One minor consolation of their club having fallen away from top-level competitiveness in recent years is that those associated with Bayer Leverkusen don’t have to put up with the ‘Bayer Neverkusen’ jibes anymore. This was a nickname dubiously earned by the club in the early years of the last decade to reflect the supposed mental fragility shown whenever in touching distance of success.
Never was the tag more apt than the 2001/02 season when Leverkusen were in contention for a historic treble and yet ended up with nothing at all. That the club had risen to these heights in the first place was a reflection on the sterling work performed behind the scenes by the larger-than-life managing director Reiner Calmund. Modestly backed by their sponsors Bayer, he had turned Leverkusen from provincial minnows into a thoroughly professional and well-run club.
And the 2001/02 season would be their zenith as the best team in the club’s history under coach Klaus Toppmöller came together. A brilliant Brazilian trio of Emerson, Lucio and Ze Roberto complemented a German international core that included Michael Ballack, Bernd Schneider, Oliver Neuville and Jens Nowotny. The young Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov, the Argentinian left-back Diego Placente and the flamboyant Turkish playmaker Yildiray Basturk added more foreign quality and exoticism.
The most unlikely of the three targets was the Champions League, but against the odds, a run that included overcoming multiple English opponents took the club all the way to the final. There was misfortune underpinning all of their failures that season and for the Glasgow showpiece they were denied through injury the creativity of Ze Roberto and the defensive power of midfield anchor and skipper Jens Nowotny.
Raul put Madrid ahead, Lucio headed the equaliser from a Schneider free-kick and the Spaniards won the game with a remarkable Zidane volley. Leverkusen more than matched their opponents, however, and only a last gasp triple save by Casillas from Basturk, Kirsten & Schneider denied them an equaliser and extra-time.
A brave defeat to mighty Real Madrid in a competition they were never expected to make an impression on was one thing; the Bundesliga was a different matter, however. Having finished in second place four times in the previous six seasons, Leverkusen started the season with ferocious intent to go one better this time around.
They led from the start, scored the most goals and played the best football so as the climax of the campaign approached, Leverkusen led Borussia Dortmund by five points with just three games remaining. Then calamity struck: a 2-1 home defeat to Werder Bremen followed by a shocking 1-0 loss at lowly Nürnberg. In the meantime, Dortmund won both their fixtures, so Leverkusen went into the final round knowing they had to record a better result than their title rivals to win the league.
Hopes were raised briefly when Michael Ballack put them ahead early against Hertha Berlin and their rivals trailed at Werder Bremen, but Dortmund came back to win 2-1 rendering Leverkusen’s own win by the same scoreline as academic. Reiner Calmund put the collapse down to fatigue from a long and demanding season but it was a bitter pill to swallow. Dortmund were a modest side at best and Leverkusen had outclassed them 4-0 in a League fixture just a couple of months earlier.
The final chance for redemption came in the final of the DfB Pokal against holders Schalke 04. Leverkusen started strongly, Berbatov opened the scoring after 17 minutes and a number of other chances to kill off the game before half-time were squandered. The turning point came just before the break when Jorg Böhme scored a free-kick equaliser and Leverkusen heads dropped once again. Schalke scored three times in the second-half and ultimately won the cup by a comfortable 4-2 scoreline.
Good opportunities to finally put the Neverkusen tag to bed have been thin on the ground in the intervening 15 years. There’s been just two of note: runners-up in the Bundesliga in 2011, though never really a genuine threat to Dortmund, and a 2009 DfB Pokal Final loss to Werder Bremen. For all that Bayer Leverkusen have contributed to the German and European game, only the most hard-hearted of neutrals wouldn’t be happy to see them finally win a tournament and put that millstone behind them.