Rot-Weiss Essen have played 28 Regionalliga West matches during Christian Neidhart’s reign so far. The club has an impressive record of 22 wins and six draws, and that’s before you even consider their run to the DFB-Pokal quarter-finals. The 52-year-old Neidhart speaks to DFB.de about the club’s success and upcoming cup opponents Holstein Kiel.
DFB.de: You were “not unhappy” with the draw for the DFB-Pokal quarter-finals, which has paired you with Holstein Kiel. Why not, Mr. Neidhart?
Christian Neidhart: Internally we were hoping to draw a second-tier side. We are staying humble and we know that we are the clear underdogs even against Kiel, but there were some teams in the hat who are clearly of even greater quality. The draw is bound to generate that certain cup fever again. For me personally, there is also the fact that Kiel have two players who I know from our time together at SV Meppen, Marco Komenda and Benjamin Girth. I’m looking forward to seeing them again.
DFB.de: In the first three rounds, RWE have knocked out three clubs from North Rhine-Westphalia: Arminia Bielefeld, Fortuna Düsseldorf and most recently Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Considering how the run has gone, wouldn’t it have been extra special to face Borussia Dortmund or Mönchengladbach?
Neidhart: It would have had some magic, sure, but it would have been very, very difficult. With all due respect, we definitely have a greater chance against Holstein Kiel.
DFB.de: In the round of 16 against Leverkusen, it was really impressive to see your side turn the game around in extra time after falling 1-0 behind to the heavy favourites. Can you explain how you did it?
Neidhart: It was clear to us before the game that we could only emerge victorious if Bayer Leverkusen allowed us to. Admittedly we may normally have lost this game 4-0 or 5-0. Leverkusen squandered so many chances, though, and in football that can always come back to bite you. In extra time things get tough on the legs even for Bundesliga players. Maybe they also got too confident after going 1-0 ahead. After that we suddenly got our chances, and we took them.
DFB.de: Leverkusen are a Champions League hopeful, Kiel "only" a second-division side. RWE chairman Marcus Uhlig has warned against raising any expectations, though. Do you worry that RWE may be considered the favourites despite the gap of two divisions between the sides?
Neidhart: Nobody at this club is thinking like that; not us coaches and not the players in the team. Everybody knows the calibre of team that awaits us. There’s a reason why Holstein are among the candidates to get promoted to the Bundesliga. It’s no issue that our fans have reacted with something like euphoria. They are allowed to dream!
DFB.de: Holstein Kiel put in a passionate display to dump out title holders and heavy favourites Bayern Munich on penalties. Did you watch that match?
Neidhart: I watched the game on TV and I thought that Kiel absolutely deserved to win. It was really impressive. To have knocked out the record Bundesliga champions and Pokal winners will also mean that expectations have risen in Kiel, though. The team that beat Bayern won’t want to get knocked out by Rot-Weiss Essen.
DFB.de: The draw has confirmed that at least one club from outside the top flight will make it to the Pokal semi-finals. Does that speak for the special nature of this competition?
Neidhart: That shows the enduring magic of the Pokal. These games between David and Goliath always show that so-called lesser teams are capable of embarrassing and even beating stronger sides in a one-off game. That’s what this competition is all about.
DFB.de: Last year 1. FC Saarbrücken became the first fourth-tier side ever to reach the semi-finals. Is that a sign of how close the top Regionalliga teams are to the professional clubs?
Neidhart: Just like Saarbrücken last year, we are more or less professionals even if our official status doesn’t show it. The club tries to give us the opportunity to focus solely on football, meaning that the gap to the teams in the leagues above isn’t so big, the quality of the individual players apart. But like I said, in a one-off game anything is possible.
DFB.de: Put differently then, do you think that your team could survive in the 3. Liga?
Neidhart: I think that with our current squad we could be a force in the 3. Liga; we definitely wouldn’t be among the relegation candidates. Right now, the teams promoted to the 3. Liga this season are showing how much quality they have. That goes for 1. FC Saarbrücken, but also SC Verl and Türkgücü München. The biggest difficulty is climbing out of the Regionalliga.
DFB.de: How desperate are you to equal 1. FC Saarbrücken’s semi-final record by beating Holstein Kiel?
Neidhart: We all really want to do that because FCS are a bit of a model for us to follow. In the end they achieved promotion to go with their sensational cup run. I strongly believe that we have a chance of achieving the same.
DFB.de: Last time Rot-Weiss Essen made the quarter-finals was 1993/94, when the club was a second-tier side and made it all the way to the final in Berlin. The players back then enjoyed hero status with the fans, just as they do now. Are you aware that RWE could achieve something completely unique for a fourth-division team?
Neidhart: Absolutely! The boys know that they are writing history and and that two more wins could make them immortal.
DFB.de: RWE remain undefeated in both the league and the DFB-Pokal this season. Could you have imagined this sort of success when you arrived last summer?
Neidhart: No, absolutely not. I definitely knew that I was taking over a really high-quality, settled team though. Sporting director Jörn Nowak had assembled basically the whole squad before I signed on and we strengthened again last summer with forward Simon Engelmann and goalkeeper Daniel Davari. There were just a few small things to fix once I arrived. We were set up well and had the clear target of getting promoted to the 3. Liga. There’s never a guarantee that things will go according to plan, though.
DFB.de: You’ve already made clear that the club is targeting promotion this season. Is winning the league title more important than a potential Pokal win?
Neidhart: Yes, definitely. In the cup we can earn money and support, but promotion is of much greater significance for the club’s future. It is so hard and so important to get promoted from this league, so I place that above all else.
DFB.de: Despite your exceptional record so far, RWE are currently second behind Borussia Dortmund U23s with a game in hand. Do you see the title race going down to the final matchday?
Neidhart: You don’t have to be a prophet to predict that. Both teams are so consistent that I actually can’t imagine either of us going on a long bad run. I don’t have a crystal ball (laughs) but right now it looks as if you will need more than the usual 82 to 84 points to win the title. It’s highly likely that we may even need more than 90, but I back us to get there.
DFB.de: Let’s finish by taking one last look at the DFB-Pokal. RWE have so far progressed twice after 90 minutes before beating Leverkusen in extra time. Holstein Kiel have come through two penalty shoot-outs. Will you be putting in extra work on your penalties ahead of this one?
Neidhart: I didn’t do it for the first three Pokal games and I will avoid it again. Even if the situation is lacking that extra pressure brought by spectators, a penalty shoot-out is still something that is impossible to simulate in training. I think that the deciding factor is having players who want to take on responsibility and will step up to take a penalty regardless. If it comes to that against Kiel then I am sure that plenty of our lads will nominate themselves.