From relegation fodder to the UEFA Conference League: Heidenheim prove doubters wrong


At the end of their debut Bundesliga campaign, Heidenheim have made a mockery of most people's early season predictions by qualifying for the UEFA Conference League...

That's because, for the majority of outsiders, Heidenheim's chances of survival looked slim.

After all, they were competing in the top-flight for the very first time, were operating on a fairly meagre budget and the town of just 50,000 people watched their football at a 15,000 capacity Voith-Arena, which is the smallest in the division and one-fifth the size of Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena.

Fast forward less than a year, and those who wrote off Heidenheim are now being served a big slice of humble pie.  

That's because, in fact, Heidenheim have been red-hot. With the season now at an end, they are nowhere to be seen near the relegation zone. In fact, Heidenheim finished a whole nine points clear of the bottom three and 15 better off than the automatic trapdoor of second bottom - in such a lofty position, eighth, that they even earned a spot in the play-off round for next season's UEFA Conference League.

Watch: Heidenheim 3-2 Bayern Munich - highlights

It is a remarkable return for the team and coach Frank Schmidt, the local-boy-come-good, who had talked down his team's ambitions until recently.

"We don't limit ourselves in our heads," Schmidt, who has been in charge of the team since 2007, told kicker. "If [European qualification] happens, we'll be happy to accept it... We'll do everything we can to have the best possible placement at the end."

He continued: "Everything we've been told over the last decade that isn't possible if we don't do this or that - if these people had been right, then we wouldn't still be in the top league."

Heidenheim's players recently took to the pitch to thank their fans for a remarkable season. - IMAGO/Michael Weber IMAGEPOWER

Another man who will have heard those doubts loud and clear for years now is Holger Sanwald.

Now the club's CEO, he joined Heidenheim as a 27-year-old with the club playing amateur football in the Landesliga - the seventh stop down on the German footballing pyramid. He's now 56 and the club are flying at the pointy end of the pyramid under his good friend Schmidt.

"What makes us strong is diligence, ambition and honesty. We all treat each other sensibly, don't betray sponsors or partners," explained Sanwald on a recent TV programme. Schmidt echoed those sentiments around Heidenheim doing things their own way, saying: "Everyone knows what we stand for and what I stand for."

This identity, paired with an incredible work ethic both on and off the pitch, has rubbed off on the players too.

A former defender for the club, local-boy Frank Schmidt has been at the helm of the team since 2007. - Sebastian Widmann/Bundesliga

"I think we have a brutally strong character and won't let anyone pull us down," said star striker Tim Kleindienst, who finished wth 12 league goals for the season and was even talked about as an outsider to make Germany's UEFA Euro 2024 squad.

Typical of this humble club, Kleindienst always talked down those chances, even if he has surpassed his own pre-season expectations.

"It could have been the case that I only scored two goals here. We were only just promoted," he said in an interview with kicker. "I'm even happier that I'm now at 12, because I didn't believe that before the season."

He wasn't the only one, but it's safe to say that Kleindienst, and the wider footballing world, are believers now.