Thank you, Thomas

A few personal observations about Thomas Schaaf’s incredible time at Werder Bremen.

I’ve been a fan of Werder Bremen ever since I saw them on the television for the first time in the beginning of the 90s. A great team marshalled by the master tactician Otto Rehhagel, a team consisting of greats like Rune Bratseth, Karl Heinz Riedle, Wynton Rufer and Klaus Allofs. And Thomas Schaaf!

The mustachioed man has been at the club ever since he was a little boy, and on May 15th his 41 years of loyal service to the club came to an end. Today I’m facing the very first day of my fan existence which sees Werder Bremen going forward without Thomas Schaaf. It’s a discomforting thought and there’s something at the back of my telling me that this just doesn’t feel quite right. Werder without Schaaf is something different, the only question that remains to be answered is what it is.

The way in which Schaaf’s coaching career started is somewhat of a coincidence, maybe even a fate. Werder Bremen wanted to bring as many professionals as possible into their youth system coaching their young talents back in the 90s, and Schaaf was offered a slightly higher salary by former Werder managing director Klaus-Dieter Fischer whilst he was re-negotiating his contract. As luck would have it, Schaaf agreed to do it.

He had always been a hard worker as a player, being nothing like brother Peter who was more of a finely tuned technician who was a goal machine during his younger days. However, it’d be unfair to say that Thomas Schaaf was a destroyer as a player. Dieter Eilts remembers his former teammate as a player who loved to go forward, and who was capable of conducting his passing game with an extreme amount of precission.

Those who remember watching Schaaf’s youth teams play tell a story about a coach who was willing to let his team attack. It’s always been a vital part of the former defender and midfielder’s philosophy to entertain the audience who had come to watch a game of football. Or, as Schaaf likes to put it:

You have to put something on offer.

When it came time to find a successor for the vastly unsuccessful Felix Magath towards the end of the season Werder were pressed for choice. The only sensible options available to the club were in-house solutions, and after having impressed the board through his work in Werder’s youth system and the second team the most natural choice at the time was found to be Thomas Schaaf.

Maybe another one of those coincidences some people may consider fate. After saving the team from relegation and winning the cup final against Bayern München Schaaf was offered to take over the team full-time. He was very well aware of that taking the step up from the amateur to level to the Bundesliga came at an expense:

By agreeing to do this I’ve basically signed my dismissal.

Stepping into the limelight and being the head coach of one of Germany’s biggest club didn’t change his stubbornness or his priorities in life according Sven Bremer’s and Olaf Dorrow’s portrait of Thomas Schaaf in the book Grün-weisses Werderland. His dry sense of humor and his quick wit made Schaaf one of the most desirable interview objects in the Bundesliga.

In the 14 years the 52-year-old has spent coaching the club he managed to win the Bundesliga once, the DFB Pokal three times and take his team to the 2009 and Uefa Cup final. Schaaf has in fact been involved in three of Werder’s four Bundesliga winning campaigns, and in 5 of Werder Bremen’s six DFB Pokal wins.

Schaaf had managed to take over a team which was drifting in the no-man’s-land of German football after Otto Rehhagel had left the team in 1995, and transform them into a side which played attacking and successful football. Wins over Juventus, Real Madrid or Chelsea in the Champions League were just the cherry on top which made the team a recognized quantity outside of Germany during his long reign at the Weserstadion. There’s little doubt that Werder’s fans, the players currently and formerly at the club and the city of Bremen owe Thomas Schaaf a massive amount of gratitude for what his vision has accomplished. Statues and monuments have been built for less, if he were alive Michael Jackson could certainly attest to that.

However, the last three years of his tenure have certainly put a dent in his legacy. Two seasons have been spent in the battle against relegation, whilst last season went south after a dire performance in the Rückrunde. The current season has been the worst season during Schaaf’s stint at the club.

He isn’t the only person at the club who has to take the blame for this development, far from it. Werder’s activity in the transfer market hasn’t been crowned by success, and many of the green and whites most expensive signings haven’t proven to be what they were cracked up to be. The youth development at the club has let the club down as well, and needs some re-structuring in the coming years.

This season has clearly shown that a fresh pair of eyes besides the new sporting director Thomas Eichin might be what the doctor has ordered. However, one can’t help but feel that moments like these are tinged with sadness. Schaaf has been at the club for 41 years, which is a unique accomplishment in German football. The former Werder coach himself decide to focus on the positive sides in his farewell message to the Werder fans:

I think what we as a team have experienced in the way of fan support over the last three games has shown what a beautiful figure our fans have made. It was simply wonderful to look at that. I hope and I wish that you’ll stay just like that.

When all is said and done, all I really wanted to say in this article is ”Thank you, Thomas Schaaf”! Thanks for all the joy you’ve given me by your performances on the pitch, by sticking to Werder after your playing days were over, and by transforming this club into something truly magnificent at its very best! You’ve been there for all of the 26 years of my life, and it’s going to be strange to face a reality of Werder Bremen moving forward without you in the future.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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