Rot-Weiss Essen’s Long Road to Recovery

The Ruhrgebiet, famous (or infamous) for its strategic importance during the great wars of the 20th century, for its sprawling cities and vital industry and, of course, Fußball. Everybody knows Dortmund, Schalke, Bochum, and even Duisburg, but there’s a lot more to this bustling polycentric region if you are willing to look beyond the professional ranks of German football.

One such example is Rot-Weiss Essen. A pre-Bundesliga national champion, RWE hasn’t had the best of times of late. Marred by financial struggles and hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, men’s football in Essen has struggled to recapture even a smidgen of its former glory in recent decades. That, however, could very well be about to change.

Into the quarterfinals of the DFB-Pokal after breezing past 2. Bundesliga side Düsseldorf and comfortably top of the Regionalliga West heading into the second half of the season, Essen look all set to return to the third division for the first time in 12 years. RWE will be hoping that, after an eternity of misery and mediocrity, the tables are finally beginning to turn.

To understand Essen’s current situation, you have to look back at the club’s past because their decline was anything but straightforward. Historically speaking, the Red and Whites used to be a force to be reckoned with in the context of the German game, particularly in the days prior to the foundation of the Bundesliga. After winning their first (and only) top-flight league title in 1955, Essen became the first German team to qualify for the newly-established European Cup – 1. FC Saarbrücken were also part of the tournament, but Saarland didn’t become a state of the Federal Republic until January 1, 1957. RWE also won the DFB-Pokal two years earlier, in 1953, beating Alemannia Aachen in the final – who could have predicted back then that the two would be toiling away in the fourth division together some six decades later?

While the Black and Yellows of Aachen sued the DFB after not getting picked to be among the 16 teams that participated in the inaugural Bundesliga campaign in 1963, the Red and Whites of Essen were preoccupied with getting out of a rut that they slipped into at the end of the 50s. By the time the Bundesliga was ready to begin play, RWE’s luster had faded to the point that they were merely a mid-table team in the second tier. However, before long, they would fight for a spot among the elite again.

After overturning a 3-1 deficit against, you guessed it, Aachen, the Essener qualified for the 1965/66 promotion round to the Bundesliga. There, RWE had created enough of an early cushion by triumphing over Saarbrücken and Schweinfurt that a 1-0 loss to St. Pauli couldn’t stop them from reaching the promised land. Essen started their Bundesliga journey brightly, even looking like genuine title contenders up until the early winter months, but a massive drop-off in form saw them plummet down the table and straight back into the Regionalliga, which, at that time, was the second division.

What followed was a four-year rollercoaster ride of emotions. Essen endured the heartbreak of just missing out on promotion in 1968, but just a year later, they once again tasted the ecstasy of getting back to the Bundesliga. Back in the top-flight, the club managed to survive rather comfortably for the first time and even reached the summit for a little while the following season, only to end up as the principal victim of the infamous 1970/71 Bundesliga-Skandal, ultimately culminating in relegation.

Several clubs were involved in the match-fixing scandal, but the main protagonists were Rot-Weiß Oberhausen, Arminia Bielefeld, and Kickers Offenbach. At first, it seemed as though only Oberhausen and Bielefeld truly benefitted from the plot as they had managed to stay up at the expense of Offenbach and, crucially, Essen. As it turned out, though, their scheming was in vain; both were later found guilty of match-fixing and had their Bundesliga licenses revoked. An investigation revealed that as many as eight games were manipulated, and yet, despite the evidence proving that Essen were completely free from guilt, they were not reinstated.

The Red and Whites didn’t dwell on their unjust demotion for too long and went straight back into a promotion scrap, bringing Bundesliga football back to the Hafenstraße after just two seasons. This time, they were here to stay – or so it seemed. Three years into their Bundesliga tenure, Essen had finished eighth and indeed from there, it looked like they would only go from strength to strength in the years to come. But the following season, reality hit like a bomb and put a swift damper on any optimism; RWE played their final top-flight game in 1977.

Essen’s squad for their maiden 2. Bundesliga campaign (Kicker)

This time around, Essen were dropped into the North division of the 40-team 2. Bundesliga, a league still in its infancy after only being established three years earlier. Two unsuccessful attempts at promotion followed, and eventually, RWE fell back into a state of mid-table mediocrity reminiscent of the late 1950s. After seven steady but largely uninspiring seasons of just kind of floating around in the second tier, disaster struck – Essen were relegated to the third division for the first time in club history in 1984.

As you can probably tell by now, the German football system was a bit of a convoluted, ever-changing mess back then. The creation of the 2. Bundesliga entailed the death – or, rather, 20-year hiatus – of the Regionalliga. As a result, RWE dropped down to the Oberliga Nordrhein. Despite topping the table ahead of city rivals Schwarz-Weiß Essen, Rot-Weiss didn’t immediately return to the second tier, finishing behind Osnabrück and Tennis Borussia Berlin in the promotion round. They would ultimately bounce back the following season, though.

With Horst Hrubesch, who had scored a record 41 goals in 77/78 for the Red and Whites, now at the helm, RWE were keen to re-establish themselves as a force in German football. Once again, optimism soon gave way to despair. The club was unable to build on a solid first season back in the 2. Bundesliga and financial concerns soon arose, resulting in the DFB stripping them of their license in 1991, citing “mounting debts and concerns about the club’s liquidity”.

Despite bouncing straight back up, the mood at the Hafenstraße soon turned sour once more when their permit was revoked yet again in 1994 after the DFB uncovered some dodgy dealings by the club before the start of the season. Funnily enough, RWE still somehow managed to go on a deep run in the DFB-Pokal in spite of the circumstances, falling short at the final hurdle against Bremen.

At first, the yo-yo club moniker didn’t necessarily lend itself to Essen since they didn’t flip-flop between leagues for sporting reasons, but as time went on, it became abundantly clear that it is quite literally the perfect denomination. RWE again returned to the Zweite Liga in 1996, only to immediately plummet back into the re-established Regionalliga. And wouldn’t you know it, things got even worse. The club’s economic situation still hadn’t improved a great deal and performances on the pitch left a lot to be desired, ending in yet another relegation.

The mid-2000s saw an upturn in form, but further journeys up and down the ladder of German football left little time for consolidation. When Rot-Weiss missed out on qualification for the new 3. Liga (established in 08/09) on the final day of the season with a 1-0 loss to already-relegated Lübeck, the financial burden finally caught up with the club. The subsequent stagnation in the Regionalliga left the club hierarchy little choice but to file for insolvency. This came a mere decade after they had escaped bankruptcy by the skin of their teeth. A devastating blow for a club with big aspirations; a new 20,000-capacity stadium was already in the works.

Essen native and future Bundesliga player Sascha Mölders scored 42 goals in 55 games for RWE between 2008 and 2010 (Jürgen Schwarz/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Subsequent relegation to the amateur fifth tier engendered plenty of personnel turnover and a restructuring of the club regime, but Essen still easily conquered the NRW-Liga and returned to the fourth tier, where they have been stuck ever since. In the summer of 2011, the club was cleared of its debt and stadium construction was well underway, but results were rarely convincing – last season was the first occasion on which they properly challenged for promotion since re-entering the Regionalliga.

You would be forgiven to think that the past eleven seasons have been a rare period of stability and respite – and indeed, this is their longest spell without relegation in decades. Unfortunately, controversy is never far away in Essen. In 2012, three players admitted to betting on their team to lose to Borussia Dortmund II – which, to no one’s surprise, they did. Two years later, a player was banned for five months after testing positive for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Later that same season, the sporting director and manager were sacked after the former had given the latter a new contract without consulting his superiors first.

Unsurprisingly, coaching dismissals have been a common theme, too. Since their return to the fourth division, ten different coaches have tried – in vain – to lift Rot-Weiss out of the semi-professional mire. At long last, however, things are finally looking up. Like King Arthur extricating Excalibur from its stony prison, current head coach Christian Neidhart could well be the one to drag Essen out of the Regionalliga.

Taking over from former HSV coach Christian Titz before the start of the season, Neidhart has RWE playing exciting, high-octane football, throttling opponents with intense pressing and quick transitions, while, at times, also being aided by the superior quality of his players compared to the rest of the league. A perfect example of what Essen under Neidhart are all about came in November in a rescheduled match against SV Straelen. Having taken a two-goal advantage through a long-range laser from modern-day club legend Kevin Grund after a nice one-two, Neidhart’s men were straight at Straelen’s throat from the whistle, scoring again barely 16 seconds after kick-off.

Essen will go into the Rückrunde (second half of the season) as the team to beat; they currently sit pretty in first, six points ahead of Dortmund’s reserves. Incredibly, though, their biggest triumphs thus far have actually come in the DFB-Pokal. After knocking out Bundesliga side Arminia Bielefeld, Essen also claimed the scalp of second-tier outfit Fortuna Düsseldorf before the winter break. While far from the most illustrious of opponents, it still serves as ostensible proof that Essen are playing well above their current level; a case only augmented by the fact that they are the last side from below the 2. Bundesliga still left in the competition.

Besides prestige and a reintroduction into the mainstream football zeitgeist, Essen’s progress into the latter stages of the Pokal also provides some indispensable economic alleviation. As already alluded to in my last piece about the Stuttgarter Kickers, COVID-19 has left its mark on German lower league football, and it is no different as far as RWE are concerned.

Sportschau has been following Essen every step of the way since the first few months of the outbreak as the club tries to overcome this unique challenge. Sportschau’s No Sports?! series lays bare just how much uncertainty clubs have to deal with; one week a couple of thousand spectators are allowed into the stadium, the next week only a few hundred, or perhaps it’s even another Geisterspiel (game behind closed doors).

Back in March, RWE hosted a ‘virtual match’, complete with virtual tickets, virtual Bratwurst, and live updates of a game that never was – they were essentially role-playing (Essen came out on top in this game of pretend, of course). The spectacle in itself was an enormous hit with supporters and neutrals alike, but the €100,000 that flowed into Essen’s coffers was still some €50,000 short of what the club usually earns on a matchday. Even head coach Christian Titz had to have his contract terminated as a cost-cutting measure when the 19/20 Regionalliga season was canceled.

In the end, the club actually came away relatively unscathed. Last season’s predicted revenue loss of €2 million ultimately only amounted to €700,000, thanks in no small part to the 94 percent of season-ticket holders who declined the chance for a refund. In early November, North Rhine-Westphalia’s government announced that it would make €15m available for Regionalliga West clubs, but it was also revealed that another lockdown could bring the league to a standstill, as only professional football was exempt from the latest suspension. However, after much deliberation, the semi-professional Regionalliga was allowed to continue because some clubs, like Essen, operate as professional entities.

RWE fans have had plenty to celebrate this season, but scenes like this are sorely missed (Werner Otto/Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)

Even though the Red and Whites are currently playing their best season in ages, it’s just not the same without supporters. The Stadion Essen, which is also the home of Frauen-Bundesliga side SGS Essen, hasn’t hosted a full house in almost a year. Nowadays, it resembles more of a bland, desolate concrete block than the marvelous new 20,000-capacity stadium it was supposed to be. Weirdly enough, some fans have reached the conclusion that the team is actually benefitting from the lack of spectators as it allows them to play without pressure.

It sounds bizarre and yet, there is conceivably some truth in that statement. Essen are a club of massive stature. Even if the pizzazz of better times has long since faded, the Essener still attract more media attention than some 2. Bundesliga sides. The burden of dwelling outside of German football’s professional leagues has weighed heavy on the shoulders of the players and the club at large for over a decade. But times are changing.

There is still a long way to go of course, the season is far from over, but as of right now, Rot-Weiss Essen are in the best shape they’ve been in since dropping down to this level. Perhaps this time around, they will finally reach the promised land.

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