The return of former heroes, who eventually became opponents, is an age-old motif in the stories of the Bundesliga. You then remember old times, focus on the present, and sometimes – when a separation has left wounds – it is a bit more emotional.

All these phenomena will also be observed during the visit of Schalke coach Thomas Reis to his long-time employer VfL Bochum, whereby this duel of the penultimate of the table against the last this Saturday (15.30 clock in the F.A.Z. live ticker for the Bundesliga and Sky) has the potential not to be remembered as an interchangeable episode of a shallow entertainment narrative, but as a key passage of a demanding epic. Until his departure from VfL, Reis was something like Bochum's par excellence.

While presidents, captains, athletic directors and coaches have changed, Reis has been there since 1995, apart from two interruptions. He was employed as a player at the district club, as a scout, as a coach of the women's team, assistant in accounting, as a coach in the youth performance center and: as a heroic head coach, who took over the professionals in 2019 as seventeenth in the second division, stabilized the team, rose in the season after and managed to stay in the Bundesliga. The 48-year-old football teacher still lives in Bochum, and yet he says before returning to the Ruhrstadion: "I don't think we will receive much love."

"The separation was unpleasant"

It would be nice if this were mainly due to a healthy rivalry between the two clubs and not to feelings such as anger or even hatred. Reis' express wish is "that it will be a peaceful derby". Emotions will certainly run high in this Bundesliga's closest stadium next to the Alte Försterei in Berlin, because "the separation was unpleasant," says Reis, who himself bears joint responsibility for the conflicts. Last spring, he negotiated with Schalke 04 as Bochum coach and developed the desire to move to the big neighbor from Gelsenkirchen.

This failed because those responsible at VfL did not give him a clearance. When this process came to light in late summer, he initially denied contact with Schalke 04, but later had to admit to having told the untruth. In combination with a weak start to the season, this led to a break. And yet there is one point on which Schalke and Bochum will agree: The members of both clubs are convinced of the professional abilities of this coach.

After eleven years in the second division, Reis led VfL back into the Bundesliga and then successfully brought about a change in style of play: away from the rather dominant football of a top team, towards a robust and very pragmatic outsider style. And in his new job, he seems to succeed in teaching Schalke, who were not competitive until the winter break, a football that works.

"Just a few weeks ago, I had little hope that FC Schalke 04 could succeed in retaining the league," writes the former successful coach Huub Stevens in a column in the "Kicker". "The situation in the table was simply too devastating," but in the meantime "it has become clear how quickly the conditions in football can change. (...) Thomas Reis gives the team a signature that is becoming increasingly clear."

After four goalless draws and a win against VfB Stuttgart, Schalke are back in the middle of the relegation battle with Bochum, Hoffenheim, Hertha BSC and VfB Stuttgart. Carried by a powerful emotional momentum, because after the recent upswing there is actually a good mood in Gelsenkirchen instead of sadness. "We are perhaps in a somewhat more successful phase," says Reis very cautiously.

The situation is quite different in Bochum, where his successor Thomas Letsch won five home games in a row between the end of October and the beginning of February, but recently lost four competitive games in a row. This nourishes Schalke's hopes of ending a series unique in the Bundesliga. The club has failed to win away from home in the first division 38 times in a row, so Reis says: "Every series is there to end at some point."

The explosiveness is so great that in the days before the duel even the sweaters worn by the Schalke coach are discussed. In Bochum he liked to show off in clothes from the VfL fan shop, a week ago at the game against Stuttgart he now wore a hoodie with a huge Schalke logo on the back.

In Bochum, where beer cups often flew onto the square in the past, he might be better off doing so, so as not to provoke the emotionally charged people even more. Some commentators even believe that this derby, due to its many stories and the tabular constellation, is even bigger than Gelsenkirchen's duel against BVB a week later.