Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. On the morning of 27 April 2002, Bayer Leverkusen were preparing to receive Manchester United at their BayArena home for a Champions League semi-final second leg clash.
Once, it would it have been considered the biggest game in the club’s history. Now, it wasn’t even their biggest of a remarkable season. Leverkusen, top of the Bundesliga almost all season long and through to the DFB-Pokal final, were on for an era-defining treble.
Meanwhile that Saturday, 60km north of Leverkusen, Arminia Beifield of the German second tier were playing out a doleful goalless draw away at Rot-Weiss Oberhausen. One year on, both clubs’ worlds had contracted. When Beifield visited the BayArena in the Bundesliga the following April, it was for a relegation showdown.
Defeat from the jaws of victory
This year marks the 15th anniversary since Leverkusen’s world fully unraveled. With three games to go in 2001/02, they were five points clear of Borussia Dortmund at the top of the Bundesliga and preparing for two cup finals: one in Berlin against Schalke, the other in Glasgow against Real Madrid for the biggest prize in European football. The club had one hand on the treble. Within two weeks, it had turned to sand and fallen through their fingers.
But then they had been the ‘almost champions’ before. In 2000, the title had gone to the wire, when Michael Ballack, of all people, scored an own goal and Leverkusen lost 2-0 to Unterhaching on the final day. A draw alone would have been sufficient to pip Bayern Munich to the prize. It was a failure to replicate that championship challenge the following year that cost coach Berti Vogts his job, and handed Klaus Toppmoller - with little else on his CV but a failed title bid with Eintracht Frankfurt - an unlikely stab at mending old wounds.
His impact was instantaneous. A whirlwind season, domestically and in Europe, meant that by April, Bayer were the envy of the football world and two weeks from immortality. The implosion was as dramatic as the rise that had put them there.
Scared of the finish line
After losing 2-1 at home to Werder Bremen on 20 April, when the powerhouse Brazilian forward Ailton scored a second-half winner to send self-doubt crackling through Leverkusen’s synapses, Toppmoller’s team crumpled to a 1-0 reverse at relegation-threatened Nurnberg. Within the space of a week their five-point lead over Dortmund was gone. The title was out of their hands, suddenly Dortmund’s to lose.
A 2-1 victory over Hertha Berlin on the final day was not enough to reel in their rivals from the Ruhr. Leverkusen were second - again.
Seven days later, a DFB-Pokal final defeat to defending cup-holders Schalke was a microcosm of both their season and their in collapse. Leverkusen were in control at 1-0 up, their nerves in Berlin calmed by an early Dimitar Berbatov goal. But Schalke equalised through Jorge Bohme on the stroke of half-time and proceeded to shred their opponents 4-2.
“You lose matches”, said Toppmoller, philosophically, after the final. “We have to accept that." There were four days between the defeat to Schalke in Berlin and the date with destiny against Madrid in Glasgow, time enough for demons to take hold.
“We just want to do our best to have a special victory to end our season after the two chances we've missed in Germany.”
Leverkusen’s penalty-taking goalkeeper Hans Jorge Butt toed the party line; the camp remained optimistic, buoyed by the prospect that, despite these 14 disastrous days, the pretenders from Westphalia could still end the season at the summit of European football having deposed the Spanish giants.
"The German championship didn't depend on just one game”, he said ahead of the final. "We were disappointed to lose, but we want to put that right against Real. This is one occasion - all or nothing. I am sure we will see nerves, but we are confident. We still have an opportunity to win the biggest trophy in European football at the end of our season.”
After that game against Manchester United in April, a 1-1 draw which put Leverkusen into the final on away goals, Toppmoller had observed it was “a time for cigarettes and drinking”. It turned out to be prophetic; this was to be the high point of Leverkusen’s journey, a final moment in which victory looked tantalisingly possible, before defeat greedily consumed everything before them.
Not that this was the first time that a German club had blown the treble; it wasn’t even the first time in recent memory. In 1999, Bayern Munich had a shot at immortality and withered under the lights of two finals, albeit having first beaten Leverkusen themselves to the league title.
But for the men from Westphalia, the crushing agony of failure hit them harder. This was their golden generation, a singular stab at glory which, if missed, would likely not come again in their lifetime. ‘Neverkusen’ meant exactly that.
“You don’t always get the rewards you deserve in football,” said Toppmoller after watching Zinedine Zidane down his side with that now-famous volley at Glasgow’s Hampden Park. What is surely certain, though, is that they didn’t deserve for things to end like this. The club was traumatised to the bone.
"The players are still sitting in the cinema dreaming of last season," managing director Reiner Calmund later said, in February 2003, as he confirmed the sacking of Toppmoller with Bayer just a point above the bottom three. "Unfortunately they haven't realised the film has finished.”
Calmund’s axing of Toppmoller, just 10 months after Leverkusen came within a wonder-goal of being crowned champions of Europe, is a reminder that Claudio Ranieri’s post-title demise at Leicester had more of a precedent than we perhaps remember.
Like Ranieri, Toppmoller lost five in a row before being sent packing. Leverkusen were sliding out of the Bundesliga. At the very least, it didn't get worse for the club from there. Victory late in the day against Beifield set them up for three wins from their final four league games, as they squeaked to safety in the final Bundesliga match - almost a year to the day after the title had slipped away.
Calmund, it was said, used to take sedatives before Leverkusen games to ease his nerves, having already suffered three heart attacks during his time as managing director. The ‘horror treble’ certainly left its mark.
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