Ten years ago, Schalke 04 were in the knockout stages of the Uefa Champions League. They had reached the top 16 of Europe comfortably, and, having put four goals past Valencia, went on to meet the then holders, Internazionale, in the quarter-finals. Schalke thrashed Inter 7-3 on aggregate.
In that team was a goalkeeper already redefining the position for the modern game, brave, bold and possessed of a pinpoint pass as well as agility. He was 24, a local lad named Manuel Neuer who would go on to win every major prize in the sport. Two of Neuer’s 2011 Schalke team-mates, Benedikt Howedes and Julian Draxler, were to lift the 2014 World Cup with him for Germany.
Up front that season for Schalke? A striker who, with his goal against Valencia, established a new record for the number of goals by any individual in European competition. He was Raul Gonzalez, an inspired signing from Real Madrid at the age of 33. If Raul did not score then the trusty Dutch poacher Klaas-Jan Huntelaar could usually be relied on.
The European adventure ended against a stronger Manchester United in the semis. But Schalke won the German Cup and had every reason for long-term optimism. The academy that nurtured Neuer and Draxler, and before them Mesut Ozil, was respected, well run and a desirable place to learn.
As Schalke celebrated their exploits in knockout tournaments in 2010/11, they were thrilled that a kid called Leroy Sane, who had enrolled with them as a nine-year-old, was returning to their youth ranks as a 15-year-old with excellent prospects.
Ten years on, the contrast could scarcely be starker. Schalke are a heavyweight on the canvas, punchdrunk and forlorn. They are bottom of the Bundesliga, with just nine points from 23 matches, and with just a single win in their last 39 league matches, their catastrophic run stretching back well into last season.
It now includes four departed head coaches in six months. Christian Gross, owner of the lone Bundesliga victory Schalke have managed in the period since January 17th 2020, was dismissed on Sunday morning. The previous day, his team had lost 5-1 to Stuttgart. For each of the goals conceded, Schalke’s bosses got rid of an employee: Gross; three more members of the coaching and team management staff; and sports director Jochen Schneider.
It is still unclear who will take charge on the touchline for the weekend’s meeting with Mainz, who are one place, but eight points above Schalke in the table. Safety is nine points away for the rock-bottom club.
With 33 points still to play for, Gross is theoretically correct to say, as he did on the way out of a job that had lasted a mere eight games, “I believe we can avoid relegation.” His bosses do not share that confidence, and explained the weekend’s sweeping changes of personnel by saying the intention was to build a new management structure with a view to the future.
They have an eye on the challenges of the second division, where prestige or a large fan-base – Schalke’s, according to many surveys, is the third biggest in Germany – are no guarantee of swift promotion.
Look only at Hamburg, who reached successive European semi-finals in 2009 and 2010, but were relegated in 2018. In this, Hamburg’s third season in the second tier, they are currently outside the promotion positions.
Whether the senior Schalke players who, word has it, pushed for the exit of Gross intend to be part of next season’s reboot is doubtful. Huntelaar, who returned to the club in January, along with the Arsenal loanee Sead Kolasinac, another fresh into his second Schalke spell, and the former Arsenal central defender Shkodran Mustafi, are understood to have had differences with Gross and argued for an alternative coach.
The experienced and much-travelled Gross, 66, told Swiss newspaper Blick: “If players had a problem with me they should have said so to my face.”
He added: “If it had been up to me I would have brought different players in during the winter.”
The veteran Huntelaar, formerly of Real Madrid and AC Milan, has not been another Raul, the Dutchman restricted to one appearance since rejoining Schalke from Ajax.
Kolasinac and Mustafi’s addition to a leaky defence have hardly shored it up: the 5-1 defeat at Stuttgart followed a 4-0 loss to Dortmund, and although Mustafi missed that with injury, he made his Schalke debut two weeks earlier in the 3-0 loss at home to RB Leipzig.
It was hoped their knowhow would provide a safety net. They have simply been bystanders to the unstoppable plunge of a fallen giant.