The club built on fan power
With a Champions League semi-final beckoning, most clubs would be forgiven for adopting something of a siege mentality when it comes to their pre-match preparations.
Heads would be down, the barriers up, the drawbridge raised. But not at Schalke 04.
On a beautiful spring day in the Ruhr valley and ahead of the biggest match in the club's history, Schalke had flung open the doors to their fans.
As one might expect from arguably the most popular club across Germany, with a staggering 94,000 paid-up members, 1,300 supporter groups worldwide - including two in England - and the sixth-highest average home attendance in the whole of Europe, some 2,000 loyalists had turned up to watch.
The day was proving a tough one for Schalke's fans. Their favourite son, Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, had just informed them via social networking site Facebook that, after 20 years at his hometown club, he would not be extending his contract, almost certainly resulting in a transfer to Bayern Munich.
But even that news could not spoil the mood.
Just yards from the pitch, supporters enjoyed lunch at the dedicated members' club, while players chatted and signed autographs before leaving to get changed.
Nothing special. This is simply how it is at Schalke.
"Training sessions here are almost always open, it is very different from England," Ralf Rangnick, Schalke's manager, later explained to me at the club's state-of-the-art, 61,000-seater Veltins Arena, where cheap tickets and terracing ensures one of the best match-day atmospheres in world football.
"If we did not let the fans come and see us, they would be unhappy."
And at Schalke, one senses that the happiness of the supporters genuinely matters.
Elsewhere, of course, clubs are not always as engaged with, or open to, those who support them. Take Carrington, for instance, training headquarters of Manchester United, Schalke's semi-final opponents.
As with other Premier League clubs, a sign makes clear that players will not be signing autographs, while imposing, high-level security prevents fans from getting anywhere near the out-of-sight training facilities. The contrast with Schalke could not be starker.
Gelsenkirchen, just like Manchester, was once at the centre of its country's industrial heartland. But the mines and steelworks have long since closed down, leaving the city of a thousand fires, as it was once known, with a 20% unemployment rate.
Still, Schalke remains loyal to the working-class ethos of the area it represents. This is a club built on fan power.
A supporter representative enjoys a permanent seat on the club's supervisory board, a body that can veto transfers worth more than 300,000 euros. Once Rangnick's predecessor, Felix Magath, attempted to get rid of the rule, his days were numbered, especially once he dismissed the club's supporter liaison officer. Having lost the fans, the man who helped secure Champions League qualification and led Schalke to the quarter-finals was promptly dismissed.
Stuart Dykes came to live in Germany in the 1980s, fell in love with Schalke and now works as a translator for the club, as well as a consultant for Supporters Direct, the network of fan trusts involved with running football clubs. "Schalke is more than just a club, it is the fans, it is the city," he explained.
"I can't think of any other club in Europe where the club is so closely associated with the community. Schalke is now one of the biggest employer in Gelsenkirchen, the area literally depends on the club.
"The club is 100% owned by the fans. Players visit supporter clubs throughout the country and fans are invited to come on holiday with the squad on pre-season training."
Dykes explains how the club were only allowed to raise ticket prices recently after a long consultation with the fans. And then the cost of a standing ticket was only put up from 13 to 15 euros. Season tickets cost just over 300 euros and include free transport to the stadium from various towns and train stations within a 50km radius.
"I used to support Manchester United but when the Glazers bought United that was the final straw," said Dykes. "I haven't been to Old Trafford since then. The second leg will be my first visit for a long time and I want Schalke to win."
Schalke's extraordinary 5-2 demolition of Inter Milan at the San Siro in the first leg of the quarter-finals was the moment the Royal Blues became the competition's dark horses. Following the return leg, which Schalke won 2-1, the normally reserved Raul climbed into the crowd, grabbed a microphone and led the celebrations, ensuring the striker became even more of a legend than his 71 Champions League goals already guarantee.
Schalke are not without their problems. Despite taking Europe by storm and with a forthcoming German Cup final to enjoy, the club have not won a league title since 1958. The success of bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund, who currently head the Bundesliga by five points, makes such perennial under-achievement even harder to stomach.
Having almost gone bankrupt several years ago, Schalke remains heavily indebted, with its finances under close scrutiny by the Bundesliga authorities. A multi-million euro sponsorship deal with controversial Russian gas giant Gazprom caused consternation among many fans, who felt the partnership did not fit with the club's values.
Seven large sections of the Veltins Arena roof are still missing, too, after snow caused them to collapse in the winter.
But nothing can tarnish the renewed sense of pride and optimism that Schalke's unlikely European adventure has engendered in this post-industrial city. Germany's original uber-club could yet enjoy its proudest day.