Small town Heidenheim, led by legendary coach Frank Schmidt, have reached the Bundesliga for the very first time. - © /
Small town Heidenheim, led by legendary coach Frank Schmidt, have reached the Bundesliga for the very first time. - © /
2. Bundesliga, bundesliga

Who are Heidenheim, the Frank Schmidt-led club who have defied the odds to make it to the Bundesliga?


A town of 50,000 will host Bundesliga football in 2023/24 after Heidenheim secured a historic maiden promotion to the German top flight. Competing in the fifth tier just 20 years ago and led solely by local boy Frank Schmidt since 2007, find out more about the Bundesliga's 57th and newest club.


A quick glance at Heidenheim's official name – 1. FC Heidenheim 1846 – might suggest you were dealing with the oldest football club in the world, but the year is simply a nod to their earliest incarnation as a gymnastics club, some 20 years before association football was developed in England.

It wasn't until 1910 that Heidenheim's first proper football team was set up, by local engineers working for the Voith Group: VfB Heidenheim. Since then, the club has undergone a host of name changes and been part of several mergers, notably with TSB Heidenheim in 1972. Throughout the 20th century, in its various guises, the club played in Germany's lower leagues, occasionally participating in the DFB Cup after winning their regional cup competition.

Heidenheim have become the 57th different club to earn the right to play in the Bundesliga. - IMAGO/Eduard Martin/IMAGO/Jan Huebner

The modern day Heidenheim was created in 2007, when the club's football team split from the Heidenheimer Sportbund, a larger sporting association housing 24 departments. Not unlike Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, Heidenheim's success is very much a recent phenomenon, although the club has climbed the ranks without the significant financial investment enjoyed by the duo it will now join in the Bundesliga.

Still playing in the fifth-tier Verbandsliga in 2003/04, Heidenheim spent four seasons in the fourth-tier Oberliga and South Regionalliga before enjoying promotion in 2009. They were 3. Liga champions ahead of Leipzig in 2013/14, and, having since established themselves as a solid second-tier outfit, they can now celebrate a historic first-ever promotion to the Bundesliga.

The coach

There can be little doubt about the man who has had the biggest influence on Heidenheim's rags-to-riches rise. Schmidt took the reins of the club shortly after its restructuring in 2007 and has hardly looked back, masterminding the aforementioned promotions and guiding his side to five Württemberg Cup victories. He also led them to the quarter-finals of the 2018/19 DFB Cup, where they came close to a stunning upset against eventual winners Bayern Munich in a barnstorming nine-goal thriller.

Watch: Frank Schmidt's Heidenheim fairy-tale

Not only was Schmidt born in Heidenheim, he even finished his modest playing career as captain of his hometown club, helping them climb into the Oberliga in the first of his four seasons as skipper. A few months after hanging up his boots, in September 2007, former boss Dieter Märkle was relieved of his duties and Schmidt was named interim head coach. Nearly 16 years later, he is still in the Heidenheim hotseat, and boasts the unofficial title of the longest-serving manager in German professional football, ahead of Freiburg's Christian Streich (appointed in December 2011). Club CEO Holger Sanwald has even joked that Schmidt can have "a lifetime contract".

Having taken his side to the third tier, Schmidt completed his DFB training course in 2011 alongside former Cologne and Hamburg coach Markus Gisdol, former Bayer Leverkusen boss Roger Schmidt, and his friend Sven Mislintat – who after spells in the management of Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and VfB Stuttgart has just begun to work for Dutch giants Ajax as sporting director.

Good man management has been crucial to Schmidt's remarkable success. Hertha Berlin striker Florian Niederlechner spent two-and-a-half seasons with Heidenheim earlier in his career, and has described Schmidt as an "incredible person" who "knows how to talk to his players". The 29-year-old really came into his own in his final season in the Baden-Württemberg town, scoring 15 goals to earn himself a move to the Bundesliga with Mainz. Some 45 Bundesliga goals later, he continues to ply his trade in the top flight after spells at Freiburg and Augsburg.

Hertha Berlin striker Florian Niederlechner (r.) helped Heidenheim finish above RB Leipzig in the 2013/13 3. Liga. - imago

In 2013, Schmidt was also one of three main protagonists in Aljoscha Pause's acclaimed documentary 'Trainer!' – exploring the challenges faced by young coaches in Germany. Jürgen Klopp was one of several more established managers who contributed to the film – and as Heidenheim have gained prominence in recent years, Schmidt has drawn comparisons with the former Dortmund and current Liverpool coach.

Both men began coaching where they ended their playing careers (Mainz, in Klopp's case), both have a reputation for being close to their players, and both are renowned as tactically astute. Though Schmidt has yet to experience the same kind of glory as Klopp in Germany and England, taking a 'Dorfklub' ("village club") like Heidenheim from the fifth division to the Bundesliga is a sensational achievement surely on a par with any of the honours on Klopp's mantelpiece.

Key players

Schmidt has relied on a mix of reliable experience and youthful promise to propel Heidenheim to the top flight.

Heidenheim's main man in front of goal has been Tim Kleindienst. The former Germany U20 international had already enjoyed a successful loan spell from Freiburg in 2016/17 and joined on a permanent basis ahead of 2019/20.

Watch: Kleindienst smashed four past Nuremberg in February

Kleindienst literally translates as 'small service', but the 27-year-old has served goals by the bucketload this season to seal the promotion dream. His league-leading 25th goal of the campaign nine minutes into added time on the final day earned Heidenheim promotion and the Bundesliga 2 title. Strong in the air and clinical with his feet - the centre-forward has provided some explosive exhibitions of his finishing class throughout the course of the season, most notably with four goals in a 5-0 win over Nuremburg in February and a hat-trick in a 5-2 victory over Karlsruhe in March.

Kleindienst has benefited from fine supply work from Jan-Niklas Beste throughout the campaign. The 24-year-old left-winger, also a former Germany U20 international, had been on the books at Dortmund and Werder Bremen for years without ever seeing Bundesliga action for those sides. He has every chance of making his mark on the league with Heidenheim though, after a stellar season in which he has blasted 12 goals and provided 12 assists.

Tim Kleindienst (r.) enjoyed his most prolific goalscoring season to date in 2022/23 and got the goal to secure promotion for Heidenheim. - Sebastian Widmann/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images

Twenty-three-year-old former USA U20 international Lennard Maloney is similarly destined to complete an elongated route into the top flight after making two brief appearances for Dortmund in two seasons at the Black and Yellows. He has revelled in a defensive midfield position to add steel to Heidenheim's structure this season, having previously been used as a centre-back for the majority of his career.

Goalkeeper Kevin Müller has proven one of the safest pairs of hands in Bundesliga 2, with Heidenheim boasting the second-best defensive record in the division (36 goals conceded, compared to 33 for second-placed Darmstadt). The 32-year-old, who won the U19 Bundesliga with boyhood club Hansa Rostock a decade ago, has reliably kept goal for the club since the start of the 2016/17 season and boasts 14 clean sheets this campaign.

Lennard Maloney, formerly of Borussia Dortmund, switched his international allegiances in 2018 from Germany to the USA and has played once for the American U20 team. - Thomas Bielefeld via images/Thomas Bielefeld

How they gained promotion

Heidenheim made a modest start to 2022/23 following their sixth-placed finish the previous campaign. An unspectacular four wins were taken from their opening 10 league fixtures, but just one defeat was suffered in that spell. With their attack starting to fire more regularly, the wins then began to flow. Three victories were recorded in a row just before the league paused for the winter break in November - with two helter-skelter victories, 4-3 in Sandhausen and 5-4 at home to Jahn Regensburg, coming in an incredible four-day period.

That left the club perched nicely in third - a single point behind Hamburg in the second automatic promotion spot. Their good form continued near seamlessly in the new year - with a seven-match unbeaten run from February to April, including the aforementioned Kleindienst-inspired thumpings of Nuremberg and Karlsruhe, lifting them into the top two. A 1-0 loss to in-form St. Pauli was answered emphatically with two 3-0 wins in Hannover and at home to Holsten Kiel, once more lifting the side into the top two.

Watch: The goals and celebrations as Heidenheim clinched promotion in dramatic fashion Regensburg

Founding Bundesliga members and six-time German champions Hamburg remained their closest rivals for the second automatic promotion spot, but with Hamburg's form waning and Heidenheim continuing their solid season, promotion was increasingly on the cards. Yet things looked bleak on the final day when trailing 2-0 to Regensburg and with HSV winning in Sandhausen. It took two goals in added time from Beste and Kleindienst to turn things around and earn promotion, win the title and break Hamburg hearts in the process, with their game over a good 10 minutes beforehand. It sparked ecstatic scenes as the latest chapter in the Heidenheim fairy tale was sealed with their first ever promotion to the Bundesliga.

The stadium

The leading lights of the Bundesliga can now prepare for a visit to the humble surroundings of Heidenheim's Voith-Arena, which has a capacity of just 15,000 – one-fifth the size of Bayern's Allianz Arena. It would unsurprisingly become the smallest venue in the top flight, even cosier than Union Berlin's 22,000-seater Stadion An der Alten Försterei – although the Berlin side have shown in bidding for the top four and making the UEFA Europa League last 16 that a bite-sized backyard can sometimes be all the more intimidating for unsuspecting visitors.

The Voith-Arena will be the smallest stadium in the 2023/24 Bundesliga. - DFL

What they're saying

"What is pressure in football? Only the milkman should feel pressure to get a good price for his milk. We just play football, have performed way above expectations, have a chance of achieving something special and will focus on enjoying our job and concentrating on it." – Frank Schmidt after a 0-0 draw at home to Magdeburg on Matchday 31 as the promotion battle neared an end.

"Tim knows that he has an environment that can get the best out of him and a coach who trusts him fully. That wasn't always the case in his career. There is a very special relationship between him and us." –  Holger Sanwald, Heidenheim CEO, on Tim Kleindienst.

"I had two telephone calls with the coach. The calls were really so positive, I have never had that before with any club or coach. There isn't so much fussing about as at other clubs. That's a big plus here." – Jan-Niklas Beste on his decision to join Heidenheim from Werder Bremen in summer 2022 and playing for the club.