Gelsenkirchen - With established first-team regulars and within their ranks, FC Schalke 04 boast two of the world's most exciting young stars.
However, that only scratches the surface of S04's youth policy. Renowned for giving rising stars a chance at senior level, the Royal Blues offered another demonstration of the importance of having a thriving academy when a staggering six players originating from their youth set-up featured in their away win over second-placed Bayer 04 Leverkusen last weekend.
Oliver Ruhnert, director of the Gelsenkirchen club's youth academy, told bundesliga.com what it takes for a young prospect to make it as a professional footballer, and at Schalke in particular.
bundesliga.com: Oliver Ruhnert, what does it take for a young player to break into the Schalke senior squad?
Oliver Ruhnert: A player has to identify with the club. I keep saying Schalke are all about tradition and emotions. Every player in our youth academy is talented, but you need the right will and identification, and desire to represent Schalke.
bundesliga.com: Were there early indications that the likes of Julian Draxler and Max Meyer, who have both come through Schalke's youth ranks, would make it into the club's senior squad?
Ruhnert: Both have Schalke in their hearts. Julian Draxler does as he even grew up in Gelsenkirchen, but it's no different with Max Meyer, who joined us when he was older. The lads shouldn't see Schalke just as their employers, but also be passionate about the club.
bundesliga.com: Some of the players that have come through the youth ranks such as Meyer, Draxler, Sead Kolasinac, Joel Matip and Kaan Ayhan were key in helping Schalke get back on track in the Bundesliga in recent weeks. How proud are you of their achievements?
Ruhnert: We're very, very proud of them. They're a prime example of the successful collaboration between our youth academy and the senior side. We work very closely together, and the boys see that and realise they can achieve their goal [of breaking into the first team]. [Senior side head coach] Jens Keller came to watch our Under-17s take on VfL Bochum only a day after the recent win in Leverkusen, which gives you an idea about how closely we work together.
bundesliga.com: From what age can you tell whether a player has what it takes to make it in the Bundesliga?
Ruhnert: It's really difficult to predict a player's development. Who, for example could've tipped Manuel Neuer to win the world's goalkeeper of the year award when the played for the U-17s? Who would've thought Julian Draxler would develop into one of the most coveted young players in the Bundesliga when with the U-16s?
bundesliga.com: Were a youngster not cut it as a professional footballer it's important that they have a back-up plan. 19-year-old Leon Goretzka is currently doing his final year school exams. Joel Matip and Julian Draxler were also attending school during their early years in the senior side. How does the club help young players cope with playing professional football while having to attend school?
Ruhnert: We're working very closely together with our integrated Berger Feld school. For us it's important that the boys do well at school as well as on the pitch. We put a lot of emphasis on every player finishing school.
bundesliga.com: How do you search for future prospects? Some clubs tend to spend a lot even on young players.
Ruhnert: If find it ridiculous. You have to say though that the quest to sign talented players has become a lot fiercer in Germany in recent years. There's a limited market. An increasing number of clubs now have very good youth academies and hope to get the greatest talents to join them. Schalke, too, are scouting all over Germany nowadays.
bundesliga.com: Can you name a few of those you believe will be able to break into the Schalke senior squad in the near future?
Ruhnert: I'd prefer not to mention particular players. I'm sure though we have several that will win a place in our first team or have the quality to make it at other Bundesliga sides.
Interview: David Schmidt