By Peter McVitie – http://www.alwaysfitba.com
After a trip to Borussia Monchengladbach, Sahil Jaidka, Robert Kielty, sports scientist and lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, and myself visited Schalke 04, here is the roundup of that fantastic visit:
Just like ‘Gladbach, Schalke 04 have improved immensely over the past two years from a struggling mid-to lower-table Bundesliga side to title challengers.
The Gelsenkirchen club had a disastrous domestic season in 2010/11 in which, despite reaching the Champions League semi-finals and winning the DFB Pokal, Die Königsblauen finished 14th in the league having spent the entire campaign in the bottom half of the table.
This season, however, under new coach Huub Stevens, the club had star forwards Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Raul firing on all cylinders with the Dutchman finishing the season as the league’s top goalscorer on 29 goals and the Real Madrid legend netting 15 times.
Stevens’s side got the 2011/12 campaign off to a good start as they quickly shot to second place and proved genuine title contenders alongside reigning champions Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and surprise package Borussia Monchengladbach until the dying weeks of the season where they finished in third place, securing qualification into the Champions League.
I had arranged this trip via email and the club’s press officer had been very helpful so I was looking forward to visiting Schalke.
Upon arriving in Gelsenkirchen, a train is available which takes you through the city and straight to Schalke’s stadium, the Veltins Arena, to which the club’s training facilities and old stadium are adjacent.
As you travel through the city you cannot help but notice the abundance of Schalke 04 badges and flags hanging from buildings and windows and painted on walls, and local shops selling Die Knappen (the Miners) merchandise. Not only can you not escape the presence of the club in the local area, but it is hard not to admire and absorb it. The feeling of tribalism, devout support and pride is evident throughout the working class town and creates a rather enchanting atmosphere of unity amongst its quarter million or so residents.
Upon arrival at the Veltins Arena station, a short walk up the stairs and to the left and you are suddenly taken aback by the impressive structure that is Schalke 04’s home ground. Directly to the left, and equally impressive, is the fantastic and elaborate training facilities which consist of numerous pitches, gyms, a beach volleyball area and the old stadium, with the pitch still pristine and intact (although the stands have been demolished, but we’ll get to that later).
Our first stop was the offices situated beside the training facilities, where we met Till Beckmann, the youth management assistant and match venue officer of youth and reserve teams. Till gave us a tour of the administration offices before driving us around the entire complex to allow us to film everything we needed and provide background information of the club and the area.
One of the first stops was the old stadium. The pitch is still in immaculate condition, however, the stands have all but been torn down and construction is ongoing around the area. It was impressive to see that the ground hasn’t been sold or houses built upon it (like what would happen in most cases in Britain, or at least Scotland), but what was struck me most was Till’s answer to the question “what are they building here?” The answer was more pitches and a bigger stand so that the youth teams can play games here. Straight away one can see the club’s commitment to youth development, not just because of the Bundesliga rules on it, but because it is the club’s tradition and, most importantly, it makes sense.
The gyms and exercise apparatus available to the youth teams are simply incredible, there is almost an abundance of pitches each of which are in fantastic condition, there is a large indoor pitch at the back of the stadium for the youngsters to train in during the winter and there is even an area (a building) for members (supporters) of the club to meet and drink prior to matches.
After shooting everything we needed in the youth facilities, it was back to Till’s office to interview him. We sat down, set up two cameras and Mr. Beckmann gave us all the time we needed to ask all of our questions asked and he answered each and every one of them.
After the interview, Till took us through to meet our next interviewee, Sven Hübscher, assistant coach of the reserves and U23-team and, as of next season, coach of the U16 team after he received his UEFA pro-licence.
Like Till, Sven was a delight and provided us with fantastic insight into Schalke and how important youth development is to the club. He stressed the importance of playing the ‘Schalke way’ and insisted that it is something everyone in the club must be fully dedicated to, otherwise the system stops working to the detriment of not only the youth sides, but the first team as well.
After the interview, the cameras were shut off and Sven sat with Sahil, Robert and I, sharing anecdotes of the club, Felix Magath, Huub Stevens and stars like Benedikt Höwedes and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. For a young football journalist, a fan of the Bundesliga and an admirer of the club, this was heaven.
After Sven left, our third and final interviewee entered the room. Tobias Hellwig is the assistant coach of the U15 side and is also the club’s video analyst. Tobias provided us with a fantastic, in-depth presentation, which was made only for us, about video analysis. The fact that every home game of youth teams is recorded and analysed to the fullest extent blew my mind, what almost knocked me to the floor was the stats produced about every player. The detail Tobias goes into for U15s right up to the reserves is simply incredible. The presentation lasted over an hour and every minute of it was insightful and educational. Afterwards, we sat down for a chat with Tobias and he gave us even more information on the youth system and his very interesting job (as someone obsessed with watching and analysing football DVDs, I wish I had Tobias’s job).
The end of the interview with Mr. Hellwig marked the end of our visit to Schalke. We said our goodbyes and then it was off to the station (via the club shop, where I bought a T-shirt of my favourite footballer in the world – Klaas-Jan Huntelaar) to get back to Köln. Like the return from Borussia Monchengladbach, the journey back to the hostel was one of great reflection. I could not help but think about how forward thinking these clubs are.
Schalke 04 is a club which: is fan owned and has a great influence on the area around it; has an impeccable youth system and shows great commitment to producing young talent; has a fantastic and impressive stadium; and a tradition of playing entertaining football (Schalke created a style known in the early 20th century as ‘spinning top’ football because of the neat, quick passing football, and they still play with an aesthetically pleasing style).
Every aspect of Schalke 04 is built to help it strive for perfection. Everything is based on making the club bigger and better. Their organisation is phenomenal and their commitment to the club, cause and area is inspiring.
I’ve said it for three weeks now, and I still don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it: they’re at least a decade ahead of us, probably more, and it’s not difficult to see why.
The big thing we learned from this trip?
They know how to do it in Germany.
Thanks to Robert Kielty for arranging the fantastic trip to Germany and allowing Sahil and I to come onboard and arrange visits to these clubs.
Thanks to Steffi Pennekamp, Till Beckmann, Sven Hübscher and Tobias Hellwig (all of Schalke).
Thanks to Philipp Schuetzendorf and Lars Tiefenhoff of Borussia Monchengladbach.