Once elusive, now imminent
Sat in the northern part of the Ruhr Area is Gelsenkirchen. With just over 250,000 inhabitants, the city of Gelsenkirchen is best known for one of its suburbs - Schalke.
The northern suburb of Gelsenkirchen is of course famous for one of Germany's biggest football clubs. FC Schalke 04, founded on May 4, 1904 as Westfalia Schalke. "That is the hour the Schalke story begins. A story of passion, of shenanigans and of power - the story of Germany's most legendary football club," German weekly Die Zeit wrote nine years in congratulating Schalke on their centenary.
Schalke won their first of seven German championships in 1934, bagging another five until 1942, and lifted the trophy for the last time in 1958, 55 years ago. Ever since, the Blues have failed to return to the top and have been on a quest for the lost trophy.
The Blues came close several times, with the most memorable moment in 2001. That Schalke team, coached by Huub Stevens, celebrated their first league title in 43 years in their Parkstadion until four minutes into their celebrations the giant video screen showed Bayern Munich's Patrick Anderson score from a free-kick to snatch the Bundesliga away from them with the last play of the 2000-01 season.
It was the last game to be played in Schalke's Parkstadion. The following season they were the first club to play in a stadium, completely financed without government money. Plans for the Schalke Arena date back until the late 1980s and were finally put into reality under the club's legendary cigar smoking general manager Rudi Assauer in 1998.
In 2005, Schalke finished second behind Bayern Munich once again, and two years on they were on the verge of finally winning the Bundesliga under coach Mirko Slomka.
The team that year included the likes of Brazilian centre-back Marcelo Bordon, Germany striker Kevin Kuranyi, Brazilian left-back Rafinha and future stars Mesut Ozil and Manuel Neuer. With only four games left to play, Schalke held a two point lead over Werder Bremen and had distanced Stuttgart by four points.
But two away defeats to local rivals Bochum and Borussia Dortmund cost them heavily as Stuttgart went on to win the final four games of the season and take the Bundesliga title away from Schalke. During the last game of the season, Dortmund supporters hired a plane that flew over their biggest rivals' stadium, carrying a banner "Ein Leben lang keine Schale in der Hand" (a lifetime without the hand on the plate).
The next years Schalke slowly tumbled into a financial crisis and by the time Felix Magath joined in 2009 the club had nearly hit rock bottom, and they had to announce they were €250 million into the red. The loss for the 2009 fiscal year alone was €16.8 million.
The former Bayern boss had just won the league with Wolfsburg and Schalke now hoped that Magath was about to repeat the trick and finally end their long drought. All the while the financial crisis included all the drama that surrounds financial turmoil at clubs, including a CEO granting the club credit and the city council buying part shares of the Schalke stadium.
"This is an important step. We have financed the ongoing 2009-10 season. We definitely don't have to fear getting points deducted," Peter Peters, Schalke's head of finances said in late October 2009.
Magath went on a signing spree regardless of the financial situation and ended the season in second position, behind Bayern once again. When Magath was sacked in March 2011, despite reaching the Champions League quarter-final and the German cup semi-final, he left Schalke a legacy of countless players on loan at various clubs.
But Magath, with the help of former Real Madrid player Christoph Metzelder, had also attracted the legendary figure of Raul and AC Milan forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to Schalke.
He also lured Stuttgart general manager Horst Heldt, whom Magath, Stuttgart manager at that time, had helped back from Austrian league obscurity into Bundesliga in 2003, to the Ruhr Area.
Heldt, a midfielder with over 350 Bundesliga appearances, had retired from professional football in 2006 and instantly made the switch into the manager position. As a general manager Horst Heldt appointed Armin Veh as Stuttgart's coach and in the first year won the Bundesliga title.
Schalke, meanwhile, appointed Ralf Rangnick as their new coach. Rangnick took Schalke to the Champions League semi-finals and won the DFB-Pokal, hammering second tier club Duisburg 5-0 in the semi-final. They ended the Bundesliga ranked 14th, their worst position in Bundesliga since 1994.
In Heldt's first transfer window as manager of Schalke he slimmed down the squad, with 16 players leaving the club. They also sold Germany keeper Manuel Neuer to Bayern for a reported fee of €21 million. In return, Schalke hired several youngsters as well as longstanding Bundesliga players like Austria international Christian Fuchs.
A few kilometres away from Schalke, Dortmund celebrated their first Bundesliga title since 2002, having returned from the dead in only six years' time. "I don't want to use the name," Heldt said that summer. "But it is important to do what suits Schalke. Schalke has unbelievable options, the club has such a charisma you have to utilise it.
"In all departments of our club we want a good mix, in our squad a mix between young and old and a solid spending policy." Schalke were still €216 million into the red.
"We will not chase every transfer, spending €20 to €30 million on players has to end," Heldt said. The club then vowed to build its future on youngsters like Lewis Holtby, Benedikt Howedes and Julian Draxler.
Schalke until this day have not bought a player for more than €4 million after having sunk several million on players like Jose Manuel Jurado, Sergio Escudero and Anthony Annan the previous years.
A burnt out Rangnick resigned early into the 2011-12 season and Huub Stevens returned to the club. Schalke ended the 2011-12 season ranked third, behind the two German powerhouses Dortmund and Bayern.
They qualified for Champions League and won their group which included Olympiakos, Montpellier and Arsenal. But their domestic campaign took a turn for the worst after beating Dortmund away for the first time in several years. Nine games into the season they were leading the chaser's pack only four points adrift of Bayern.
Transfer rumours surrounding Netherlands striker Huntelaar and Germany Under-21 captain Lewis Holtby as well as heavy criticism directed against Stevens left Schalke struggling for points. A week before Christmas, Schalke sacked Stevens and swiftly appointed Jens Keller as their new coach. A few days later they crashed out of the German cup with a home defeat to Freiburg, while in the Bundesliga they had fallen back to sixth, now 17 points adrift of runaway leaders Bayern.
Right after Christmas, Huntelaar finally put pen-to-paper and prolonged his contract and the club used their last chance to cash in on Lewis Holtby, selling him to Spurs for just underneath €2 million six months before the end of his contract.
Keller signed a contract until the end of the season. The former Bundesliga player had coached Stuttgart for two months in 2010. Heldt knew Keller from Stuttgart and signed him as the Under-17 coach in the summer of 2012. In the 14 Under-17 games since his appointment, Keller's team had won 14 games. But still doubts over the appointment overweighed the prospect of having a young and hungry coach.
The 42-year old, however, remained calm and ended the season in a Champions League qualification spot. Keller also shook off several candidates, who had been strongly linked with the job and will start their 2013-14 campaign without a big name like Stefan Effenberg or former Chelsea manager Robert Di Matteo.
Unlike their big rivals Dortmund, Schalke already have done most of their homework in the transfer market, having lined up deals for the sought-after Bochum youngster Leon Goretzka Cologne midfielder Christian Clemens. The 18-year-old box-to-box player Goretzka has been hailed as one of Germany's biggest talents and attacking midfielder Clemens, a Germany Under-21 international, impressed for Cologne during his second league campaign last season.
In a very silent transfer window, Schalke have also signed Dortmund centre-back Felipe Santana. The Brazilian became the first player to directly cross the great divide between the two rival clubs since Andreas Moller switched from Dortmund to Schalke in 2000.
Schalke, however, did not forget about that plane with the banner in 2007. When Draxler prolonged his contract until 2018 - it includes a €45 million release clause and, yes, he has been linked with Chelsea - they hired a fleet of trucks, put the player's picture on them and drove right into Dortmund heartland, with one of them being caught right in front of Dortmund's Westfalenstadion.
But Draxler is only one of many talents out of Schalke's youth academy. The Knappenschmiede - a play of words with "Knappe", Schalke's traditional nickname, translating into miner and "Schmiede" meaning forge - currently is one of Germany's hottest youth academies.
Seventeen-year-old Max Meyer has already won minutes for the first team and 16-year old Donis Avidjaj could break into the first team next season. Meyer has a futsal background and has, just like Goretzka, been praised as one of Germany's upcoming stars, while Avidjaj has a goalscoring pedigree to be envied, netting 44 goals in 27 games for the Under-17 side.
"You need to integrate a talented player into the first-team as early as possible, but you should not burn him. We have offers from England for several of our Under-17 players and could cash in on them. But that is not our goal. We want to see them play for us," Heldt says.
The future does indeed not look too bad for Schalke. A great youth set up, a quiet transfer strategy that includes attracting talented players to the club, the Schalke Arena with their passionate fans and - just like Heldt asked for back in 2011 - a good mix of young and old.
If Schalke manage to continue on the path they have taken, they could finally lift that silver plate they have been longing for since 1958.