What the hell has happened to Schalke 04?

    Anyone with even a basic knowledge of German football will know that Schalke 04 are one of the Bundesliga’s biggest and most influential teams.

    While they might not have been able to stop Bayern Munich’s reign of terror, they’ve come pretty close. In 2017/18, they finished second in the league, proving themselves as one of the toughest sides around.

    Just three years later, and they’re preparing for life in the second tier after suffering a humiliating relegation which had players running for their lives away from an angry mob of fans who were stunned at how their club could collapse so quickly.

    It’s a truly ridiculous story, and if you’re looking for an explanation, you’ve got to head back to 2016.

    On February 21, 2016, Schalke announced that Christian Heidel would take over as their new sporting director. This was the man credited with developing managers like Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, who combined to help Mainz punch well above their weight from 2007 onwards.

    Heidel appointed Markus Weinzierl, who had just taken Augsburg to the Europa League as his new first-team manager. There were big plans for Schalke and it seemed as though everything was being put in place to achieve that.

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    Unfortunately, it didn’t work out… at all.

    Christian Heidel
    Heidel’s management did not meet expectations | TF-Images/Getty Images

    While Weinzierl’s management on the pitch was a little underwhelming – his side finished tenth in his debut season before being sacked in the summer – it was Heidel’s work behind the scenes that really contributed to Schalke’s downfall.

    Schalke are one of Germany’s biggest talent-production factories, and with that comes an influx of transfer fees when those players are sold. Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, Thilo Kherer and Manuel Neuer all brought in the best part of £150m between 2011 and 2019, but with great power comes great responsibility.

    Since Heidel’s arrival at the club, Schalke have spent a similar figure on players who have not filled the void.

    Breel Embolo, Nabil Bentaleb and Sebastian Rudy are the club’s three biggest signings, and none of them made it anywhere close to the level of those they were meant to replace.

    Meanwhile, Leon Goretzka walked out on a free to join Bayern Munich in 2018.

    Club officials didn’t care about the turnover and failed replacements, believing that you have to spend money to make money. It’s why they took a revolving door approach to managers, committed to a €100m spend to upgrade the club’s training facility and were prepared to do away with Heidel in 2019 when results started to slip as well.

    Unfortunately, by the time Heidel left, the damage was already done.

    David Wagner
    David Wagner failed to work a miracle | Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

    Schalke’s financial records in 2019 showed debts of around €200m. The club had dug themselves a hole and accepted that they needed success on the pitch in 2019/20 to bring in money and help bridge the gap.

    When new manager David Wagner had them as high as third in December, Schalke were feeling good, but then the world collapsed.

    Performances on the pitch fell off, but the final nail in the coffin was the COVID-19 outbreak which ravaged football’s finances. Even teams who were rolling in cash started to haemorrhage money, but Schalke had no parachute. The debts were already there and began to spiral out of control. When fans began to request refunds to their season tickets, they were told that money would only be paid out to supporters who could physically prove they needed the money. Charming.

    By the end of 2020 things were looking dire on and off the pitch. Schalke had to win at all costs, but they didn’t have any money to improve the squad. The only ‘upgrades’ came in the form of free transfers like Shkodran Mustafi and loan deals for players like Sead Kolasinac.

    The manager had to work miracles or face the sack.

    Shkodran Mustafi
    Mustafi was the club’s last hope on the pitch | Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

    Wagner couldn’t do it. Manuel Baum couldn’t do it. Christian Gross could do it. By the time Dimitrios Grammozis arrived in March, it was far too late. Schalke were bottom of the Bundesliga and simply waiting for their inevitable relegation to be confirmed. An unstable ownership, deteriorating playing squad and complete lack of structure at management level all proved a deadly cocktail when the pandemic hit.

    With just two wins, seven draws and 21 losses to their name, Schalke’s relegation was confirmed with a 1-0 loss to Arminia Bielefeld, and just like that one of the biggest sides in German history was relegated.

    For more from ​Tom Gott, follow him on ​Twitter!

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