Just 90 minutes and Werder Bremen stand between 1. FC Heidenheim and promotion to the Bundesliga.
It would be the pinnacle moment of a slow-burning rise from the lower reaches of the German football pyramid under the guidance of Frank Schmidt. An actual ‘fairytale’, unlike, say, RB Leipzig.
The focus is rightly on Schmidt, coach for 13 years, but one man has been there almost as long, a man who has in the past defined Heidenheim even more than his coach.
The one, and only, Marc Schnatterer.
And yet, come Monday night, he may not have a big part to play, but it would be a sign of how the club has developed.
In Thursday’s first leg, he only played a cameo role, coming on for the mediocre Maurice Multhaup with 20 minutes to play. It was the third game in a row that he came from the bench, having come back from a minor injury. Yet even before then, his role this season had begun to change.
For years, Schnatterer was Mr Heidenheim, more so than Schmidt. He signed from Karlsruhe II in 2008, as the club embarked on its first (and only) season in the Regionalliga, and over the seasons that followed he became the embodiment of the club. Goals, assists, he did it all.
As they celebrated the tenth anniversary of his arrival in 2018, his team mates did a guard of honour of him, and all were wearing face masks of the club icon (see top). At times, it almost seemed like they really were just a team of Marc Schnatterer. No one else really mattered.
Whilst he remains a figurehead for the club, others, like Dorsch or Tim Kleindienst have become the biggest contributors on the pitch. Two goals and seven assists are not bad returns for a winger, but in most previous seasons Schnatterer has got double figures for one or the other, if not both. Just last season, he scored ten goals and set up nine more.
A new role
As his influence declines, so does his use. Schmidt’s decision just to leave Schnatterer as an unused substitute in a game against Erzgebirge Aue earlier in the season caused a real stir. Yet, in later games when he found himself back on the bench, no one barely twitched an eye.
His age is of course a factor. However, he remains humble about his apparent new role. “It is normal to have a little bit of a change,” he said after playing just one minute in their win over Sandhausen in February. “The only thing that matters is the team, the club and [in this case] the three points.”
He is still important though. He set up both goals in the win against Hamburg, proving he still has a lot to offer from the bench. This may be deliberate from Schmidt – allowed to make five substations, he is now able to plan the usage of certain players in a different role, from the beginning or not.
If Heidenheim do come out on top against Bremen, the role of Schnatterer will be defining, one way or the other. If he has a part in the key goal, it would be his finest hour, the most fitting way to seal promotion to the Bundesliga. If he doesn’t, it will show far the club has come, how the team has grown, how Schmidt has become less dependent on his once key man.
No player deserves a shot at the Bundesliga more than Schnatterer. He has stayed loyal and led the club from virtually nowhere, Schmidt’s right-hand man on the pitch. That remains true whether or not he plays a key role in possibly their finest moment.
Header image source: 1. FC Heidenheim.