Schalke's dramatic decline: How one of Germany's great clubs suffered a remarkable Bundesliga relegation

Bornauw's late winner lifts Cologne to relegation playoff (2:02)

Sebastiaan Bornauw's 86th-minute winner vs. Schalke means Cologne will head into the relegation playoff. (2:02)

It's over. On Saturday, Schalke 04 played their final Bundesliga match, meaning that for at least one season, they'll play outside the first division, something they haven't done since 1991. Germany's second-biggest club, with their 155,000 members, have spectacularly collapsed. The 2020-21 season was a disaster: five different coaches, 41 players fielded, three wins, the entire club leadership gone and fan unhappiness to the point that Schalke supporters chased and attacked the squad after relegation was confirmed in late April.

Schalke's collapse is unprecedented in German football, given that they were in the Champions League round of 16 just two seasons ago. But those following Schalke closely will not be shocked by this decline. It has been coming for a long time.

How did Schalke get to this point?

Schalke 04 are more than just a football club for the population in Gelsenkirchen, a former miners' town in the Ruhrpott, Germany's most densely populated region in the western parts of the country. It's a place that was hit hard by the end of the coal mining industry in Germany; it has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. There, life revolves around the ups and downs of the football club. They are a seven-time German champion, but never a title winner in the Bundesliga, which was founded in 1963. Their last championship dates back to the amateur days in 1958.

Yet they have come agonisingly close several times. Exactly 20 years ago, the fans were already celebrating on the pitch of the Parkstadion, in the final match at their old home, when Bayern Munich's Patrik Andersson scored over in Hamburg with the last touch of that game and stole the title away from them. "Sometimes cyclists laugh when speeding downhill because they are so nervous and have no control of their emotions," former Schalke striker Youri Mulder (1993 to 2002) told ESPN. "That's just how I felt in that moment."

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They came close again in 2007, only for fierce local rivals Borussia Dortmund to beat them 2-0 on the penultimate matchday, opening the door for VfB Stuttgart to go on and win the trophy. Borussia supporters would rub salt into the wounds, flying a plane across the Veltins Arena -- Schalke's new home -- with a banner reading "Ein Leben lang, keine Schale in der Hand" ("an entire life without the plate in your hand") on the final matchday of the 2007-08 season.

The stakes got higher in the next decade as more money flooded into football, but their decline coincided with Dortmund's climb to the top under Jurgen Klopp. Amid growing debt behind the scenes (which would peak at €200 million in December), they made five Champions League and three Europa League appearances after 2010 despite constant changes in the dugout and in the role of sporting director. While Horst Heldt guaranteed stability on and off the pitch by slowly trimming the debt, Christian Heidel, who came in from Mainz where he had unearthed future coaching stars Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, was allowed to invest into players.

"It was a change of model," one source told ESPN. "The club started making bigger transfers and gambled on future success."

At Schalke, the most important man through the years was not a coach or a director of sport, but a billionaire named Clemens Tonnies. Making his fortune as Germany's "meat baron," his role as head of Schalke's board meant he was enthroned above all the others, deciding alone what Schalke would do next. Immediately after taking office in 2006, he negotiated a sponsorship deal with Gazprom, he visited Vladimir Putin and led the Konigsblauen closer to the European elite clubs, into that tier that these days includes the likes of Sevilla FC, Atletico Madrid, Napoli and Dortmund. The Tonnies era was defined by a short, rapid rise in the first five years and a long decline over the next decade, which was only to accelerate with his resignation in the summer of 2020.

The stem of Schalke's decline can be traced back to 2016, when Tonnies started making bigger decisions in isolation. That summer, he let sporting director Heldt go and appointed Heidel, who had run Mainz for more than a decade where he'd first tried Klopp and then Tuchel as manager.

When he joined Schalke, for the first time in his career he had money to play with, so he spent it. The early signs were promising. Domenico Tedesco, then 31, was appointed as manager in June 2017, and led the team to second place in his first season. But that summer, they tried to reinvent the team's style of play and dipped into the transfer market for players who would fit. It led to a costly outlay on Sebastian Rudy, the Germany international midfielder, who was signed for €16m but only made 23 Bundesliga appearances before spending two seasons on loan at TSG Hoffenheim. Breel Embolo was another who didn't work out -- signed for €26.5m in July 2016, he sustained a serious injury early on in his time at Schalke and left three years later for Gladbach, for €11m, after 12 goals in just 61 matches.

While their recruitment faltered, they were also unable to keep hold of their stars. Schalke lost Leon Goretzka on a free transfer to Bayern Munich in 2018 -- a common theme for the club who gave away Joel Matip to Liverpool and Sead Kolasinac to Arsenal after letting their contracts expire. Sometimes, the club even cashed in on their famous Knappenschmiede youngsters like Thilo Kehrer, Julian Draxler or Leroy Sane, only with inferior players being brought in to replace them.

Schalke were a Champions League side and paid top wages, but the business model hinged upon the club consistently qualifying for the Champions League. Tedesco looked to be guiding the club in the right direction, but after they were hammered 7-0 by Manchester City in March 2019, he was sacked. Around that time, Heidel also left.

In the first months of the 2019-2020 season, things were looking positive. Under new manager David Wagner, known for getting Huddersfield Town to the Premier League in his previous job, Schalke were flying high and making a push for Europe, losing just three of their first 17 league games. By the winter break came, Schalke were behind fourth-place Dortmund only on goal difference. In the second half of the season, they won one match and slumped to 12th.

The coronavirus pandemic hit the club hard financially. In April 2020, they feared for their existence, even asking season-ticket holders to not request rebates for the cost of their unused tickets, but the supporters clung to hope in the form of their new star. Weston McKennie had come through the academy since arriving from FC Dallas in 2016 and had won the hearts of the fans and club alike with his attitude and his determination. In the summer of 2020, the club told him they'd like to keep him but realistically had to find him a new club as he was one of the few Schalke players who was attracting transfer interest.

When Juve made an offer for an initial loan, it was enough. The club could not deny the United States midfielder the chance to join one of Europe's biggest clubs, though there was no immediate cash injection. Losing McKennie, and unable to recruit adequate replacements, their prospects looked bleak ahead of the 2020-21 season. But what followed was far worse than they could have imagined.

Schalke's nadir

The club headed into the new season without star man McKennie, but with Wagner, who was too expensive to be sacked, still as manager. There was turbulence behind the scenes. Over the summer, Tonnies had been forced out of his position at Schalke following a racism scandal. The club's fanbase had not forgotten it, and with outbreaks of the coronavirus at one of his meat factories amid reports of migrant workers being treated badly, the fans protested against Tonnies.

The leadership was faceless, luckless and had no more money to spend. The squad still was decent, but with experienced players like full-back Daniel Caligiuri gone -- the cornerstone of their defence at right-back, he joined Augsburg on a free transfer -- disaster struck on matchday one when Bayern Munich humiliated them 8-0.

Wagner only knew one way to play, but his Gegenpressing tactic was dated and the players did not have the fitness required to execute. Wagner got one more match, a 3-1 defeat to Werder Bremen -- taking Schalke to 18 games without a win -- before he was replaced by Manuel Baum. (Wagner will reportedly stay on the payroll to the tune of €200,000 a month through to 2022.)

By late November, that winless run extended to 24 games, and they were plunged further into chaos when technical director Michael Reschke left by mutual consent over "different views [with Schneider] over the sporting future" of the club. Players Nabil Bentaleb and Amine Harit were also exiled to individual training. Harit's exclusion came after he snubbed Baum when substituted in the 38th minute in their 2-0 defeat to Wolfsburg on Nov. 21, while a statement on Bentaleb stated that the club and player "clearly aren't a good fit." They also confirmed on Nov. 25 veteran attacker Vedad Ibisevic would leave the club on Dec. 31, only to find out later that day another attacker, Goncalo Paciencia, would miss the next months through injury.

By mid-December, Schalke were finally on the verge of ending their losing streak. They were up 2-1 against 10-man Augsburg until the 93rd minute, when they conceded an equaliser.

"The players, they all had the quality," one source told ESPN, "but the weight of the jersey dragged them down."

By the end of the calendar year, Schalke had won one league match in all of 2020 and were closing in on Tasmania Berlin's all-time record of 31 league games without a win. Baum was sacked and after the brief return of Huub Stevens for two matches (having previously managed Schalke between 1996-2002 and 2011-12, and on an interim basis in 2019), the club "took the poison pill," one source told ESPN. Schneider drew on memories of his Stuttgart days and approached former Tottenham Hotspur boss Christian Gross, who had retired from coaching in 2020. He returned to the scene with old-fashioned tactics and an antiquated leadership style.

Club legend Klaas-Jan Huntelaar had been signed to help on the pitch and was joined by Kolasinac, redundant at Arsenal just like Skhodran Mustafi, who also came to Gelsenkirchen in January. But Huntelaar was then injured for several weeks, and Kolasinac and Mustafi showed why they did not thrive in north London.

The fall continued, despite Schalke beating Hoffenheim 4-0 on Jan. 9 to avoid breaking Tasmania's record. In late January, they were on seven points and a month later, following a 5-1 defeat at Stuttgart, they sacked their entire sporting staff, including Schneider and Gross. They had picked up nine points from 23 games and had tried four coaches: Wagner, Baum, Stevens and now Gross.

The fifth coach, Dimitrios Grammozis, was simply tasked with making it to the end of the season with damage limitation. He achieved it, but nothing more. He won just seven points from 11 games, but handed playing time to young players, taking Schalke to a total of 41 players used over the course of this season. When, in mid-April, a defeat at Arminia Bielefeld secured them relegation, the fans' frustration boiled over.

From nearby Dortmund, the Borussia ultras had set the scene with fireworks over Gelsenkirchen, celebrating Schalke's misery, after the final whistle. When the Schalke team returned, some fans awaited them at the stadium. They directed their frustration against the squad, chasing some players around the stadium. "It was scary," one source told ESPN about that night. The collapse of Schalke was complete, those glorious memories of title challenges a world away.

An uncertain future

There used to be no place in German football like the Schalker Meile -- the Schalke-themed, 800-metres-long row of houses on the desolated Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse, with its abandoned properties featuring a church on one end and a pub on the other -- on a matchday. The Kurt-Schumacher Strasse was, in pre-pandemic days, coloured in blue and white and supporters from all over Germany would go there, drink a beer and inhale the club's history at the Gluckaufkampfbahn -- the club's ground until 1973. There were reminders everywhere of past success.

The Schalker Meile boasts arguably one of the great prematch atmospheres in German football. From there, it's only a short walk underneath the A42 Autobahn, across the Rhine-Herne-Canal and the Emscher -- an open waste water canal slowly being restored to its natural state -- until you reach the Veltins Arena, Schalke's current home. The leftovers of the Parkstadion, the Royal Blues' home until 2001, are to the left and form part of the club's gigantic training ground. The Veltins Arena was meant to signify Schalke's cemented status as one of the German giants. Now it's more of a mausoleum to their drastic decline.

It was different in December 2018, when Tonnies got the band together one last time. Ahead of their match against Bayer Leverkusen, the stadium was dark and the spotlight was on the miners down on the pitch. The last two coal mines in Germany had closed at Bottrop and Ibbenburen, bringing an end to the German industry, and in the centre circle they stood with Tonnies and other Schalke figures, who would also soon leave. They sang an old mining song: "Gluck Auf, Gluck Auf. Der Steiger kommt. Und er hat sein stilles Licht bei der Nacht schon angezund't" ("Good luck, Good luck, the pit foreman comes and he has his bright light in the night, already lighted"). Minutes later, the players ran out on the pitch through the tunnel, which in 2014 had been transformed into a mine shaft. But the mining was no more, and soon the old Schalke disappeared too.

"What happened, the relegation and everything, it's like a confirmation for the Schalke fans they are the ones left behind," Taner Sahinturk, a former Schalke youth player turned actor and one of the heads of Schalker Visionen, told ESPN.

As Schalke look to battle back into the top tier next season, the supporters will continue living by the values of the club: working hard and supporting the local businesses. Timo Riedemann, cofounder of supporters' group Schalke nur als eV, said: "This is what Schalke is about, too. We are one, we are a community."

"All of it is also chance to regroup," Sahinturk adds. "Unlike the mining, Schalke will never die."