom.
Approving of Stevens’ straight-laced and authoritative demeanour, he believed the Dutchman could be the antidote for a season that was failing fast. “The man combed his hair with a ruler and compass,” Lehmann would later admit about Stevens’ arrival. “To us, he was that little bit more; more discipline, more technique, more organisation.”
The ‘Knight of Kerkrade’, as Stevens was quickly christened by the local media, overhauled Schalke’s management style. The players quickly learned that “the zero must stand” – clean sheets and defensive organisation would always be paramount. It was just as well, because Stevens could ill-afford to rely on individual magic with the squad he inherited.
Schalke were workmanlike and gritty, but they lacked genuine quality and experience at the highest level, relying on the class of former World Cup winner and Bayern Munich star Olaf Thon as a reference point. Either side of him, Thomas Linke’s cool authority made up for Johan de Kock’s relative inexperience.
The midfield was a bit more enterprising. Radoslav Latal and Mike Buskens could run all day on the flanks, while Jiří Němec, Yves Eigenrauch and Andreas Müller were all solid performers. The undoubted star, however, was a stocky Belgian midfielder who had joined the club just months before.
Marc Wilmots had offers from Portugal and England, but it was an invitation from Assauer to attend a Schalke game against Gladbach in April 1996 that convinced him of his destination. Blown away by the vociferous Gelsenkirchen support, his mind had been made up instantly. Wilmots’ direct style and perfectly-timed runs won immediate recognition from the Schalke faithful, who christened their sturdy new signing as das Kampfschwein – the Fighting Pig.
The nickname, however, could have applied equally to any of Stevens’ uncompromising stars. They were often an ugly team, even if the forwards, Martin Max and Youri Mulder, added a touch of glamour. In Gelsenkirchen, it had always been about getting the job done; glamour and glitz might have been important in Munich, but here it was about getting your face dirty and your knees muddy. “The cohesion was very special,” Buskens would later admit to 11Freunde about the team spirit that Stevens inculcated.
Stevens agreed, stating in an interview with Goal, “That was a team in the best sense of the word, everyone was there for everyone, they helped each other. Team spirit was the order of the day.”
Domestically, however, the side continued to struggle. By the turn of the year, Schalke remained stuck in mid-table. Increasingly, the UEFA Cup became the club’s sole focus. Wins against Trabzonspor and Club Brugge had propelled die Königsblauen to a glamourous quarter-final tie against Valencia. Valeri Karpin and Claudio López were no match for Stevens’ fired-up players in the first leg, with goals from Linke and Wilmots securing a 2-0 advantage.
Halfway through the game, an inebriated fan had stood up and started singing “Stand up if you’re Schalke!” to the tune of Pet Shop Boys’ Go West. Within minutes, the entire crowd had joined in on the chorus, gifting an anthem to a campaign which increasingly felt like it was going somewhere special.
Die Knappen still had to get past Valencia in the return leg, however. In a tense 90 minutes at the Mestalla, Jorge Valdano’s men could only secure a 1-1 draw, with an opportunistic strike from Max sending scores of sunburnt Germans into ecstasy.
Schalke would meet a familiar face in the semi-finals. Having guided Athletic Club to UEFA Cup qualification, Jupp Heynckes had departed the Basque country to lead plucky the Canarian side Tenerife. The islanders were far from the underdogs that their reputation suggested; Ballesteros, their hulking centre-back, looked like he ate centre-forwards for breakfast, whilst Slaviša Jokanović was on the upward curve of a career that would take in stints at Deportivo and Chelsea. Meho Kodro was a proven, wily goalscorer up front, ably assisted by hot German prospect Oliver Neuville off the bench.
Having quashed Lazio and Feyenoord on the way to the semis, Tenerife further underlined their credentials by taking a first-leg lead, with Felipe’s sixth-minute penalty giving Schalke everything to do in Gelsenkirchen. In front of a teeming Parkstadion crowd, they laid siege to Tenerife’s goal. Midway through the second half, they got the breakthrough that their pressure deserved, as Linke powered a header straight through a hapless Bengt Andersson.
With both teams starting to tire, extra-time loomed. Neither looked like breaking the deadlock until Wilmots latched on to a corner to head home a euphoric winner. The Belgian, who had profited from injuries to Mulder and Max to start up front, wheeled away in celebration. Schalke, as the Tenerife players collapsed to the turf, were on their way to the final.
For the first leg of the final, against Internazionale, Stevens remained true to his conservative roots. Wilmots ploughed a lone furrow up front, tasked with finding a way past Giuseppe Bergomi and Masimo Paganin all by himself. Neither side looked like triumphing, before the Belgian received the ball 20 yards outside Gianluca Pagliuca’s net. The resulting shot curled away from the Italian stopper and into the bottom corner. Advantage Schalke.
Almost 25,000 German fans decamped to Milan for the return leg, swarming the Duomo Cathedral in blue and white. All day, as the beer flowed and the flags waved, bemused locals were treated to renditions of der Stiegerlied, the famous German miners’ melody, with raucous tunes billowing from tram windows and café tables. Back in Gelsenkirchen, students were let out of school early. Those managers who had bothered to turn up to work spent the day noting the various ailments that had befallen their stricken employees.
The colour and ceremony were in drab contrast to the match itself, which sagged under the weight of the occasion. Roy Hodgson’s Inter were blessed with talents like Javier Zanetti and Iván Zamorano, but they laboured in breaking down the Germans’ defensive wall. With five minutes left on the clock, Stevens’ players were within spitting distance of their first major trophy in decades.
But they couldn’t hold out. Just as the travelling support were starting to believe, Zamorano manoeuvred an inch of space outside the box, reacting quickest to fire an opportunistic shot into Lehmann’s top corner.
In extra-time, Inter, backed on by an increasingly hopeful support, set up camp in the Schalke half. Maurizio Ganz nearly settled it with a clever lob finding Lehmann out of position, only for the crossbar to come to the rescue. Trenches were built, with both sides content to sit out the remaining minutes before facing the penalty lottery.
“Instinctively, I did what I would do again and again in later years: I sat down at the halfway line, took a sip of water, and focused,” Lehmann would recall about those moments before the shootout began. “Unlike a pistol duel, this is not about speed – on the contrary, it is about who can delay the decision before the shot longest.”
Ingo Anderbrügge stepped up first: goal for Schalke. Zamorano followed. Before the game, Lehmann had compiled a note of the shooting preferences for each of the Inter’s likely penalty takers. Zamorano, according to the crumpled note handed to him by assistance coach Hubert Neu, liked to go hard and low to the left. Lehmann dived the right way, palming the effort to safety. The Germans had one hand on the title.
Thon scored next, followed by Youri Djorkaeff. Then, Martin Marx restored Schalke’s advantage. Aron Winter, the classy Dutch midfielder signed by Inter from Ajax that summer, needed to score. His shot was disastrous, a flimsy right-footed feather sailing easily past Lehmann’s left post.
It was down to Wilmots, the man who, perhaps more than any other, had brought Schalke to the showpiece. He placed the ball carefully on the penalty spot, before dispatching a calm penalty into Pagliuca’s bottom right corner. Cue pandemonium.
Thousands of shirtless German fans jumped into the air in an expression of mass catharsis. Relegation and humiliation, all the drudgery and self-doubt; all of it obliterated in one kick of a ball. Glory, finally, was returning to the Ruhrgebiet. Tears flowed; the slag of hurt and loss cauterised to impregnable steel. “All the pressure, the ambition, the desperation had fallen off us; again and again we lay in each others’ arms. Some were crying,” Lehmann recalled. “You cannot describe that,” Wilmots would later admit to Lokal Kompass about his emotions during that fateful moment.
TV Commentator Werner Hansch, who had begun his career as a stadium announcer in Gelsenkirchen, described it as “the biggest thing I’ve ever been through”.
As thousands erupted in joy around him, Stevens allowed himself one second of celebration, raising his arms aloft into the air before snapping to attention and screwing the top back on his pen. In one gesture, he managed to encapsulate everything that he’d brought to this victorious Schalke team: discipline, containment, order and glory.
Reinhold Beckmann, the Sat 1 reporter interviewing Stevens on the sideline, suggested that the club should build a statue in his honour. “No, they don’t need to do that,” said the bemused Dutchman in reply. “That’s Schalke. And that’s the way it always has to be. Everything we do is for Schalke.”
In Gelsenkirchen, people poured onto the streets waving blue and white flags. Cars flashed their lights and honked their horns at the growing throngs as thousands hugged and kissed and danced. For one night, an city celebrated as one.
It didn’t take long for reality to set back in, however. A year later, Lehmann would depart for a torturous stint at Milan before eventually returning to the Ruhr with Borussia Dortmund. Upon his retirement in 2002, Thon would become a club adviser, and later a pundit. De Kock, a trained engineer, became involved in the construction of the club’s new stadium, the 60,000 capacity Veltins-Arena. Wilmots, meanwhile, would lead Belgium to the 2014 World Cup as manager.
Assauer, who was described by club chairman Clemens Tönnies as “the architect of modern Schalke”, oversaw the move to the new stadium before stepping away in 2006. He died from Alzheimer’s disease, aged 74, earlier this year.
Stevens has never been too far away from the club in the intervening decades; in 2001, he came closer than anyone to securing the Bundesliga title for the Royal Blues, denied only by a last-minute strike from Bayern Munich’s Patrik Andersson. An abortive stint in 2012 was forgotten by 2019 when he returned to stave off the threat of relegation before making way for the former Huddersfield manager, David Wagner.
Today, Wagner, who was a member of that 1997 squad himself, inherits a team with the same limitations and pressures that faced Schalke’s famous Eurofighters. If they need inspiration, they know just where to look.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45