Theo Kirchberg

Unfor­gotten as a player, coach and good man


The former right-winger is one of the really big player and coach personalities in the long history of Bayer 04. Theo Kirchberg would have been 100 years old on 23 November. We remember this "special man" on his birthday.

With his goals, he played a big part in the promotion to the Oberliga West in 1951, which saw the club reach the top flight for the first time in its history. In 1968, he led the team as coach in winning the Regional League West but just failed to gain promotion to the Bundesliga in the play-off rounds. But more than just being a successful player and coach, the man that was Theo Kirchberg left a deep impression on those who worked with him. That becomes clear talking to his former players today.

Theo Kirchberg was already 28 when he signed for Leverkusen in June 1949. A man at the best age for a footballer who had lost a number of years during the war. At the Oberliga club VfL Benrath, the prolific right-winger was amongst the outstanding players and he caught the attention of the management at Bayer 04 Leverkusen. The fact that Theo Kirchberg accepted the offer was also due to the career prospects offered by Bayer AG. Years later, he was employed there as a works coach.


Theo Kirchberg joined Leverkusen in 1949 from VfL Benrath and he played for the Werkself to the end of his career.

Kirchberg was in demand straightaway with the team. At the start of 1950, he took over as coach temporarily because the contract with Karl Winkler had not been extended. Kirchberg gained his football coaching certificate with Sepp Herberger at the Sports University in Cologne. The team finished the season in tenth place in League 2 West. Kirchberg played all 30 games for his team and scored 12 goals. The big success came the following year: SV Bayer 04 Leverkusen were promoted to the Oberliga West in 1951, in part due to 14 goals from Kirchberg, and were in the top flight for the first time ever.

The now almost 33-year-old ended his playing career in 1953 due to a knee injury but he returned for twelve games in 1955/1956. He finally hung up his boots after that season. Kirchberg was initially the coach of the Leverkusen Reserves until taking over the first team in the spring of 1965. He remained coach for seven years – longer than any other coach at Bayer 04 before or after him.

“He looked after everything and everybody”

For Helmut Brücken, Theo Kirchberg was "a coach with a great understanding of football and a very good psychologist. He looked after everything and everybody. Back then, he didn't have an assistant coach never mind coaching staff or a scouting team. He built the team up himself." Kirchberg not only had a knack for spotting talent. In the summer of 1967, alongside the 19-year-olds Peter Rübenach, Karl-Heinz Brücken and Friedhelm Strzelczyk, he also brought in experienced players like goalkeeper Hans Benzler, defender Willi Haag and midfielder Klaus Görtz. And they all hit the ground running.

Helmut Brücken, who joined Leverkusen in 1963 as a 19-year-old from DSC 99 Düsseldorf, was captain of the team in the championship-winning season of 1967/68. The actual captain was goalkeeper Friedhelm Renno. But because new signing Hans Benzler was always between the sticks, Renno was left as the number two.

Theo Kirchberg worked with a squad of just 15 players in that season including the two goalkeepers. At the same time: Substitutes were allowed in German football for the first time from 1967. Initially it was just one player per game. At Bayer 04 it was mostly the young lads Peter Rübenach and Wilfried Seifert. First of all, it was a question of getting through the season with such a small squad. And all the players had a job or were studying. That demanded flexibility in the organisation of the training sessions. Helmut Brücken was working in the finance department at Bayer AG back then. "Theo sometimes collected me from the works and did individual training with me in the afternoon. As a skilful right-winger, he kept on crossing to me non-stop and they were always at the right height. It was incredible."

Special task for the captain

Helmut Brücken (photo), captain of the 1968 title-winning team, highlights Theo Kirchberg's knowledge of the game.

Because it was often difficult to coordinate joint training sessions during the week, Kirchberg placed great value on regular short training camps ahead of games at the weekend. On Fridays or Saturdays, it was off to Große Ledder, a Bayer AG conference hotel in Wermelskirchen, or to Lope in the Oberberg. "That really brought us together," said Brücken. Runs in the woods, walks and team meetings were on the agenda. "Theo always knew everything about the opposition, put together great analysis and speeches." Helmut Brücken, the captain, always had the special task of nullifying the opposition's playmaker. "I was fast, a ball winner and had lungs like a horse. Most of the time, I was able to do my special job to the satisfaction of the coach and even set up goals for our strikers Fredi Hennecken, Karl-Heinz Brücken, Helmut Richert and Friedhelm Strzelczyk.”

With all the hard work and as a much as he demanded discipline: Kirchberg was also able to take a more relaxed view. When he found out once that two players had a bottle of whiskey at the training camp, he just let Brücken know.” He said to me, 'Helmut, make sure we win the game and then we'll forget all about it.' But I was a bit nervous when we were suddenly 2-0 down against VfR Neuss. Leo Wilden and I had to be more vocal on the pitch – we turned the game round and ended up winning 6-2." The whiskey was never mentioned again.

"Good night, men!"

Of course, it was clear to Kirchberg the training camp could not be like a girls boarding school even though he set great store by the lads going to bed early. Friedhelm Renno recalls with a smile: "He did his rounds at 10:30 at night, going into every room and saying: 'Good night, men!' And we answered: 'Night, coach!' – When the door closed again we got the cards out. Then we played Skat." The usual games at a training camp. And this little bit of insubordination did not affect the authority of the coach. If necessary, the players would have gone through fire and water for Kirchberg. Friedhelm Renno: "Theo was somebody who did what he expected from others. He paid every player respect, approached everybody individually and did everything for his team. For example, he often used to take Peter Rübenach, who was living in Bonn and was one of our youngest players, back home after training by car. The fatherly approach of Theo impressed me incredibly."

Football euphoria in Leverkusen

And Willi Haag, the Bayer 04 right-back from 1967 to 1970, recalls special moments with the coach. Haag was studying at the Sports University in Cologne at the time and was therefore unable to come to Leverkusen for training sometimes. "So Theo just went to Cologne. You have to imagine that: He ran training sessions on the Jahn meadows with me and teammates Reinhard Roder and Dietmar Mürdter. It was unusual the amount of time and work he invested in his players. How much consideration he had for our personal circumstances. Everybody felt obliged to repay him with performances on the pitch."

With Theo Kirchberg (r.) as coach: The Bayer 04 title-winning team of 1967/68.

That worked brilliantly in the 1967/68 season. The small squad was actually a committed and nurtured group under Theo Kirchberg that made all of Leverkusen feel euphoric. After the opening wins against Viktoria and Fortuna Köln, over 16,000 spectators came to the Ulrich Haberland Stadium for the top match against Rot-Weiß Essen who were coached by Erich Ribbeck back then. The match ended in a 3-0 defeat but Leverkusen were not put off course. And the supporters stuck with it and backed their team in numbers like never before including at away games. The team would top the league by the winter break and they produced an outstanding performance in an unfortunate 2-0 defeat in the first round of the DFB Cup at the end of January 1967 against the team top of the Bundesliga and eventual champions of Germany, FC Nürnberg. And finally secured a dramatic 3-3 draw at Schwarz-Weiß Essen – in front of thousands of their own travelling fans – and, on the final matchday, they picked up the points necessary to win the title in the Oberliga West. That qualified Bayer 04 for the play-offs for promotion to the Bundesliga.

"He beamed like a little boy"

"At Essen, Theo brought on Klaus Görtz in place of Fredi Hennecken at half-time. And once again he had the Midas touch," said Helmut Röhrig. Görtz set up the assist for Karl-Heinz Brücken to level at 2-2 and then he scored himself to make it 3-2 for Bayer 04. Walitza's equaliser for Essen at 3-3 didn't matter anymore. "After games like that, Theo Kirchberg beamed like a little boy. You could read the pride in his eyes," explained Helmut ‘Bello’ Richert, who was the most successful striker in the team alongside Fredi Hennecken and Karl-Heinz Brücken. "But I also saw him crying in the dressing room after bitter defeats. His emotional manner, that was never too ostentatious, really motivated me as a player. When you saw how Theo suffered then you just had to give him something back. We won the games for him too."

Richert got to know completely different types of coaches in his career. In 1966, just before he moved to the Rhineland, he won the German league title with 1860 Munich under Max Merkel and two years later he joined Helmut Brücken in moving to Fortuna Düsseldorf under coach Otto Knefler. "Merkel and Knefler were known for being tough and their extremely strict regimes. They wouldn't stand for any contradiction. To put it mildly, I think it was questionable from a teaching and learning point of view. What a contrast to Theo Kirchberg who was the soul of a human being with fine feelings and he was interested in everybody. Theo valued our opinions. We players talked a lot amongst ourselves – and the coach allowed that and he also encouraged it."

“Similarity to Flick, Favre and Bosz”

Karl-Heinz Brücken draws another interesting comparison: “With his calm, empathetic manner, he has more of a similarity with current coaches like Hansi Flick, Lucien Favre and Peter Bosz.” Karl-Heinz Brücken joined Leverkusen in 1967 as a talented 19-year-old from Grevenbroich. He was studying mechanical engineering in Düsseldorf at the time. And he also felt at home at Bayer 04 thanks to the coach. In order to recover properly in the time between lectures and training, Kirchberg and his wife Ilse occasionally invited Brücken to their house in Langenfeld. "Then he took me with him to training in Leverkusen – it was a very personal relationship. Whereby Theo always maintained sensible relationship between proximity and distance."

Between lectures and training: Theo Kirchberg invited his former player Karl-Heinz Brücken (photo) to his house so he could recover.

Kirchberg was a fatherly friend to the lads and he liked to speak to experienced players like the international and two-time German champions Leo Wilden and Helmut Richert about organising training and match tactics. His former charges are of different opinions when it comes to the reasons for Kirchberg having the nickname of 'The Fox'. "Foxes are considered to be crafty and sly. I don't remember him being like that," said Willi Haag. "Perhaps it's because," announced Wilfried Seifert as explanation, "that he sometimes made unusual tactical decisions, which mostly turned out to be right in retrospect." Be that as it may.

The noble helper in an emergency

Without doubt, typical of Kirchberg is one incident that has stuck with Helmut Röhrig. Once again, the coach was on the road in his car travelling to Cologne to see professor Schneider to have Helmut Röhrig and Wilfried Seifert examined there. "We were in the middle of Cologne when Theo saw an older woman standing at a zebra crossing and she didn't risk crossing to the other side due to the heavy traffic. So he stopped in the middle of the street, got out, linked arms with the woman and brought her across to the tram stop. But that was not all as he took her into the tram and found a seat for her. The only problem was the tram had left again. Wilfried Seifert and I looked at each other and were nonplussed." Helmut Röhrig laughed out loud when he explained the anecdote. "Wilfried finally got behind the wheel because the driver behind us was slowly losing his patience. We followed the tram and picked up Theo at the next stop." Theo Kirchberg, the noble helper in an emergency. Almost too corny to be true. "No, that's just the way was: a thoroughly honest man with decency and manners," said Röhrig, who, as a genuine 'Leverkusen lad', was coached by Kirchberg as a youth player.

Helmut Röhrig (photo), at Bayer 04 from 1963 to 1972, particularly remembers Theo Kirchberg's willingness to help.

"We lacked the maturity to get promoted"

It was a pity it did not work out with promotion to the Bundesliga in 1968 but that does not diminish in the least the great performance of the 15-man championship squad over the whole season. The 2-1 defeat in front of 28,000 spectators at the Bieberer Berg in Offenbach, sealed by a deflected shot in the last minute, represented the dramatic high point of a thrilling season. "Perhaps we were better on the day but overall, as a team and probably as a club to, we lacked the maturity to get promoted to the Bundesliga," said Karl-Heinz Brücken looking back to 9 June 1968. In the end, it was enough to finish second in the promotion play-offs behind the Kickers and ahead of TuS Neuendorf, Tennis Borussia Berlin and Arminia Hannover. Nobody believed the Kirchberg group capable of a season like that.

The special team spirit, which the coach encouraged and personified, still brings the men together today. Two years ago, many of them met up at the BayArena for the 50th anniversary of winning the Oberliga West title. Theo Kirchberg was not there. He helped shape Bayer 04 as a player and coach for 23 years from 1949 to 1972. Up to his death on 7 February 2014, he maintained his connection to his club as a fan and spectator at the stadium. He will always have a special place in the club's history.