The Icarus of the Bundesliga
Paderborn's rise was remarkable, but it was followed by a brutal descent
In the summer of 2013 André Breitenreiter left the tiny TSV Havelse to take over as coach of Paderborn, bringing the midfielder Marc Vucinovic with him. Supporters didn't have any expectations in those days. The furniture entrepreneur Wilfried Finke, the popular long-serving president, made finishing eighth in the 2. Bundesliga an official target, but that was considered optimistic. Paderborn had narrowly avoided relegation the previous season and had one of the lowest budgets in the league. Most expected anther struggle to stay up. When they began with two defeats, nobody was too surprised. The 4-0 thrashing at Energie Cottbus was especially disastrous for Uwe Hünemeier.
The centre-back had surprised many by moving from Cottbus to Paderborn that summer. As Energie were supposed to be promotion hopefuls, the decision was considered a backwards step. "The village where I grew up is very close to Paderborn, so I was coming back to my family and friends,” he said. “People were saying that I lost my ambitions and returned home to retire.”
"It was quite an occasion to play at Cottbus on the second match day. My plan was to stay there for a couple of days, but after such a devastating defeat it was impossible and I returned straight to Paderborn. We conceded four goals in the first half and the mood in the dressing room was really bad. If anyone told me that we would be promoted and Cottbus would be relegated, I wouldn't have believed him.”
Indeed, Paderborn were in the relegation zone with nine points after nine matches, and were knocked out of the DFB-Pokal by the third-division side 1. FC Saarbrücken. Breitenreiter's job appeared to be in jeopardy by late September, but the coach remained confident. He trusted his players and gave an inspirational speech ahead of a match that turned out to be instrumental in their rise.
"The turning point was the game at St Pauli at the beginning of October," Hünemeier recalled. "Breitenreiter was under pressure and there were rumours it would be his last game. He told us that we have to run more than the opponents and win more tackles. We won 2-1, and realised we could be successful if we keep playing that way."
Paderborn improved game by game and were in mid-table by the time they faced Cottbus again in the last game of 2013. Amazingly, their opponents were rock bottom and Hünemeier duly scored his first goal for his new side against his former club. It proved to be the winner. "I was happy to put the ball into the net, but I didn't celebrate. It really was a strange feeling," the captain said.
And yes, he was the captain. It’s perhaps a little unusual for a newly signed player to take the armband, but Breitenreiter felt that Hünemeier had the right character to take care of the unfashionable squad. "You are going to be my man," he told him, and it proved an inspired choice. The extraordinary dressing-room atmosphere made the miracle possible.
"They were a team, first and foremost – on and off the pitch,” the local journalist Kevin Bublitz said. “I went to the cinema and met 12 players going to watch a film together. There was something special in that group, and they would never have been promoted without such a terrific spirit." Hünemeier was the ultimate leader, while Breitenreiter was the “father figure" as Süleyman Koç, who joined the club midway through the season, described him.
Koç, who served a prison sentence for robbery in his younger days, immediately became part of a group that didn't seem easy to handle. "We had quite a lot of difficult characters in the team, and people came from different backgrounds," Hünemeier said. The veteran Paderborn-born striker Mahir Sağlık, who is of Turkish heritage, was in his third spell at the club, and scored 15 goals. Alban Meha, born in Kosovo, contributed 12 goals from midfield. Elias Kachunga, the DR Congo international now at Huddersfield, and Mario Vrančić, who went on to represent Bosnia-Herzegovina, also were key figures.
"I am not an easy guy myself,” Hünemeier said, “especially on the pitch and in training, because I always demand the utmost effort. The coach backed me and we grew as a team. Everyone worked together, even the substitutes. Breitenreiter did a great job putting us in the same boat.”
The Cottbus result was important, because winning three games in a row before the winter break gave the players a lot of confidence. Suddenly, they were just two points from the third place that led to promotion playoffs and they started to talk about the historic opportunity. "The coach tried to keep things quiet with the media, but privately told us that we absolutely must try to finish third,” Hünemeier said. “We never said that we want to be promoted, so that there would be no pressure, but that became our target.”
Immediately after the break, Paderborn visited the run-away leaders 1. FC Köln and won 1-0. "That was a huge sign for us,” Hünemeier said. “Thousands of supporters went with us and we knew that we had a chance to make history." Good results kept coming – the team only lost twice after the winter break and soon consolidated their position in third place. Then, with just two games remaining, they leapfrogged the strong favourites Greuther Fürth into second. They were on the verge of automatic promotion and the town went wild with excitement.
They needed three points at home against VfR Aalen to secure promotion to the Bundesliga. "You could feel the importance of the day in the morning and everyone was focused," Hünemeier said 15,300 expectant spectators filled the small Benteler-Arena. They fell quiet when the visitors scored an early goal, but Vrančić set up Vucinovic and then scored the second goal himself after just 21 minutes. It ended 2-1.
"There was a pile of players and I was beneath everyone.,” Hünemeier said. “I couldn't breathe and was a bit worried, but those emotions are unforgettable. That was one of the best days of my life." The heroes were granted a parade through the centre of the city and tens of thousands of supporters came out to greet them.
Promotion didn't change Paderborn's philosophy. The club paid off its debts from the previous seasons and had no money to spend on new players. It was not the Paderborn way in any case – they are not used to bringing in big names. The squad remained largely unchanged. "Our target was to stay in the Bundesliga, there was no doubt about that," Hünemeier said. And they wanted to do it by playing their usual brand of attacking football.
Breitenreiter had experienced life in the top flight as a player most notably at Unterhaching, a minnow that made headlines on the final day of the 1999-2000 season. Bayer Leverkusen needed just a draw at their small stadium to be crowned champions for the first time but lost 2-0, unable to break down the dogged defence. Unterhaching loved to sit back and hit on the counter, but Paderborn gambled on a different approach. They wanted to have the ball and take the game to their opponents, and so won friends amongst neutral fans.
Their approach was readily apparent on their Bundesliga debut, when they very nearly beat Mainz. Hünemeier scored what looked to be the winner on 88 minutes, but then conceded an injury-time penalty, and the game ended in a 2-2 draw. "Fans were surprised that I managed to score from open play, but I knew that I was going to get that header,” the captain said. “The feeling was unbelievable, but then I was at fault for the penalty. It was a day of mixed emotions."
Less than a month later, Paderborn went top of the league after keeping three successive clean sheets. They got their first Bundesliga win in sensational fashion with a 3-0 triumph at Hamburg, drew 0-0 against Köln and then prevailed against Hannover.
For Breitenreiter, who grew up and started his playing career at Hannover, the game was especially important and his tactical preparation was immaculate. The underdogs were the better team throughout and were rewarded when Kachunga scored, assisted by Hünemeier. Then, as the visitors threw everyone forward, including the goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler, for a late free kick, Moritz Stoppelkamp picked up a clearance just outside his own penalty area and scored with a shot later measured at 82.3m from his opponent’s goal.
That was the furthest out anybody had ever scored from in the Bundesliga and it was extremely important. By winning 2-0, Paderborn improved their goal difference to +5, lifting them above Mainz, Hoffenheim and Bayern Munich, who also had eight points from four matches. It was a truly magnificent moment. "Never before, not even after the promotion was secured, was the stadium so loud,” the Westfalen-Blatt journalist Matthias Reichstein said. “Fans were hugging each other. The celebrations were unprecedented."
Stoppelkamp, signed from TSV 1860 München that summer, became a local hero. The club even set up a Stoppelkamp-Allee in front of the stadium. Its length, needless to say, is 82.3m. "It was a miracle to be top,” Hünemeier said, “but we didn't have a lot of time to celebrate because the next game was at Bayern in midweek. Suddenly, it turned out to be a game between the leaders and the media coverage was huge. Nobody expected us to go to the Allianz Arena level on points with the champions.”
Even in the toughest fixture, Breitenreiter didn't want to defend. Paderborn started with an adventurous 4-4-2 formation and conceded two early goals. The coach decided to switch to 5-4-1 and the underdogs kept their opponents at bay for more than an hour. With time running out, they gambled on attack once again, trying to get an unlikely point. They were punished by Bayern twice and lost 4-0, but left the field with their heads held high. The players thoroughly enjoyed the Oktoberfest after the match as well.
Some very decent results followed. Paderborn won against Hertha Berlin and Eintracht Frankfurt, nearly took the three points at Bayer Leverkusen and came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with Borussia Dortmund. Their team spirit was still exceptional, and the team reached the halfway point of the season in a respectable tenth place, albeit just four points above the relegation zone. But then everything changed.
"We knew that things would be tougher in the second half of the season, because opponents knew us better and we were not the surprise team anymore," Hünemeier said, but the problems went deeper than that. "During the winter training camp in Turkey, Breitenreiter told me that we wouldn't get more than ten more points if we continued like this. He saw that something was wrong. The level of training wasn't good enough. Eventually, he was absolutely right because we took just twelve points in the second round.”
Paderborn were thrashed 5-0 at Mainz in the first game of 2015 and never really recovered. "Sometimes we were unlucky,” Hünemeier said. “We didn't convert our chances, and couldn't keep clean sheets anymore. With every game you lose, your self-confidence is getting lower. It was hard for us to get out of that cycle. We couldn't stop it.”
Some of the results were truly unfortunate, especially the dramatic defeat at Schalke in the penultimate game of the season. Paderborn needed to win to have a decent chance of survival and were the better side for most of the game. They couldn't find the net, though, and Hünemeier scored an own goal after 88 minutes, condemning them to the 1-0 defeat. "We played really well for a change,” he said. “Schalke were in a deep crisis in those days and their fans booed them. That was a good sign for us and we had a lot of chances, but eventually only scored at the wrong end. As we walked off the pitch, the crowd applauded us. That made it even stranger and more disappointing. We understood that it was our last away game in the Bundesliga. It was very difficult to swallow.”
There was still one last chance. On the final day of the season, Paderborn had to beat fellow strugglers VfB Stuttgart and hope that other results went their way. Vucinovic scored to give them an early lead, but they conceded twice and lost 2-1 to finish last with 31 points. With Hamburg beating Schalke, it was irrelevant anyway. They would have gone down in any case. The fairy tale was over.
"Players became too pleased with themselves after the first round,” Reichstein said. “When things started to go wrong, many of them thought about the future and their release clauses. In fact, Breitenreiter had an exit clause in his contract as well and used it to join Schalke in the summer.”
Losing their beloved coach was a huge blow, but Paderborn didn't give him any choice. Towards the end of the season, Finke inexplicably demanded that Breitenreiter make a decision regarding the new contract within a week, leaving the coach feeling insulted. He moved to Gelsenkirchen and keeping the team intact without him proved impossible.
"Breitenreiter's contribution to our success was immense," Vucinovic said. "He built the team and many players have him to thank for establishing their careers. All the players and the fans would have loved to see him stay, but everyone could understand why he left for Schalke. His personal ambitions were high."
The squad fell apart. Kachunga went to newly promoted Ingolstadt, Vrančić moved to Darmstadt, Meha joined Konyaspor. The most important loss, though, was that of Hünemeier. The captain planned to stay, but a very lucrative offer from Brighton lured him to England and the leader was gone after taking part in the first two games of the season.
"During the summer, I realised very early on that it was going to be a tough season for us,” Hünemeier. “The training sessions and friendly matches were not good. Key players left and others thought about leaving. They were not focused enough." That must have contributed to his eventual choice. "The decision was extremely difficult to make. I wanted to stay and help the team in the second division, but Brighton were persistent and I changed my mind."
The supporters were distraught. "I could understand his reasons, but it still felt like a betrayal,” said Andrea Sahlmen. “With him in the team, the downfall might not have happened." Without the captain, the team lost its heart, and the new coach's task became much more difficult.
The man in question was raw in the extreme. Finke appointed Markus Gellhaus to replace Breitenreiter, hoping that another bold choice would pay off. A former assistant at the club, Gellhaus worked in a similar position at Hertha Berlin, but had no experience as a head coach. The sporting director Michael Born was opposed to the move, but the president wouldn't listen to him. "Gellhaus had no chance, because he was a typical number two – too soft and lacking charisma,” Reichstein said. “Finke promised that he would be a success and expectations were way too high. The club officially stated that winning promotion was their goal.”
That turned out to be wishful thinking, as Vucinovic explained. "In retrospect, pre-season training was not intensive enough," the midfielder said. "We used to have maximum physical fitness, but that season we noticed that we were not in shape. The players were not focused. We had some excellent individual talents in the squad and so were considered promotion candidates, but it’s not enough to have the best players. It is important to be the best team. We didn't gel as a team and fight for each other."
Hünemeier noticed those problems before leaving, but he could never have imagined another relegation. "That was out of question,” he said. “I had my doubts about promotion and thought that we might be content with finishing in the top six. We didn't think for a second that we might go down again.”
Their early results left the club in a state of shock. Paderborn lost five of their first six matches, even painfully succumbing at home to Arminia Bielefeld in the hotly contested local derby. "Suddenly, we found ourselves at the foot of the table,” Vucinovic said. “Everyone had individual problems, and all the players were unsatisfied.”
Gellhaus was fired at the beginning of October. The name of his successor stunned everybody and brought Paderborn back into the headlines. Stefan Effenberg, a brilliant but controversial midfielder in his playing days, was never expected to become a coach. This time, Born was the man behind the decision and he used Ottmar Hitzfeld to get in touch with the former Bayern Munich star.
"Yes, it's really me," Effenberg amusingly said in his first press conference and the whole of Germany waited to see if he was able to do the job properly. His first home game, against high-flying Eintracht Braunschweig, was magnificent and a spirited performance led to an emphatic 2-0 win. That was also the score in Effenberg's second game in charge, at Union Berlin. Suddenly, Paderborn were looking like a top club again – by 2. Bundesliga standards.
With Effenberg acting as the motivator and his assistant Sören Osterland doing the tactical analysis, hopes of promotion returned. At the annual general meeting, the coach stated clearly, "Our goal is to return to the Bundesliga as soon as possible. I am totally convinced that we can do it." Paderborn squandered leads in their next two home matches, but were still unbeaten in the first four games under Effenberg and the players were smiling again.
"The team were very excited when we heard that Effenberg was going to be the new coach," Vucinovic said. "We knew him as a successful player and a big personality, and you could sense the anticipation in the squad. We were keen to get to know him personally. From his first day at the club, the town was buzzing with euphoria. More than 1000 fans came to witness his first training session. The media interest was enormous. Journalists and photographers were everywhere all the time."
Eventually, that was exactly the reason for the fiasco. A small club like Paderborn was completely unprepared for such attention and it soon became evident that they had simply become SC Effenberg. "Everything the coach did or said was ripped apart in the newspapers,” Vucinovic said. “They dug up old stories from his playing days and at a certain point football became irrelevant. The main focus switched to Effenberg's personal past. The team and the coaching staff were unable to work properly with rumours dominating the media. Negative headlines were followed by negative results, and it was a vicious circle.”
To make matters worse, the initial success made Effenberg too sure of his abilities, and he pushed Osterland aside, claiming all the power. He wasn't totally in charge, though, because Finke called the shots when he felt like it. As the team stopped functioning and dropped to 16th place (of 18) in early December after six matches without a win, the club unexpectedly decided to release three players who had contracts until June 2016.
Fans were not especially sorry for Srđan Lakić who had only joined the club a year earlier, but the decision regarding Daniel Brückner and Sağlık was extremely unpopular. "There was no reason to suspend them, because they had always given everything for the club,” Sahlmen said. “Sağlık is from Paderborn, Brückner played for us for many years and they definitely were the crowd favourites. We felt that they were taken from us. After that happened, the team became much less popular.”
Effenberg was the man who told the trio they were being released and it was presented as his decision, but he presented his own version later on. "The president put a gun to my head. There was no sporting reason to release those players. I agreed to do it, but it was my biggest mistake," he said after leaving the job. "Finke was closer to journalists than to the coach. He told them everything. The players didn't feel free, there was a certain fear."
Banishing Brückner, Sağlık and Lakić was supposed to make the rest of the team more disciplined, but in reality the opposite happened. The squad gradually lost respect for Effenberg and the winter training camp in Turkey was a disaster. Players stopped eating meals together and some extraordinary incidents occurred. Marc Brašnić jumped into the swimming pool in the middle of the night, Michael Heinloth broke some vases and then Nick Proschwitz dropped his pants and exposed himself in front of the hotel clerk.
The striker was immediately fired, but it was clear that Effenberg had lost the team completely and results at the beginning of 2016 were awful. Paderborn took just two points and scored a single goal in the first five matches of the year, while the coach continued to make unwanted headlines. His driving licence was suspended after he was caught drunk behind the wheel and then it turned out that he didn't have a coaching licence at all. Effenberg was sacked at the beginning of March, as the club dropped into relegation zone.
Finke shortened his vacation in Mallorca to come back and take the difficult decision, without consulting Born. "The end of Hollywood in Paderborn," screamed the headline in Kicker magazine. "He did not suit us," the president confessed. René Müller, the well-respected youth academy chief who had played for the club and served as an interim coach back in 2013, replaced Effenberg on a permanent basis.
Müller was overwhelmed by the task, while the club didn't really understand the severity of the danger until it was too late. Despair was evident, as Born, who had such a huge influence in the success two years earlier, was relieved of his duties as well. Finke even allowed Sağlık to rejoin the squad, but that didn't help and the team only won two of ten matches under the new coach. They finished bottom of the table, with just 28 points from 34 games – incredibly, three points fewer than they had in the Bundesliga at the end of the previous season. That was absolutely unprecedented.
"Relegation was a shock,” Hünemeier said. “It was hard for me to see them losing game after game from England." He could never have believed that the situation could possibly get worse, but it did. The 2016-17 season became a very spectacular disaster.
The goal was crystal clear once again – Paderborn expected to be promoted. "The club simply couldn't afford to exist in the 3. Liga,” Reichstein said. “Rental costs of the training ground were way too high at €750,000. It is impossible to finance them in the third division.” That was probably the reason behind the club's bizarre decision not to lower ticket prices. They were still at Bundesliga level, which didn't help draw disillusioned fans back into the stadium. They had suffered enough.
The club behaved as though it was still in the top flight, but everything was falling apart. Finke retired, replaced by the inexperienced Martin Hornberger. There was no sporting director at all, putting enormous pressure on Müller who couldn't possibly do two major jobs at the same time. Key players who had remained during the previous season – Marvin Bakalorz, Stoppelkamp and Sağlık – left on free transfers. Only Vucinovic, the goalkeeper Lukas Kruse and Thomas Bertels survived from the Bundesliga season. The squad was thin and lacked quality, but the club was unable to fix that.
"Without a sporting director, nobody knew who was in charge of scouting and signing contracts,” Bublitz explained. “Paderborn were known for finding young and talented players in the past, but they failed to do so without proper management. Instead, they signed expensive veterans like Zlatko Dedić who earned a lot of money but played for themselves.”
By November, alarm bells were ringing. When Paderborn were spectacularly thrashed 6-0 at newly promoted Sportfreunde Lotte, they dropped to 17th place, just two points above the relegation zone. With 31 goals conceded in the first 15 fixtures, they had the worst defensive record in the league and the club felt forced to fire Müller.
It took them a couple of weeks to find a replacement in Stefan Emmerling and the new boss won his first two matches, while at the same time Finke was persuaded to return to try to save the club. Fans started to be cautiously optimistic again, but that didn't last for long. Paderborn lost six games in a row in February and March, only scoring two goals in the process. That run left them second bottom, six points from safety with ten matches remaining and a third relegation in a row became extremely likely. "We expected to be fighting for promotion,” Vucinovic said, “but found ourselves in relegation fight, and at a certain point the gap started to get too big.”
It is during that period, though, that Paderborn rediscovered the right way. Markus Krösche came back and that was the best possible news for the supporters. Krösche is a true club legend, having played record 354 matches for Paderborn between 2001 and 2014, most of them as captain. He was a reserve player during the historic promotion season, before retiring at the age of 33 and coaching the reserve team in the sixth division. In 2015, he joined Bayer Leverkusen as Roger Schmidt's assistant. However, when Schmidt was fired in March 2017, Krösche left as well and Paderborn were delighted to bring him back ahead of schedule. One of the most popular figures ever returned as the new manager.
It was too late to save the season, but Krösche had long-term plans. He knew that relegation to the fourth division was possible and found a coach who was willing to work there and rebuild the team from scratch. When Emmerling was sacked in April following the 4-0 defeat at VfR Aalen, the former Hansa Rostock striker Steffen Baumgart replaced him.
Suddenly, it felt like the Breitenreiter days were back. Baumgart brought self-belief and ambition to the battered squad, and Paderborn won ten points from his first four games in charge to climb above the relegation zone. Ahead of the final match day, they were one point ahead of Werder Bremen reserves and needed to win at VfL Osnabrück in order to stay up.
That was easier said than done, though, against one of the best teams in the league, and the great effort was in vain. Paderborn attacked for 90 minutes, but had to settle for a goalless draw. When Bremen reserves scored a very late winner against Aalen, history was made. Paderborn went down for the third time in three years.
"It was a disastrous moment, not only as far as football is concerned," Sahlmen said. "Financial collapse was possible. Fans sold T-shirts to raise funds for the club. We were worried about not getting a licence, because the debts were high and the city of Paderborn didn't want to invest money anymore."
There was a very unexpected twist in the tale, however. Incredibly, almost miraculously, another – much more famous – club "came to the rescue" of Paderborn. TSV 1860 Munich were relegated to the 3. Liga and their hugely controversial owner Hassan Abdullah Ismaik refused to provide the funds necessary to get a licence. 1860 were thus automatically relegated to the fourth division, while Paderborn took their place in the 3. Liga. The points won under Baumgart that meant they finished 18th instead of 19th proved to be crucial in the extreme in retrospect.
"When the news about 1860 Munich came in, I cried with happiness,” Sahlmen recalled. “We have never been so happy to be in the 3. Liga. That was an unbelievable feeling. We opened a bottle of sparkling wine and celebrated our salvation."
The joy has continued ever since. With Krösche and Baumgart calling the shots, the club enjoyed proper preparation for the new 2017-18 season and in January 2018 were top of the 3. Liga with the best attacking record in the division. It’s as though they are unable to stay in the same league – promotion and relegation are the only options for them. This time they are likely to go up and then, who knows, they might return to the Bundesliga once again in 2019. With Paderborn, the rollercoaster never stops.