One person who played a significant role in that phenomenal development was Hans-Peter Lehnhoff. We look back at the 1996/97 season, that brought a new era under the Bayer Cross, with today's 58-year-old team manager at Bayer 04.
Lehnhoff had already been at the Werkself for two seasons in the summer of 1996 when a coach took over the helm at Leverkusen who we knew from his time in Cologne. "Christoph Daum was the assistant to head coach Georg Kessler in the 1985/86 season. Back then, we progressed to the UEFA Cup final against Real Madrid with FC (Köln)," recalled Lehnhoff. "Daum took over as head coach from Kessler relatively early in the following season of 1986/87 so I experienced Christoph's first steps in his coaching career."
The player born in Alsdorf was initially a first choice under Daum, "but we also had our problems." The then 24-year-old midfielder joined Royal Antwerp in Belgium in September 1987 where he went on to play for seven very successful years. "When Christoph and I met each other again nine years later in Leverkusen we quickly sorted things out. We wanted to forget everything from the time in Cologne and make a new start."
At the training camp in South Tyrol, Daum set about making a new start with the team. Lehnhoff particularly remembers one team meeting. "Christoph told us what he thought of us, where we stood and where we wanted to go to. He spoke for an hour and it's normal that players switch off at some point in such a long team meeting. But we thought we'd be champions of Germany when we stood up after that hour." Daum, the great motivator, had once again taken his team with him. The team, with new signings Jens Nowotny, Niko and Robert Kovac, Jan Heintze and Erik Meijer playing a very important role from the start, was hooked.
But Daum not only found the right words. Rudi Völler, who had just stopped playing and started at Bayer 04 as sporting director, declared: "Christoph changed a lot here back then in terms of the way we worked and structures. Everything was focused on the first team. Calli's (Reiner Calmund, ed.) decision to bring him in was a milestone in the development of Bayer 04."
Daum ensured that the second team, who occupied the same dressing room area as the first team up to then, had to move elsewhere. "It didn't really bother me. But now when we were on our own I noticed how important that peace and focus was," said Lehnhoff. "Everything became more professional."
The opening game of the new Bundesliga season impressively displayed the wind of change under the Bayer Cross. The reigning champions of Germany Borussia Dortmund were beaten with some exciting attacking football. Daum later said about the game: "Our 4-2 win against Dortmund was the birth of a special team. A team with players like Hans-Peter Lehnhoff – he was enormously important to us."
Bayer 04 went 2-0 up after seven minutes thanks to goals from Paulo Sergio and Ulf Kirsten. Lehnhoff: “I had the special job of taking Andreas Möller out of the game. He was supposed to run after me and not me after him. The move worked perfectly. We had an incredible power in that first match. The hard work of the training camp had paid off. We weren't put off when Dortmund equalised but instead went for it big style in the second half. It was a massive game by us. One of the best in the season. The enthusiasm spread to the fans."
The 4-2 victory was followed by a 3-1 away win at MSV Duisburg – with a hat-trick from Ulf Kirsten who flourished again under Daum. The following defeats against Fortuna Düsseldorf (0-1) and at Bayer Munich (2-4) did not knock the team off course. In addition to the great quality on the pitch in the squad, regular team evenings in private produced a special team spirit. "Christoph Daum and his assistant coach Roland Koch also contributed to the good atmosphere. They understood how to keep everyone happy and they brought power and colour," said Lehnhoff.
The 4-2 defeat in Munich on matchday four was followed by ten games without defeat (seven wins, three draws) including a spectacular 5-3 win against SC Freiburg with Lehnhoff scoring a brilliant goal after a 50-yard solo run. The then 33-year-old on the right wing always made much younger opponents look old. The same went on the other flank for his similarly aged teammate Jan Heintze. "The oldest pair of wingers in the world," as Daum called the pair in fun. "We were supposedly on the scrap heap but we lived very professionally, had the right diet and were fully fit," said Lehnhoff with a smile. The two stalwarts were among the top providers that season with a total of 18 assists.
And, up front, Ulf Kirsten was back to top form as he ended up as top scorer for the second time with 22 goals. Paulo Sergio was not far behind with 17 goals. At the back, goalkeeper Dirk Heinen and the usual back three of Markus Happe, Christian Wörns and the captain Jens Nowotny were solid in defence with Carsten Ramelow and Niko Kovac or the Brazilian Zé Elias playing in holding midfield. There wasn't a classic playmaker.
The fact Bayer 04 were able to go top on matchday 16 for the first (and also only) time with the 4-2 derby win against FC Köln fitted in wonderfully. If Dariusz Wosz had not equalised for VfL Bochum at 2-2 with a minute to play on the last matchday of the first half of the season, then the Werkself would have gone into the winter break top the league.
"We were happy and enjoyed that great Hinrunde but nobody dreams of winning the title," said Lehnhoff looking back. "Our attacking football, which we played 25 years ago with high pressing, was very modern. It was definitely to our advantage that we weren't in Europe back then but instead were able to focus fully on training and prepare properly for the next opponents."
FC Bayern felt the full force of the Werkself attack at the start of March 1997. The 5-2 victory over Bayern Munich still counts as one of the best performances by Leverkusen in the Bundesliga up to now. In that game, Christoph Daum had to manage without his injured strikers Ulf Kirsten and Erik Meijer. And Hans-Peter Lehnhoff was serving a one-match ban – for the only time in that season. But the newcomers to the team in Zé Elias, René Rydlewicz and, primarily Markus Feldhoff fitted in brilliantly.
The Black and Reds were 3-0 up at half-time in front of 22,500 euphoric supporters at the Ulrich Haberland Stadium. "Leverkusen gave Bayern a lesson in terms of aggression, creativity and space in the first half," wrote the Kicker back then. Bayern did come back in the second half at 3-2 but the outstanding Feldhoff settled matters late on with goals number two and three. "It was a crazy game," recalled Lehnhoff.
However, the team showed three days later that they lacked stability from time to time. The Werkself lost 3-0 against TSV 1860 Munich with the same line-up as against Bayern. "We quickly got back on track and remained near the top. But, in the end, we lacked a couple of little things to be right at the top," said Lehnhoff in describing the situation in the spring of 1997. Nevertheless: What a change for the club within a few months – from relegation candidates to potential champions. An important 2-1 win away to VfB Stuttgart under coach Joachim Löw saw a direct rival for a place in the top three kept at arm's length on matchday 28.
After a 3-0 win against FC St. Pauli, where Lehnhoff, known in the club as Peter, was once again one of the best Leverkusen players and not just because of a goal, the Daum team were one point behind league leaders Bayern Munich with two games to play. And matchday 33 brought the derby away to FC Köln. Lehnhoff: "It's a pity Dirk Heinen was out of position early in the game and could only get out of it with a foul as Toni Polster converted the penalty to make it 1-0 for FC Köln. Then we went to pieces." The game ended with a clear 4-0 defeat at the unpopular neighbours.
The chances of winning the league was gone but, as Dortmund in third place lost away to Hamburg SV, Bayer 04 were certain of finishing second. And that meant qualification for the Champions League for the first time. "That was sensational and gave the club a huge boost," said Lehnhoff. After the final game of the season, a 2-0 win against VfL Bochum, the fans at the Ulrich Haberland Stadium celebrated in style for the first time as runners-up in Germany's top flight and the chance of taking part in the Champions League.
The supporters were able to celebrate again two and a half months later with a 6-1 win in the qualifier against Dinamo Tbilisi. Lehnhoff still gets excited about that game today: "For me it was my most important European match for Bayer 04. And certainly also one of my best games ever. We definitely wanted to compete with the big clubs. And this clash with Tbilisi was the start. There was massive tension. And then we had a great match at home. We had Dinamo up against the ropes. And Tbilisi had a really good team. The expectations of our fans were nevertheless very high. I opened the scoring from a free kick on six minutes and later set up Erik Meijer. And we went crazy in the second half."
Bayer 04 could afford the 1-0 defeat in the return match in the Georgian capital as they qualified for the group stage of the Champions League for the first time. "I'm proud that I was in the team 25 years ago that laid the foundations for the European success of Bayer 04," said Peter Lehnhoff. "But we wouldn't be where we are now without Christoph Daum. The credit belongs to him too."
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