For all the criticism Shkodran Mustafi has endured during his four years at Arsenal, he still has a World Cup winners’ medal. The same cannot be said for Marco Reus, the unfortunate man Mustafi replaced in the victorious 2014 squad after the winger injured his ankle. Such misfortunate is, however, something Reus is familiar with, his career plagued by the narrative of setbacks.
Reus was born in May 1989 in Dortmund, joining his boyhood club Borussia Dortmund at the age of six. He grew up idolising Tomáš Rosický, going so far as to wear a headband to mimic his hero when playing in his youth.
Unfortunately, it would take a long time for Reus to grace the pitch of the Westfalenstadion in the footsteps of his hero. Considered too thin and weak to make it in the professional game, he was released shortly after turning 17 in 2006. It was to prove an expensive mistake for BVB, costing €17m to rectify.
Still determined to make it as a footballer, Reus moved some 60km north-east to a club younger than himself. Such fortunate recipients of the talent were LR Ahlen, who were only founded in 1996. This came following a merger of TuS Ahlen and Blau-Weiß Ahlen, with the ‘LR’ abbreviation standing for the cosmetics company of president Helmut Spikker. In 1999/2000 the club won a Regionalliga playoff, following this with a highest-ever finish of sixth in their debut campaign in the 2. Bundesliga.
With hindsight, the association of such a random side with a world-class talent as Reus is odd, however back in 2006, this was the reality of the situation. He would continue his development in the Ahlen academy, quickly impressing in the A-Junioren Bundesliga West. In only his third appearance Reus registered a brace against Rot-Weiß Essen, going on to score eight more as Ahlen finished ninth in the 14-team division.
This campaign also brought about five matches for Ahlen’s reserve team, who at the time played in the fourth tier Oberliga Westfalen. Making his debut in December 2006, Reus would get the second in a 3-2 win over Erkenschwick. Of significance was the scorer of the Ahlen’s winner that day – Kevin Großkreutz.
The similarities of the pair’s early careers are staggering. Like Reus, Großkreutz was born in Dortmund and grew up a boyhood BVB fan, released from their academy in 2002 for the same reasons as his future teammate. Blessed with natural pace and also a winger, albeit on the opposite right flank, Großkreutz would make his first-team debut for Ahlen just as Reus was arriving at the Wersestadion in 2006.
Such importance of the overlapping career paths cannot be overstated, with Großkreutz playing a key role in helping Reus settle in Ahlen. The former was far more extroverted, with the young Reus choosing to shy away from interviews and publicity. Developing with someone from such a similar background was of huge significance for Reus, with the pair even living together during their time in Ahlen.
His flatmate would become a regular for the first team in the 2006/07 season, with Reus joining him for the first time during the following campaign. Coming off the bench in a 3-1 home defeat to Rot-Weiß Oberhausen in September 2007, for the remainder of this season Reus would be restricted to substitute appearances at the end of games. Most of his football this season would come in the youth team, where he would better his previous figures to score 12 goals in just 19 league games.
At this point in his career, Reus was deployed as a central striker, using his pace and direct running to leave defenders in his wake. The effectiveness of this was seen in braces recorded in a narrow away loss to Köln and 2-2 draw at Dortmund, alongside a hat-trick in a frantic 5-4 win over Arminia Bielefeld. Reus would also score on his next start for the first team, on the final day of the season at Babelsberg, where the now renamed Rot Weiss Ahlen would lift the Regionalliga Nord trophy.
Such performances meant it was only a matter of time before Christian Wück kept the young prodigy in the first-team setup. Despite the step up in quality brought on by Ahlen’s promotion to the 2. Bundesliga, the coach decided the young Reus was ready. He came on at half time during the opening day win over FSV Frankfurt, replacing Martin Stahlberg in the left wing role he is now synonymous with.
The next two games would see Reus benched, although he returned to devastating effect the following week, grabbing his first goal of the season at Oberhausen. Pulling proceedings level on the stroke of half time, Ahlen would run out 3-1 winners, with partner in crime Großkreutz bagging one of the second-half goals. Wück oversaw an impressive start to the season, with Ahlen riding high in fourth until the middle of October.
Reus was a central part of this, registering an assist against Wehen Wiesbaden in late September, crossing for one-third of free-scoring central striker Lars Toborg’s hat-trick in another 3-1 win. A fortnight later, Reus would again find himself on the scoresheet, levelling in an eventual 1-1 draw with recently relegated Nürnberg,
Unfortunately, this was to be the last result of note for Ahlen for some time. Following this came a horrendous run from mid-October right into February 2009. Of their 14 league matches, Ahlen were to lose nine. Such form would ultimately cost Wück his job, with the coach sacked on 3 March after a goalless draw at lowly Hansa Rostock. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Wück’s faith in Reus would have a profound impact on German football for the next decade.
By now the winger’s place in the Ahlen starting line-up was assured, with interim boss Bernd Heemsoth continuing to put faith in the youngster. This decision was well merited when Reus scored the only goal in Heemsoth’s first game in charge, a 1-0 win over Wehen Wiesbaden, from another Großkreutz assist. New permanent boss Stefan Emmerling was slightly more sceptical, omitting Reus from three of his seven matchday squads.
Not that this mattered, with Reus still contributing when he did get on the pitch. He would score his final goal in Ahlen colours in a 2-0 win over relegated Ingolstadt on 10 May 2009. A week later, Reus would come off the bench for his last appearance, playing 26 minutes of a 2-2 draw at Osnabrück.
By the end of May, Borussia Mönchengladbach had announced his signing, paying €1m for his services. In his first season away, Ahlen would finish bottom and be relegated to the 3. Liga, to signal the differing trajectories the two would take in the coming years.
In August 2009 Reus made his Germany under-21 debut against Turkey, two days after his bow for Gladbach where he came on for Karim Matmour in a 3-3 draw at Bochum. Being used in this capacity for the several weeks that followed, before long Michael Frontzeck had seen enough promise in the 20-year-old. Reus would play his first full Bundesliga game in October 2009, a 2-1 loss at Wolfsburg, going on to score eight goals as he started every remaining league game that season.
Three more productive years at Gladbach ensued, by which stage Ahlen, owing to financial troubles, had dropped to the fifth tier Nordrhein-Westfalen-Liga. By 2012, Reus swapped the suffix to complete a full circle return to Dortmund. Fittingly waiting for him there was Großkreutz. A decade later, Reus remains at the Westfalenstadion. Injuries aside, in that time he has still been crowned Bundesliga Player of the Season on three occasions, scoring over 100 goals, and been appointed captain of his boyhood club.
For all this success, however, Reus still only has one league title to his name. In comparison, what he achieved the 2007/08 Regionalliga now seems a mere footnote to his career. Ignore it at your peril, though – it stands as a testament to his convoluted rise to the top and a simple fact: were it not for Rot Weiss Ahlen the world would not have the brilliant Marco Reus.
By James Kelly @jkell403