Cologne – Marcel Heller is making waves with newly promoted SV Darmstadt 98. The winger has been in fine form, yet only a few years ago, he came close to calling time on his footballing career.

The atmosphere in the Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor was already electric. After 33 years away from the Bundesliga, Darmstadt fans were finally watching top flight football again. In the 31st minute, though, the stadium exploded. After a corner for opponents Hannover 96, Marcel Heller picked up the ball in his own half. He then took it 60 metres down field and into Hannover's penalty area, flicked it past defender Miiko Albornoz, and scooped it into the far corner with his right foot. A wonder goal.

Heller in fine form

But it was far more than just a goal. It was an emphatic message from a man who had been given a second chance and was determined to take it. Heller scored again against Hannover, smashed in a fine volley against Borussia Dortmund and netted yet another in the derby against 1. FSV Mainz 05. Since then, the chant “Schnell, schneller, Marcel Heller” (fast, faster, Marcel Heller) has been known all around the country.

Born in the Rhineland town of Frechen, Heller's career started like any other. He joined local club 1. FC Quadrath-Ichendorf at the age of six and played there for twelve years. After that, his career took him to Bonner SC, Alemannia Aachen's second team and Sportfreunde Siegen, before he made the jump to the Bundesliga, joining Eintracht Frankfurt in 2007. For the 21-year-old Heller, it was a dream come true.

Even the then DFB Director of Sport Matthias Sammer congratulated Eintracht on their new signing: “I am very excited by Heller. Eintracht can be proud to have a talent like him in their squad.”

© imago / DeFodi

No one could have imagined at that time that the dream would become a nightmare. After two mediocre years flitting between the first team and the reserves, Heller pulled the plug on his Frankfurt dream and was loaned out to MSV Duisburg. But even there, things did not go to plan. He clashed with coach Peter Neururer and was temporarily suspended. At the end of his time at Duisburg, he had notched up just 18 appearances and two goals in Bundesliga 2.

'There is no point anymore'

Heller went back to Frankfurt, and his decline continued. On one occasion alone did he manage to display the extent of his talent. Against FC Bayern München, he put in a fabulous performance, running rings around David Alaba and playing a key role in Eintracht's 2-1 reverse win.

That one performance did not help much. Eintracht were relegated at the end of the season, and Heller sustained a serious back injury. For a whole year, he feared that he would never return to professional football. “I did not really come back after that. I was so close to saying, 'Just stop, there is no point anymore'", he told the Frankfurter Rundschau.

© gettyimages / Hofmann

Heller tried anyway, and moved first to Dynamo Dresden and then to Aachen. It was at the latter that he hit his lowest point. Aachen were relegated from Bundesliga 2 in 2012 and the club declared insolvency. For Heller, that meant immediate termination of his contract. “With the insolvency, I had experienced everything that can happen to a footballer. I always believed in myself, but at that point I never thought I would play in the Bundesliga again."

'How have I found myself here?'

But then Darmstadt and their coach Dirk Schuster came calling. It was the next new start for the 29-year-old Heller, who was in for a culture shock at the Böllenfalltor. “At first I thought, 'How have I found myself here?'”, he said. Two years later, with Darmstadt's incredible rise from the third tier to the Bundesliga, he sees things differently: “I have definitely made worse decisions in my life”.

Heller is especially grateful to one person in particular. “I owe everything to Dirk Schuster,” he told Bild, “He gave me the trust I needed”. The agile winger has certainly repaid that trust. Marcel Heller has definitely taken his second chance.

By Thomas Ziemann