Above clip is from the film, Das Boot, where one of the sailors informs the rest of his crew that their favourite team Schalke 04 has lost the match 5-0.
If there’s one verifiable truth in football, it’s the absence of invincibility. Careers are never guaranteed. Whether it’s individuals, who so marvelously handle the ball on the field, or the great minds who shrewdly stitch teams into cohesive units, disposability is the norm.
If coaches can’t achieve simple goals for success, they part ways with a club. While sackings probably don’t play out as ruthlessly as they do in Donald Trump’s reality TV boardroom (there’s probably more tact and respect involved) clubs rarely hesitate to fire an underperforming or losing manager.
Gelsenkirchen’s Schalke 04 coach Huub Stevens was no exception. Neither his ‘Jahrhunderttrainer’ (Coach of the Century) badge nor the club’s motto ‘Blau und Weiss, ein Leben Lang’ (blue and white, for life/lifelong) could have saved him from the inevitable.
Stevens’ recent stint wasn’t his first with the Koenigsblauen. He coached there from 1996 to 2002. Under his successful reign Schalke won the UEFA Cup in 1997, the German Cup twice (2001, 2002) and were Bundesliga runners-up in 2001.
When Stevens came back on board last year, he inherited a team that placed 14th the year before with one of the league’s highest loss rate. But Schalke’s fortunes fared better under the Dutchman. The team finished third and qualified for the Champions League.
This year he was praised for the team’s stellar start to the season, described as one of the best in the club’s history. The Bayern-Jaeger (Bayern hunters) lagged behind Bayern Munich by only a few points and went on to triumph against reigning champions Borussia Dortmund in the Ruhr Derby. They performed equally well in the European club competition, unbeaten thus far with an impressive 2-0 triumph over Arsenal, and top in its group.
Suddenly it all came to a halt. The team began to crumble (at least in the second half of the first-half of the season). Schalke hasn’t won a match since mid November in their last six meetings (2 draws, 4 losses) and have dropped from third to seventh in the league.
Although the loss against Freiburg sealed Stevens’ fate, in reality, his career was in free-fall since a 2-0 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen. It wasn’t until the losses began to multiply that frustration set in, especially at upper management.
As is most often the case in football, the coach bore the brunt of the responsibility.
“We no longer had confidence in this lineup to bring about changes,” said Horst Heldt, the club’s manager.
But Stevens’ instinct that morning already told him he was done with the club.
“When Horst Heldt called me at quarter to eight am to come to his office, I knew my time had come since Heldt doesn’t normally come so early to the grounds,” he said.
From fans to the media, all searched for reasons to explain the dip in performance. A fair share in German media, however, didn’t blame the coach entirely. Solidarity and sympathy were some common themes in the newspapers after his sacking. A few argued the release said more about the club and less about Stevens’ coaching skills, fairly reasonable considering the club’s prolific turnover rate for coaches. From Jupp Heynckes and Ralf Rangnick to Felix Magath and Mirko Slomka, all will attest to the enormous pressure at Schalke.
The club is not alone in its chaotic turnover. Schalke is the German equivalent of Chelsea (minus the wealthy Russian sugar daddy, of course). Chelsea has had nine different coaches since May of 2004. Schalke, on the other hand, has had 12 in roughly the same period (closer to 11 if you discount Ralf Rangnick’s last spell since he stepped down after feeling burned out).
But that’s something Stevens was aware of when he signed up to coach this club for a second time. As early as 2009, he made the following comments about Schalke when asked if he would replace Fred Rutten at the club.
“There’s too much disturbance from the top,” he was quoted as saying in Die Zeit.
That year, however, was rife with bizarre rumours involving the club. At one point, speculation even hinted at Oliver Kahn taking the job. Despite the pressure, there were other distracting issues surrounding some of the club’s players. The Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Lewis Holtby trade rumours in all likelihood only further compounded the situation.
Players were quick to defend their coach. Only two weeks ago, Jermaine Jones said, “The coach is stood on the touchline; it is we on the field who have the responsibility…We should not be using the coach as an excuse for our current performances.”
But his superiours expressed a different view. According to Spiegel Online, Clemens Toennies, who sits on the club’s supervisory board, said Stevens had lost his ability to get through to the players.
Certainly Champions League success alone wasn’t enough. Heldt made it clear that the Bundesliga is its main focus. That means Steven’s successor Jens Keller must produce results otherwise he’ll follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. But there’s a huge question mark around him given his inexperience. He previously served as head coach in Stuttgart. It was a short-lived stint and lasted a mere two months.
A risky endeavour for a club so keen on winning, but one that can also prove rewarding if Keller proves as successful as Mirko Slomka, who barely had any top-level experience yet managed to take Schalke to the UEFA Cup semi-final.
So far Keller’s record isn’t very telling. He’s only had one game under his belt, a home defeat to Mainz in this week’s German Cup that only added to the team’s misfortunes since the loss also marked Schalke’s exit from the competition.
But disposability or not, coaches are fully aware of the nature of their jobs and comebacks almost always ensue. Even Felix Magath just announced that he’ll return to coaching next year, so too expect to see Stevens albeit perhaps at a different club.
* Used the terms coach, manager and trainer interchangeably (although coach and manger are two separate roles in Germany). Here they all mean the same thing except in Horst Heldt’s case.