FC Heidenheim are one match away from becoming only the second team after RB Leipzig to play in the fifth tier and the Bundesliga this century. Long-serving manager Frank Schmidt is the mind behind this small-town club’s remarkable ascension.
As the story goes, Frank Schmidt was only supposed to be in charge for two matches when FC Heidenheim were playing fourth-tier football in the Oberliga Baden-Württemberg. Nearly 16 years on, he’s still there and potentially just one match away from leading them to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history.
If that’s not romantic enough, add in the fact he was born in the town and raised in nearby Giengen. He even spent the final three years of his playing career at Heidenheim, including a season on the fifth rung of the German football ladder.
Now, they’re once again on the brink of the top flight. It’s the sort of rags-to-riches story every Football Manager player attempts to construct, taking over a small club, climbing through the divisions and firmly planting them on the map. Only, Heidenheim’s rise arguably goes beyond the imaginations of most – and, you know, it’s real.
Heidenheim head into the final round of 2. Bundesliga fixtures on Sunday second in the table and a point ahead of Hamburg. Beat Jahn Regensburg – who need a victory and a huge goal difference swing to avoid automatic relegation – and Schmidt will have achieved something few fans in 2007 could’ve envisaged happening in their lifetimes: taking the small-town club all the way to the Bundesliga. They could even pip Darmstadt – who’ve spent the week celebrating their promotion in the Balearic Islands – to the title.
“In Heidenheim, nobody talks about the Bundesliga, for God’s sake,” Schmidt said roughly 10 years ago. How times change.
Small Town, Big Dreams
Located roughly between Stuttgart and Munich, close to Baden-Württemberg’s border with Bavaria, Heidenheim an der Brenz isn’t exactly a hotbed of German football. But that makes their rise – and promotion, if they clear the final hurdle – even more remarkable.
According to the latest estimation (2021), the population of the town’s urban area is about 58,000. To put that into a wider European context, it’s smaller than Scarborough (61,000) in England, Dénia (60,000) in Spain and Olbia (61,000) on the Italian island of Sardinia.
Heidenheim wouldn’t be the smallest town represented in the big five leagues if they do manage to hold off Hamburg. Empoli has just 48,000 residents; Sassuolo has a population of 40,000. Even closer to home in Germany, Hoffenheim are based in Sinsheim (18,000).
But of course, Hoffenheim are a special case given their ascension through the divisions came after local billionaire businessman Dietmar Hopp started backing the club in the 1990s. Even though Heidenheim are sponsored by Voith, a technology company headquartered in the town who have a revenue of €4 billion, they haven’t had anything like the financial support of Hoffenheim, or RB Leipzig.
“Definitely, our biggest trump card is our team bond and our mentality,” Schmidt told Bundesliga.com in July 2020, the last time Heidenheim were in the promotion conversation so late in the season. Back then, they were ultimately unsuccessful in the promotion-relegation play-off, losing out to Werder Bremen on away goals after drawing 2-2 over the two legs.
This time they’ll hope to get the job done before it comes to that. But even if results do conspire against them, a second play-off appearance in four seasons will itself be a reminder of just how far Schmidt has taken Heidenheim.
After all, Red Bull-backed Leipzig are currently the only side to have played in both the fifth tier and Bundesliga this century, while Heidenheim had never even appeared in the DFB-Pokal main draw until the 2008-09 season, qualification coming thanks to their Württemberg Cup success the previous campaign. They won the same trophy four times on the trot between 2011 and 2014, with the latter triumph accompanied by the 3. Liga title, which secured their promotion to the second tier for the first time.
They’ve pretty much defied the odds ever since, only finishing in the bottom half twice, and never lower than 13th in the 2. Bundesliga. A narrow 3-2 defeat to Hertha Berlin in February 2016 denied them a spot in the DFB-Pokal semi-finals, and Heidenheim got to the quarter-finals again three years later, contesting a remarkable game with the mighty Bayern Munich.
Heidenheim were 2-1 up at the Allianz Arena at half-time. Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry then seemed to have Bayern cruising, before Robert Glatzel completed a hat-trick with a quick-fire double to make it 4-4 in the 77th minute.
Hearts were broken by an 84th-minute Lewandowski penalty, but it was a performance that typified the mentality Schmidt has routinely spoken about over his time in charge, and that which has brought them back to the brink of the promised land.
Big Screen to the Big Time?
Over the past few years, behind-the-scenes documentaries covering football clubs seem to have enjoyed a surge in popularity. While in some cases they feel like PR exercises, particularly when focusing on bigger teams, the series do lend a certain degree of insight to the average football fan.
Schmidt was a central part of such a documentary in 2013. The docuseries Trainer!, directed by Aljoscha Pause, followed the exploits of three up-and-coming German coaches over the course of a season, providing an intimate account of how the coaches spoke to their players and went about the daily responsibilities of football management. A director’s cut was shown at film festivals, and the series even made it to Netflix.
In the series, Schmidt’s personality shines through as a reflection of both his self-belief and humility.
“They can shout all they want, today we’re going to blow them away,” it shows him confidently telling his Heidenheim players as they prepare to enter the pitch. Then, in another section, he says: “I realise only a few people in Germany are able to pursue this career. That’s why I wake up every day thrilled that I can pursue this career.”
He is unapologetically himself. “Tough but sincere,” he described himself to SPOX just after the documentary’s release. Perhaps that’s been a key facet in his success because the players know where they stand.
But beyond that, one has to also consider how challenging and unusual it is to stay in such a job so long. Admittedly, it’s a different world to taking charge of, say, Bayern for more than 15 years, but over his time at the helm of Heidenheim, Schmidt has had to adapt his teams to play in new – and better – divisions, and he’s needed to bring them back from shattering disappointment, like in 2020.
As he approaches the 16th anniversary of his appointment, Schmidt is the longest-serving coach across the top two tiers in Germany, England, Spain, Italy and France. In fact, his closest rival in that regard is Atlético Madrid’s Diego Simeone, and he was hired more than three years after Schmidt.
Even in England’s lower divisions, Harrogate Town manager Simon Weaver is renowned for being in place a long time, but 14 years – almost to the day – still pales in comparison to Schmidt at Heidenheim.
The longevity of Schmidt shouldn’t be misconstrued as showing a lack of ambition, however. “I could imagine [in 2007] being successful with this club, so I didn’t have to think very long [about taking the job],” he said a decade ago. “My goal is also the first division.”
He was realistic but ambitious, adding: “I’ll put it this way: You shouldn’t limit yourself too much.”
The Season So Far…
Promotion has looked a genuine possibility for much of this season for Heidenheim. They lost only two league games before February and have been beaten at home – the modest 15,000-seater Voith-Arena – once all campaign in the 2. Bundesliga.
The 3-2 loss at Paderborn on 14 May put a spanner in the works, but Jan-Niklas Beste’s cool finish from Tim Kleindienst’s perfectly weighted cut-back after winning the ball in the box secured a 1-0 victory over Sandhausen – who were subsequently relegated – at the weekend to keep Heidenheim in the driver’s seat to go up with Darmstadt.
While there will undoubtedly be many neutrals around Europe hoping for fallen giants Hamburg to go up, much of the season to date suggests Heidenheim have the tools to see it out.
Not only have they kept a league-high 15 clean sheets – and a joint-club record in the second tier – but their 64 scored is the third most, with only Hamburg (69) and Paderborn (68) netting more. What sets Heidenheim apart and should provide additional confidence that they can get the job done is the fact their scoring haul far exceeds their expected goals (xG) by 19.5 (44.5 xG), which is the biggest differential in the division. It’s as if even the underlying numbers are saying, ‘you know what, let’s keep this fairytale alive’.
Sure, some might say they’ve been lucky, with their 5-2 win over Karlsruher in March raising some eyebrows given they managed just 0.9 xG, but perhaps the standard of their goals (and they netted some beauties on that occasion) was attributable to their confidence.
Kleindienst scored three in that game alone that showcased his wide-ranging skillset, blasting two exceptional finishes into the bottom corners from the edge of the box – one with either foot – and nodding in from a corner for a ‘perfect hat-trick’. The 27-year-old has been an essential part of Heidenheim’s promotion push, topping the scoring chart on 24 goals. With a cushion of five heading into the weekend, he is destined to become the club’s first player to end a 2. Bundesliga season as the division’s top scorer.
His nine headed goals is a league high as well and feeds into Heidenheim’s willingness to go direct. They rank third for most open-play crosses (504), top for long passes (2,460) and joint-third for direct attacks (63).
Heidenheim also embody the feistiness of Schmidt in their work rate off the ball, with their 294 high turnovers not bettered by any team in the league. Those situations have yielded eight goals, a tally only Hamburg (12) can trump.
Whether they can maintain that intensity and compete over a whole season in the Bundesliga is, of course, an entirely different kettle of fish. The squad will obviously need investment and understandably there’ll be concerns about them attracting a certain standard of player, but until this point Schmidt has made surpassing expectations a habit of Heidenheim with a largely homegrown squad – they’ve had at least 10 German players in every starting XI in the league this term.
In many ways Schmidt and Heidenheim shouldn’t have even got this close to the top tier, yet here we are.
Bundesliga or not, Schmidt’s already achieved the unthinkable.