From decorated legend to bus driver: the remarkable life of Rüdiger Vollborn, Mr Bayer Leverkusen

From decorated legend to bus driver: the remarkable life of Rüdiger Vollborn, Mr Bayer Leverkusen

Rüdiger Vollborn is Mr. Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Several historic players, coaches and directors have pulled on the club’s famous red and black colours over the years, but nobody knows the club like Vollborn does. 

Even though he was born in and grew up in Berlin, the now-57-year-old has been linked to the club since 1981, and he’s done it all.

Come through the B team? Check. Work as a business administration assistant at the company that owns the club? Check. Play in goal for the first team? Check. Be on the field for the only two major trophies the club has claimed in its history? Check. Scout the club’s future starting goalkeeper? Check. Work as a coach in the youth academy? Check. Become the first-team’s goalkeeping coach? Check. Hold a role as fan liaison officer? Check. Commentate on the club’s radio station? Check. Manage the club’s historical archives? Check. Drive a Bayer 04-themed double-decker London bus around the city? Also check.  

This story begins in Germany’s capital, when Vollborn was born into the enclave of West Berlin on 12 February 1963. As a child, he loved reading history books and had an almost photographic memory. He also had quick hands, making a name for himself as a goalkeeper. After coming through at Berlin clubs Traber FC Mariendorf and Blau-Weiß Berlin, and after impressing for Germany’s youth sides, the-17-year-old gave an interview in 1981 that would change his life and alter the course of Die Werkself history forever. 

Speaking to Kicker, the young goalkeeper was asked which Bundesliga club he’d most like to play for. He replied by saying that his favourite team had always been Borussia Mönchengladbach, but that he’d most like to go to Bayer 04. Why? Well, because he’d thought a lot about this question and knew that the Leverkusen-based club had 35-year-old Hubert Makel and 37-year-old Fred-Werner Bockholt as their goalkeepers. A spot might be opening up soon, he thought. 

It wasn’t quite so simple as Die Werkself soon signed up Uwe Greiner for the immediate future, but Vollborn’s answer still ended up taking him to Leverkusen. Frank Lußem, the journalist who’d conducted the interview, later revealed that he’d really just wanted to go to Berlin to visit his girlfriend at the time. It hadn’t really been about Vollborn. Yet the ever-affable Vollborn struck up a good relationship with Lußem, who had contacts in Leverkusen. One thing led to another and the teenage goalkeeper was suddenly on trial at Bayer 04.

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His trial didn’t go great – nor did a match with Blau-Weiß Berlin where Bayer 04 directors and scouts were in attendance. Yet they signed him anyway. Something about him had left a good impression despite making some basic goalkeeping errors during the process. His bags were to be packed and he was to leave Berlin. He was about to fall in love with a club in the suburbs of German football.

Initially, Vollborn played with the B team. He was still young, but he settled in well and built strong relationships with everybody. He even briefly worked at the Bayer AG pharmaceutical company – which owns the football club and is the economic and social epicentre of Leverkusen – as a business administration assistant.

From 1983/84 onwards, the first-team’s goalkeeping gloves were his, with the shot-stopper debuting against Bayern Munich on 13 August 1983. Die Werkself finished in seventh place in the Bundesliga that year, their highest ever finish at that point. Yet Vollborn didn’t particularly excel and had to take a salary reduction in order to stay when his contract expired in the summer of 1985.

Erich Ribbeck, the new coach for the 1985/86 season, crucially wanted Vollborn to stay. The coach also wanted Vollborn and the rest of the players to lose weight. Nobody could weigh more than 80kg. Nobody. Results were good, both individually and collectively, and the players of Bayer 04 were soon lifting the 15kg trophy of the UEFA Cup. 

This was at the end of the 1987/88 season, when they reached the final of the continental competition and took on Espanyol, with Vollborn now well-established between the posts for the Germans. It was during that run that he really started to become a hero in the eyes of the fans. “For me, the moment the relationship with the fans changed was in the semi-final second leg against Werder Bremen, when we drew 0-0 to progress,” he later recalled. “That was when they realised how I worked and when I realised how they worked.”

Shortly after, he went on to cement his legendary status in the second leg of the final, as Die Werkself came back from a 3-0 deficit to level the tie 3-3 and to take the contest to a penalty shootout. There, Vollborn saved Manuel Zúñiga’s penalty and put Sebastián Losada off enough with his crazy arms to help his side to a 3-2 shootout victory. 

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That was Leverkusen’s first major trophy. Five years later, they won their only other significant silverware to this day: the 1992/93 DFB-Pokal, beating Hertha Berlin’s B team 1-0 in the final. Again, Vollborn was the goalkeeper. In fact, he was the only survivor from the 1987/88 squad, meaning he’s the sole player to have taken part in the two major trophies won in the history of the club.

Like all goalkeepers of his generation, he was hurt by the changes to the backpass rule and subject to Newton’s Law of Football, which dictates that every career that goes up must also come down. Through all this time, though, the grizzled veteran remained an impeccable professional and leader and was the de facto captain in the dressing room, even after being demoted to the role of backup goalkeeper.  

On 29 May 1999, against Bayer Munich – having made his debut against the Bavarians – Vollborn made his final appearance for Die Werkself, his 401st in the Bundesliga, which remains a club record. It was the final day of the season and it was second against first, with Bayern having wrapped up the title long before. Vollborn was substituted on for Adam Matysek, that season’s starter, for the final ten minutes. It was the perfect sendoff as the fans had one last chance to celebrate the two-title-winning goalkeeper who’d been the ultimate one-club man and who was on the way out.

Little did those fans realise, in what was now called the BayArena, just how much of a one-club man Vollborn was and would become. He was hanging up his gloves, yes, but not before remaining an emergency fourth-choice option for the 1999/2000 season. He was firmly in the fabric of the club. 

Firstly, he took on a role as a youth coach, working with the B team and also with the goalkeepers of the various age ranges. At the same time, he did some work as a goalkeeping coach for the DFB. As he did, he spotted the incredible talent of René Adler when the goalkeeper from Leipzig was only 14. “He’ll be a goalkeeper for Germany’s senior team one day,” Vollborn said. And he was right.

Based on the coach’s praise, Bayer signed Adler from his hometown team of VfB Leipzig, and he even stayed in Vollborn’s house when he first arrived in Leverkusen. “I put a lot of effort into René, the kind that none of my sons even got,” Vollborn later joked. 

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Fabrice, one of Vollborn’s sons, did make the Leverkusen B team as a goalkeeper, before failing to reach the top level. But Adler did go all the way and ended up as Die Werkself’s starter from 2007 to 2011. By that point, Vollborn had progressed to become the first team’s goalkeeping coach, essentially overseeing the first decade of Adler’s career. 

Adler moved on to HSV in 2012, at the same time as Vollborn left his position as coach. He was staying with Bayer, though. Of course he was. This time he was taking up a role as fan liaison officer. “While I’m a novice in this field, I have always had a close connection with the fans and will bring my own ideas to the concept of fan work,” he said when he started out in the role. “I’m not going to just be like the uncle who greets people. Like everyone else in the fan liaison office, I’ll be starting at 9:00am every day and doing the full job.”

It ended up being even more than that, as the retired goalkeeper launched a series of projects that have helped differentiate Die Werkself as a unique club when it comes to the initiatives organised for their supporters. Over the years since accepting this role, Vollborn has also spent time commentating and appearing as a pundit on the club’s official radio station and media channels, and he has spent hours and hours ensuring that the Die Werkself’s historical archives are as accurate as possible. 

Most colourfully, Vollborn has also played a key role in the Schwadbus project. The Schwadbus is a classic double-decker London bus that is, of course, decked out in red and with the Leverkusen badge on the front and sides. The bus is a little bit of everything. It’s part museum, part meeting point, part stage, part tour bus. It can be rented out and used for various occasions; for weddings, birthdays, retirements. Even for hen parties.

Most often, it is used to give history tours, titled Auf den Spuren unserer Vergangenheit (In the footsteps of our past). As the man who knows the club better than anyone, Vollborn drives the bus and leads these tours to this day.

From having his hands on the ball to having his hands on the wheel, Rüdiger Vollborn really has done it all at Die Werkself. If he were a stick of Blackpool rock, he’d have the club’s name running through it. He has taken the one-club man concept and supercharged it. Rüdiger Vollborn really is Mr. Bayer 04 Leverkusen.  

By Euan McTear @emctear

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