If it weren't for Leverkusen, Frank Schmidt's Heidenheim would be the story of the season in Germany. - © IMAGO/Pressefoto Rudel/Robin Rudel
If it weren't for Leverkusen, Frank Schmidt's Heidenheim would be the story of the season in Germany. - © IMAGO/Pressefoto Rudel/Robin Rudel

Heidenheim get their day in the sun as Bayern Munich visit minnows


The ‘1846’ in Heidenheim’s full team name should give you a clue of how long the Bundesliga newbies have waited to welcome Bayern Munich. For manager Frank Schmidt, it is the perfect culmination of an unexpected lifetime’s worth of work.

A former defender at the village club from the south west of Germany, Schmidt was born right by the Voith-Arena, but candidly admitted to supporting Bayern as a child. Since those days as a boy aspiring to play in the Bundesliga, the now 50-year-old has gone on an incredible journey to the top of the game, which instead has him connected to a different club - Heidenheim - perhaps more strongly than any other coach in Europe.

The longest-serving professional team manager in the history of German football, Schmidt has been in the Heidenheim dugout since 2007, and taken them from the fifth tier all the way to the top - a quite astonishing achievement, especially given he did not even want the job in the first place.

Schmidt was asked to stand in as interim manager for two weeks almost 17 years ago following the sacking of Dieter Märkle, and he later explained: “My wife wasn’t so happy about it at the time, because I had promised her that the lawn would be mowed on Friday afternoon like everyone else’s, and that it would be done by me. I even helped look for a successor.”

Watch: Heidenheim's incredible final-day promotion party

Schmidt’s wife may still be waiting, with her husband so successful that he has become the heart and soul of their local side. Securing promotion last year on a dramatic final day, Schmidt later rejected a lifetime contract, he then turned down pleas for a statue, commenting: “People will pee there at some point. I don’t want that.”

Becoming the Bundesliga’s 57th team last year, the promotion was just as stunning as Schmidt’s story itself. Heidenheim needed two stoppage-time goals to turn defeat into victory against Regensburg and secure automatic promotion, frustrating former European champions Hamburg when it looked like they had finally made it back up.

Heidenheim are winning over German football fans' hearts in their maiden Bundesliga season. - IMAGO/H. Langer

That alone would have been enough of a tale, but thanks to Schmidt and Heidenheim’s performances this season, they are here to stay, despite being everyone's favourites for relegation pre-season. 

The team from Baden-Württemberg sit 11th in the Bundesliga and 10 points clear of a relegation play-off before they face Bayern at home for their first time ever. With safety all but secured, Schmidt could be forgiven for finally taking a breather, even perhaps finally mowing his own lawn. He could also simply sit back and celebrate the moment against his boyhood club, but that would go against everything that has got Heidenheim to where they are.

Watch: The spark in Dortmund that ignited Heidenheim's season

Starting the season with back-to-back defeats, it looked like the campaign could end up being a very long one indeed, particularly when their first real taste of the big time saw them overwhelmed and 2-0 down inside 15 minutes at Borussia Dortmund’s imposing Signal Iduna Park.

At half-time, Schmidt, aware he needed to give his team a spark, decided it was time for his players and fans to realise that anything is possible in the Bundesliga. “It doesn’t matter!” he told his troops at half-time. “If we make it 2-1, we've immediately joined the party again, then we're back! Here we are!” Heidenheim did in fact come back for a 2-2 draw, and then picked up their first win of the season at home to Werder Bremen next time out.

Two months later, with his team showing signs of settling in, it was time for a first meeting with Bayern, and Schmidt briefly allowed himself a moment of sentimentality. 

Schmidt is putting a smile on everyone's face at his hometown club. - Getty Images

“This is the ultimate team,” he said. “I was a Bayern fan as a child. That I can play for points at the Allianz Arena as a coach is unbelievable.”

Quickly, though, he soon stepped back and showcased the mentality that has them ready to cause an upset against Bayern in the return match. “We have to do what we do 100 percent, otherwise you have no chance and then FC Bayern can overwhelm you,” he explained. “But we don’t want to take a back seat, caution always has something to do with fear – and we don’t know what fear is.”

Combative comments such as those saw Schmidt named Kicker’s ‘Personality of the Year’ for 2023, beating treble-winner Ilkay Gundogan to the award as the magazine commented: “He leads the Heidenheim phenomenon in a refreshingly open, new, unpretentious and sometimes blunt manner, while always emphasising ‘You must never forget where you came from’.” 

Bayern Munich will be coming to the Bundesliga's smallest stadium, the Voith-Arena, for the first time. - DFL

The former defender was just as impressively unimpressed with himself when he became German football’s longest-serving coach in September, saying: “This is not 1. FC Frank Schmidt, but 1. FC Heidenheim. Of course it's a confirmation of my work, but it also annoys me: my face is on everything. But what about my coaching team, with whom I've been working for so long? An anniversary like this, as I have often emphasised, means nothing to me at all, it is a recognition for all of us and not just for me.”

Thankfully for Schmidt, there has been someone to take the attention off him. Star winger Jan-Niklas Beste stole the headlines when he was called up to Julian Nagelsmann’s Germany squad in March for the first time. Sadly, injury curtailed his debut, but the set-piece wizard will be aiming for his home European Championships in June, and there’s no sign of him or his teammates letting up.

Watch: Beste's best Bundesliga goals

Defender Lennard Maloney summed it up best, commenting: "Anyone who plays against Heidenheim knows that, in plain German, they are facing eleven crazy people who are running after everything. And we try to do justice to that in every game. There won't be a game in which we aren't."

That kind of commitment comes again from Schmidt, who has regularly backed his squad while other managers plea for resources. Speaking in January he said: “I don't need any new signings. I love this team and trust them one hundred percent,” and since the window closed they have certainly repaid his faith.

Heidenheim are now all but safe from relegation and could crown a year of glory with the biggest win in their history. Still reeling from a Der Klassiker defeat to Dortmund that saw Thomas Tuchel anoint Bayer Leverkusen champions, the walls will further close in on the Munich giants when they travel to the smallest ground in the league.

The 15,000-capacity Voith-Arena is finally getting the day it - and the man who helped build it - has long been waiting for.