Gelsenkirchen - FC Schalke 04 head coach Jens Keller is usually a quiet and reserved figure, not exactly known for his exuberant celebrations. On the final day of the season, however, the emotions came pouring out after the Royal Blues sealed UEFA Champions League qualification by beating SC Freiburg.
As euphoric as the day was, though, the overriding emotion was one of relief that the club had at the very last achieved their target, after a season that had brought more than its fair share of ups and downs.
That Schalke would have to fight until the final day to secure their passage into Europe’s premier club competition seemed unthinkable at the start of the campaign. Under Huub Stevens, who led the club to UEFA Cup success in 1997, the Royal Blues had recorded their best start to a Bundesliga campaign for 41 seasons, winning six of their first nine games and establishing themselves as the no.1 challenger to early pacesetters FC Bayern Munich.
On Matchday 8, Stevens’ men went to the home of champions Borussia Dortmund and won 2-1, their first Ruhr derby success in four attempts, before easing to a 2-0 victory away to Arsenal FC in the Champions League, their first ever success on English soil in the competition. An historic week was then rounded off with a hard-fought home win over 1. FC Nuremberg.
It was all looking very good at that point for the Gelsenkirchen outfit. They were impressing at home and abroad and had discovered how to beat the top teams, which had proved problematic in the previous campaign. Almost inexplicably, however, their fortunes then took a dramatic turn for the worse. A 3-2 defeat to Hoffenheim on Matchday 10 was the start of a run of just one win in seven games.
The club ended the year down in seventh place, with Stevens having been relieved of his duties. His replacement Keller’s opening game - in the DFB Cup - did not offer much hope of a swift turnaround, but 2013 began positively enough with a pulsating victory over Hannover 96. Again, though, by mid-February, Schalke were floundering without a win in four league games. Attacking midfielder Lewis Holtby had already left to join Tottenham Hotspur and the club were out of the Champions League at the last 16 stage after losing at home to Galatasaray SK.
As a young Germany international, Holtby’s departure had disappointed some at the club, but it was another homegrown star in the making who would kick-start Schalke's assault on the top four: Julian Draxler. The youngest ever player to make 50 Bundesliga appearances, thrived on the responsibility, scoring six times in the second half of the season, including against Freiburg on Matchday 34 to seal the all-important, fourth-place finish.
Perhaps most importantly, however, he also signed a new long-term contract, saying, “Schalke are on the right path and it’s one I want to follow as well.” Not even the most pessimistic fan would care to argue with that assessment.