With just one match remaining in the Bundesliga campaign, and their top-flight future hanging in the balance, Werder Bremen have turned to club legend Thomas Schaaf.
After all, this is a man who has held almost every role possible at the club – he’s been both kitman and bus driver at different junctures – and was involved in three of Werder’s four league championships, five of their six DFB Cup triumphs and sole UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup glory while serving as either player or coach.
There may not be winners’ medals on the line this time around, but Schaaf returns to his beloved club with the stakes arguably even higher.
Following a run of 10 games without victory, Werder are in the relegation play-off place with just a home meeting with Borussia Mönchengladbach to go. Defeat there would either force a showdown with the third-placed team in Bundesliga 2 or automatic relegation, while victory could secure their survival.
“It’s a huge challenge of course, but we still have every chance of staying in the league,” said Schaaf. “We don’t have much time, but we'll do everything we can in that time to make sure we go into the match with passion, confidence, and self-belief in our own strengths so that we can be successful in the end.”
Schaaf’s association with Werder dates back to 1972 and he rose through the club’s youth ranks before making the first of 380 first-team appearances in green and white just 12 days before his 18th birthday, in April 1979.
By the 1987/88 campaign, Schaaf was balancing first-team duties with a coaching role in the U18 set-up – the same year he featured 29 times in the Bundesliga as Werder lifted the Meisterschale.
The juggling act would continue, as positions with the U19s and as player-assistant followed over the course of a playing career that delivered a second league title in 1992/93, the German cup in 1990/91 and 1993/94, as well as the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991/92, not to mention a second division trophy and three German Supercups.
As Schaaf hung up his boots in 1995, it was inevitable that he would step into a more permanent position in the dugout and he immediately took the reins of Werder’s reserve team.
Four years later, he replaced Felix Magath in the Weser Stadium hotseat and his natural ascension to the throne was complete. And by the time he departed the club a further 14 years on, all that glittered in Bremen was gold.
Three more DFB Cups were safely stashed away in the trophy cabinet, as well as the league and cup double in 2003/04, while Schaaf’s men were narrowly beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk in extra-time of the 2009 UEFA Cup final.
His teams quickly became the neutral’s favourite and boasted the likes of fellow Werder icons Ailton, Torsten Frings, Andreas Herzog, Johan Micoud, Mesut Özil and Claudio Pizzarro, while Schaaf was also responsible for bringing a young Kevin De Bruyne to the Bundesliga in 2012/13.
Watch: From the archive - Schaaf's lifelong connection with Werder
Their parting of ways at the end of that latterly mentioned campaign ended a 40-year association between Schaaf and Werder, and things weren’t the same for the coach during subsequent short-lived stints at Eintracht Frankfurt and Hannover 96.
That relationship will now resume – albeit in a one-match microcosm – and Schaaf is well aware of what’s at stake for himself, but more so for his club.
"The job now consists of a mixture of talks and training sessions. We have worked on a number of different things already. It’s also important to me that the players listen so that I can explain to them what I expect,” he said.
"I did have to consider whether I would blame myself for not trying everything to help the club I feel such a strong connection to. The deciding factor is having the feeling that you can offer and achieve something."
Schaaf would feel relegation as keenly as any other Bremen supporter, player or member of staff, after all he’s been one of them at one time or another. And if anyone can not only breathe belief into the Werder cause, but also deliver them to safety, it’s the legendary 60-year-old.
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