Friday, 25 May 2012

Club v Country

Throughout the summer I'll be aiming to collaborate with guest bloggers. The first guest is James Williams who writes Footy Ramblings. He's a Newcastle season ticket holder, former housemate of UnionBerlinMan and will soon be publishing a book about north east football. Check out his blog and follow him on Twitter.

As the European Championships approach, the media switches its focus from club football to the national side. All eyes are on squad announcements, players wives and the England manager. You may even get a story involving all three but that will depend on John Terry! We decided to have a little fun to brighten up the closed season and compare Club v Country. Do let us know what you think in the comment section.

Club by James Williams

Once every two years we will be told it is time to jump back on the England bandwagon by witty Carlsberg adverts, kit deals at various sports shops and the rallying calls of the England players selected to represent their country in whatever summer championship is taking place. “This is our year”, “this is a golden generation” and “we’ve been class in qualifying, we will be there or thereabouts” are all phrases bandied about by players and press alike in the build up. All well and good until England bow out before reaching the business end, usually down to a ‘poor refereeing decision’ or the’ lottery of penalties’.

There are many issues with England, besides the fact that they constantly disappoint. Whilst watching a tepid encounter between Sven’s England and Sweden at Old Trafford in 2001, I was witness to numerous arguments between fans of different club teams. Manchester United fans arguing with Liverpool fans mainly, but at one point I found myself defending Kevin Philips who was toiling through one of his eight appearances for his country. I found it rather confusing when as a Newcastle fan I was defending Phillips against a raft of abuse from a Liverpool fan demanding the introduction of Emile Ivanhoe Heskey. Phillips was at the peak of his powers, banging in goals for Peter Reid’s Sunderland side, and deserved his chance for England. However, like so many before and after, he was guilty of trying too hard to impress, knowing he was likely to only get one or two chances before being cast aside. The expectations of the press and those who go to watch their country is ludicrous, and the desire to shoehorn players from big clubs in to the team at the expense of form players has infuriated for years. Paul Scholes on the left wing? Michael Carrick overlooked at the expense of the Gerrard/Lampard love in?

When it comes to club versus country, club can be the only winner. With your club comes belonging, the camaraderie, knowing the people who you sit or stand next to every week. With it comes the anticipation of the season ahead, the transfer rumours, the tactics, the derby matches etc. For those lucky enough to go and watch their team, every couple of weeks they get to immerse themselves in the match, beers before and after, a bet on the game and then a trip to the ground.

England on the other hand is once again a closed shop for the southerners, contractually obliged to play at Wembley from now until eternity. For anyone living outside of the M25, trying to get back from a midweek England game at Wembley is nigh on impossible. An hour on Wembley Way after the game, chaos at Baker Street tube and the last train to anywhere leaving as you figure out the slight colour difference between the Bakerloo and Metropolitan lines. For a few years during the protracted redevelopment of Wembley the England team toured the country, playing up and down the land; Newcastle, Sunderland, Leeds, Derby, Southampton, Leicester, Ipswich, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham all hosted England games as part of the seven year England Roadshow as it was christened. This allowed the footballing public to connect with the England team, seeing them at close quarters for the first time. Spain and Italy do not have a home stadium, instead touring the country playing games at all for corners to keep the fans in touch. Since returning to Wembley in 2007, England haven’t played a game away from the stadium and are not likely to do so for the foreseeable future (although a money-spinner against Brazil in Qatar might tempt the FA). England once again is the property of the south east.

Perhaps the main argument is how good it would be if England won something? A country united in celebration? Yes, I will admit that if England won the Euro’s this summer then I would be riding the bandwagon, making sure I managed a few nights out in the process and celebrated with friends. Would I swap it for my club winning the league or the FA Cup? Yes, in a heartbeat. Years and years of watching and hoping, near misses and lost finals mean that as a club fan I only want it more. That would be a real celebration, intense and concentrated with real like minded souls, and one you can bring out when it comes to the inevitable ‘discussions’ with rival fans.

This viewpoint may be different for fans of Manchester United who have seen their club consistently win trophies for many years. It is high unlikely that any Manchester City fan would want to swap their recent league title for England success, nor a Chelsea fan willing to swap the Champions League title for success in Ukraine and Poland.

It is all about the club, the bread and butter of the football fan. England is a distraction, a distant entity far removed from the majority of football fans throughout the country. Best of luck to Stevie G and the boys, but the big dates are 18th June for the new season fixtures and 18th August for the big kick off.

Country by Mark 'Devil's Advocate' Wilson

The Champions League Final on a balmy Saturday evening in Berlin was a precursor of nights to come in the German capital. Bars were packed, gargantuan TV screens adorned the streets and business owners in convenience stores and kebab shops were huddled around flickering monitors.

Everyone was watching the football. Every gender, race and age could be seen on the streets and bars of Berlin’s trendy Kreuzberg district. The buzz in the air of people coming together (almost as one) was infectious. Even non-football fans were peering at the screens and drinking in the atmosphere. This is football at its best – the great unifier.

I’m sure scenes were similar in London although the balmy weather was probably like a Bayern player with nerves – nowhere to be seen at the end of the night. I’m shocked players refused to take penalties. Perhaps the much vaunted home advantage was misleading. Saturday night saw two club sides from England and Germany battle it out for the most coveted (and financially rewarding) prize in the European game. Due to Champions League qualification and club rivalry not everyone in England was cheering on Chelsea. Strange to hear of Tottenham, Everton and Manchester United fans taking to social networks to demonstrate their support for the Bavarians.

The difference with the European Championship and the World Cup is that it brings nations together. The rivalry on the terraces is forgotten. Arsenal fans would cheer a Lampard goal. Likewise, Manchester United fans would applaud a Joe Hart save. For the tournament you don’t associate Shearer with Newcastle – he’s English. If you’re a Sunderland fan you’ll revert back to questioning his parentage in songs after the event though.

Football fans are fickle I often read. We have to be! There is only a relatively small pool of players and managers. A villain one week can be a hero the next and vice-versa. Subsequently, the football fan is able to put aside a season’s club football for a month long tournament. Such is the power of the game. Forget social networks bringing people together and connecting people – football has been doing this for decades. And it’s real. You experience it because of moments of unbridled joy, and at times, abject misery. Gazza’s tears (1990), No England at the World Cup as the Dutch defeat Taylor’s workmanlike side (1993), Gazza’s goal against the Scots/Stuart Pearce's celebration (1996) and England’s capitulation against the Germans (2010).

As an England fan the moments of despair far outweigh the glory but surely that is part of what makes us English. It creates our personality as a nation. We can laugh at ourselves. We’re also funny fuckers – we have to be. The old adage, 'if you don’t laugh you’ll cry', is certainly relevant in this scenario.

On the subject of having a shot at winning a trophy you’ll find the facts point towards ‘Country’ offering you superior odds than ‘Club’. The Euros have had 9 winners in 13 tournaments. Whilst England fans may grumble at their distinct lack of guile in this tournament, a cursory glance at past winners and finalists shows, it’s not all about ranking but about team spirit and togetherness – remember Greece? They may be derided for a lack of fiscal prudence but there was nothing wrong with their defensive tactics when they won the Championship in 2004.

What a shame the England team enters the Poland/Ukraine tournament with a divided dressing room and a nation already questioning the appointment of its manager. 'Hodgson out' was trending on Twitter after the announcement of the 23 man squad. You could try and argue this is a good thing. England fans care. They want success. Perhaps they are just getting their excuses in early.

If we consider The World Cup; it has produced 8 winners in 18 tournaments. For those following national sides ranked highly this is better odds than for a club side in England winning a major honour. By way of comparison the Premier League in England had a measly 4 winners in its first 18 seasons.

A Johnstone’s Paint Survey from 2006 that showed that 92% of fans said that their best footballing moments came from their club. However, I bet those asked were not around in 1966. I would cite the national team’s abject failure in most fans lifetime as being the main driver behind such a clear rejection of the national team. England fans are like waiters at a banquet; we see the feast on offer but never get to gorge on the tasty morsels. We’re there to make sure everyone else has a good time.

We all love our clubs but not many have experienced the feeling of victory with our nation. Of course the two are not mutually exclusive. Wait for the feeling when England finally win something and compare that to the modicum of success you have most likely tasted with your club. Also, we’ll all be in it together. In times of austerity and social unrest footballs power is magnified. It does what talent shows and politics cannot do. We’re England United.

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Friday, 18 May 2012

The Closed Season: SAFC v NUFC London Branch Pool

I may be an FC Union Berlin Man but when it comes to the closed season my friends, I'll watch absolutely anything. In fact, not only will I watch any sport, I will follow a pool match between a bunch of predominantly overweight north easterners and live tweet the whole occasion in real time.

The Match

@SAFCofficial @ALS_Fanzine Follow me to find out how London Branch pool team get along against Mags tonight at Kings Cross Pool Hall.#title

Team sheet for SAFC London Branch Pool v NUFC London Branch. An exclusive. @SAFCofficial @ALS_Fanzine

Rumours are reaching me that the NUFC team features Terry McDermott's brother. #calmdown #calmdown

@mintonthego has voiced concerns over the quality of the green at Mables. #safc #nufc #poolepic

My last minute flights costs me €400. Would not miss this match for the world. Very tense first game at the Kings Cross Venue. #safc #nufc

PS - 1 tweet tonight will be artistic license. See if you can spot it. #safc #nufc

Wow! Controversy in the first game as Doog plays "the worst shot" Matt has ever seen. Re-wracked balls after a 10 min discussion.

Doog takes 1st frame with clean finish polishing off last 4 balls and black with aplomb. 1-0 to SAFC. Gallowgate silenced. #safc #nufc

Explosive break. Cat is among the pigeo...magpies now. This game should be over at two visits if someone can be clinical. Tense evening tho.

Jan, SAFC supremo is struggling. Should have cleared up but misses routine red. Can barcodes level the match? #safc #nufc

Pre-game polishing of the SAFC sword known as "the beast". You'll have to rotate yourselves followers. #apologies

2-1 to #NUFC as Jan squanders the chance to heap pressure on the mags. Paul drags himself away from the TV to grace the table. #safc #nufc

Paul's last name is Robson. Mags whispering that he may be related. After the Terry Mc rumour that would be something. #RIPBobby #safc #nufc

Close game but wide open. My money is on the Black Cats to level. #safc #nufc games will get longer as night progresses. Late finish likely.

2-2 as #SAFC show why they were favourites coming in to the clash. #SAFC skipper Large is up next. Can he deal with the pressure?

Two singles games left. It really is hotting up here at Mables and was worth every penny. After the 6 singles games we have 3 doubles. #SAFC #NUFC

Big game that and #NUFC take an arguably undeserved lead as Large suffers from pressure of being gaffer. It's 3-2 to the Skunks #SAFC

Anaemic performance from Large. Cats are 3-2 down to Magpies #safc #nufc. On the plus side the drink is flowing. #thirstbeingquenched

@CaulkinTheTimes You are missing out on an epic pool game between SAFC and NUFC London branch. Full details on my blog tmrw. Live tweeting!

SAFC have started the stronger in last game of singles. They'll want t level it to have a strong platform for the doubles. #poorsurface

3-3 Get in! Tough game with plenty of chances. The Sunderland lads are cock-a-hoop with that and scent blood. #gameon @ALS_Fanzine

Ben Elton is in the bar. The games between these two clubs really does attract the big names. #popcorn anyone? #truestory

Cagey doubles game. The side that win this know they only need to win one of the next two. #critical #thefirstcasualty

Could be #meltdown on Twitter when people read that Ben Elton was in the infamous Kings Cross boozer watching this one. #inconceivable

Tight pockets making it difficult for Doog. The man takes a while sizing up his options. #longnightahead #tellussomejokesben

It's approaching 10:30pm and the game is in full flow. Could go either way. Ben Elton seems more interested in the pork scratchings #odd

Elton's best performance came in Much Ado About Nothing IMO. Not the case 2night tho with title at stake. #tense #safc #nufc @ALS_Fanzine

Why watch #bbcqt when you could be following my live tweeting of an epic pool encounter b/ween SAFC and NUFC? #doboth

#NUFC are in the driving seat and manage to win a scrappy game. 4-3 up and only need one game to win the match. #safc #undercosh

Jan and Minton are paired together to save the game. Minton was dropped for the singles and has a point to prove. Jan lost so does as well.

Could be a tactical masterstroke from SAFC manager Large. If it goes wrong he'll be facing the axe in the morning though. #bigcall

The tension is unbearable in Mables. Ben Elton orders a G&T and seems to be settled in fr the night. #nopopcorn #shame

WOULD. YOU. BELIEVE. IT. The wood carver from Prague and @mintonthego have won with ease. Mags hammered and it rests on the final game. 4-4.

All over. Dramatic last frame. Robson attempted the pot. Failed. Mags cleaned up. No recriminations. Pardew not there to milk it. 5-4 mags.

Always a hard game but played in the right spirit. #NUFC generous in victory. Elton appears to have enough material for his book & has left!

Great night following the match. Thanks to @mintonthego and hope you have all enjoyed it. contains all tweets in 1 post

The London Pool league

When I first moved to London as a fresh faced youth, I did what anyone with only one mate in the capital would do - I searched out a way to connect with people from the area I was born and had left only a few years previous. My parents had met each other in London and had been members of what is commonly referred to as "the branch" or "the London branch" - the full title, Sunderland Supporters Association London and Southern England does not exactly roll off the tongue.

The branch was formed in the summer of 1966 by Ian Todd, who painstakingly wrote to all of the Sunderland fans in London and the Home Counties. By February of the next year, he had single handedly amassed over 50 interested members who met before Sunderland faced West Ham United at Upton Park. The London branch was born. It was the first branch to be formed and is the largest with over 1,000 members.

Prior to my moving to London, my mum, using the slightly easier method of e-mail, contacted Ian to let her know that her son would be starting a new life in the capital. Ian is clearly a stickler for keeping records (or has an astounding memory) as he replied and referenced my mum's old address. Prior to Sunderland playing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge I was given a description of Ian and headed to Parsons Green to find him.

The match was a sell out and I spent the afternoon in the pub with a Norwich fan who had somehow joined the branch. We chatted all things football and after the game branch members returned to drown their sorrows. As luck would have it there was a celebration that evening as a branch member was having his stag do. I was warmly welcomed in to the fold and after numerous pints told of a quiz, cricket and pool team.

I joined the cricket and pool team. I played both sports to a level that can only be described as mediocre. However, if you can buy a round and sup a few pints - you're in! My branch cricket appearances were limited to going in at number 10 and loafing about in cow corner or deep mid-wicket. The cricket team even went on tour and to this day still have two regular trips.

I embraced the concept of a small pool league with promotion and relegation (there are two divisions) with gusto - what's not to love about drinking a few pints of a Guinness on a school night whilst fraternising with supporters of your hometown club? Originally the branch had Swiss Cottage as a home venue. The Swiss has a pool hall with numerous tables in a dimly lit back room. Sandwiches and small sausages would be brought out at the mid-session interval which occurred after 6 games of singles. The home team was in charge of organising the culinary aspect of the evening and ensuring there was enough change to operate the pool table. I once recall playing an away match (where and against whom I have no idea) and we were treated to some Indian snacks. You'd think we were eating at a Michelin starred restaurant the way we talked of these delights. The Swiss Cottage was managed by a Sunderland fan, hence the affiliation. However, when a blade came in, we were no longer welcome and became a team without a home. The Charlton Athletic of the pool league.

The fact that Sunderland has a branch so large speaks volumes about the passion people have for the club. It is the largest supporters association in London. I'll not embarrass those involved in the running of the branch but it is only due to people volunteering their precious time and organising travel to away games that allows the branch to be the success that it is.

Thursday night was a small game of pool in a Kings Cross boozer between 12 or so blokes. The live tweeting started off as a bit of a joke on an e-mail thread. However, I thought the night deserved some background and I hope that I have demonstrated another of the reasons that makes me proud to be a football fan. I met some superb people through the branch and it certainly aided with my acclimitisation to 'the Big Smoke'.

It's clearly a bit sad live tweeting a pool match but I hope I have outlined why it was more than that. I'll be looking to explore FC Union Berlin's many supporters branches throughout the season. They are dotted around Berlin and contain only a handful of people and are predominantly used to share travel costs I understand. I'm sure that whilst small in number they contain many characters to rival that of the London branch.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Fans, fireworks and full-time

When German official Wolfgang Stark blew the final whistle in the Esprit Stadium last night, it was clearly the the beginning of an inquest that could be far reaching for German football. German football fans in particular - the night was a nadir for pitch invasions and Pyros. Both were ill timed, caused disruption to the ebb and flow of the game and became the talking points. A real shame in a two-legged relegation play-off that ended 4-3 to Fortuna and condemned Hertha to a second relegation in three seasons.

By way of comparison, the first-leg in Berlin had passed with little incident. I was in attendance last week and took a few snaps.

Dark clouds hover over the Olympiastadion, a pre-cursor of what we were to expect from this clash

I was on the back row so a superb view of the action

The Berlin bear flag partially obscured

Fortuna fans with a flare after the second goal much to the mirth of the Hertha faithful

A youth with a t-shirt that he can wear for all of next season as Hertha will again look to bounce back immediately

The tie was finely poised at 2-2 on the night and 4-3 to Fortuna on aggregate, when in the 6th minute of added on time, hundreds of Düsseldorf fans mistakenly thought that Stark had blown for full-time and invaded the pitch to celebrate. The fans had started to leave their seats as early as the 85th minute, forming a cordon of people around the advertising hordings, constantly being watched by police and stewards but not moved on.

The match had such an inordinate amount of injury time, not due to one moron as was the case at Manchester City at the weekend, but several. Hertha fans had launched fireworks on the pitch when they went 2-1 down on the night. Hertha fans clearly thought that the 4-2 aggregate scoreline was unassailable. Moments earlier they had lost their goal scorer and arguably their biggest threat in Ben-Hatira, who was booked for a challenge that you can't get away with in modern football. It was a second yellow but could have easily been a straight red in 2012. Ten years ago, a clever official would have given him a warning and the game would have been all the better for the decision.

Germany is very much the home of 'proper football' in terms of fans though. The matchday experience is envied by the English fans who have a sanitised version of the game. All topics for another day of course but last night will be a stick that the German FA can beat the pro-pyro lobby with. @valedave made a point on Twitter last night that the good work of the pro-pyro lobby has been undone in one night. In one moment. Not a moment of madness but one of spite and ill feeling. Hertha have felt aggrieved all season. A freakish amount of own goals being their latest gripe - one in three goals conceded of late have been own goals. That's football Hertha fans.

When you consider the way Manchester City came back from 2-1 down to score two vital goals to win the Premiership, it was telling that Hertha scored in the 85th minute. Could a side in blue score 2 goals in quick succession? Without all of the added on time this goal would have came at around 78 minutes giving them almost quarter of an hour to salvage their top tier status. Would they have found a goal in this time? Would they have been slightly less drained of emotion and spirit? They had to go across to their own fans midway through such a crucial game and urge them to calm down and stop throwing fireworks on to the pitch.

The game sparked to life after only 25 seconds when Düsseldorf's Beister hammered in a shot from just outside the penalty area. The sot curled away from the Hertha goalkeeper and the visitors could have let this early setback derail them. However, staying true to their sponsors (DB, who had laid on discounted travel) they charged forward at every opportunity, often leaving themselves exposed to the counter attack and long balls down the channels. Unfortunately, as with DB, the game would also feature delays.

Hertha's possession finally bore fruit when a free-kick was whipped in from the left and Ben-Hatira rose and powered his header in to the bottom corner past the hapless Ratajczak. At 1-1, Hertha needed to be aware that a second Fortuna goal would mean they needed 3 goals in normal time. However, another goal for Hertha would force the tie in to extra-time.

It was parity as the sides went in at half-time and Hertha coach, Otto Rehhagel, was clearly using every ounce of his forty years of managerial experience, by keeping the Fortuna players waiting, as Hertha took their time entering the field for the re-start. The half was only 10 minutes old when Ben-Harita received his marching orders and 4 minutes later Hertha were 4-2 down on aggregate.

The goal Hertha scored on 85 minutes was overshadowed by the scenes that followed. If the Fortuna fans had waited for the game to be finished before celebrating wildly on the pitch then they would have the moral high ground. As it is, there was talk of Hertha consulting lawyers on Twitter last night and at the very least the game will be remembered for the images below rather than the seven goal thriller and feast of football that it was. Two Berlin derby games next season though - can't wait.

Hertha fans pelt the playing surface with missiles causing a long delay

Fans ready to invade the pitch

The early pitch invasion. It could have far reaching consequences for the home side

Hertha fans boxed in by the riot police

Absurd scenes when you consider there was over a minute of added on time left

Players eventually leave the pitch after 100 minutes

Match starts again after 116 minutes - a goal for Hertha would have caused a riot

Fortuna fans celebrate - this time the final whistle had been blown

118 minutes until the game could be finished

Hertha players were camera shy last night. The rumour was that the Berlin teams press officer wanted to keep them out of the spotlight after such tense scenes

Es war ein Spiel, über das noch lange geredet werden wird – und der sportliche Ausgang stand trotz des Finalcharakters lange im Hintergrund.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Relegation Play-offs - protecting the 'big' clubs?

On Thursday evening Hertha face Fortuna Dusseldorf in the first leg. Fortuna are out of form and have won only 4 times since the turn of the year. The official Bundesliga helpfully divides the season in to two 17 game tables. Handy for the statto. The fact Hertha have managed to force their way in to the Relegation Play-offs is highly significant for both Berlin sides. The Union fans I spoke with all want the same outcome in the Oympiastadion - a Fortuana win. They want the Berlin derby next year and who can blame them after last season.

Sunderland fans do not have fond memories of Relegation play-offs. When Laurie McMenemy said he would take Sunderland out of the old Second Division, few expected he would face the ignominy of being the first Sunderland manager to relegate the former 'Bank of England club' into the third tier of English Football. The Guinness Book of Records is clearly written by someone who has indulged in too many of its sponsors beverages, as McMenemy is still rated as one of the twenty most successful managers in English post-war football. You only have to watch the Coogan-esque 'Do I Not Like That' documentary to see the clueless and sycophantic Geordie in action. Painfull viewing.

The more knowledgeable/sad among you may point to the "test matches" of the late 1800s - that pitted sides against each other from the First Division and newly formed Second Division - as being the first "play-offs". In the days of no promotion the bottom three and top two fought it out using a complex system. I'll not be offering any analysis I am afraid.

The relegation play-offs were introduced in to the English football league at the start of the 1986/7 season. In May 1987 Sunderland finished 20th and faced Gillingham with the second leg at Roker Park. Whilst Sunderland managed to level the tie they were relegated on away goals after an epic encounter at their old home. This format of relegation play-off lasted only two seasons and 1990/1 saw the introduction of the format that prevails today.

The principle of the play-offs is very clear in England. It extends the interest in the league for a large number of clubs giving them something to play for. Instead of the top three being promoted the top 2 are promoted and places 3-6 enter the lottery for promotion. The case for the play-offs here in Germany is much less clear cut.

If we compare the Championship in England, with the Bundesliga 2 in Germany, in my view there are two critical differences. The Championship is arguably less competitive so needs a play-off system to keep the league competition alive for as long as possible. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in disagreement with this point. The play-off system in the Bundesliga appears to want to protect the bigger clubs (offering third bottom in the Bundesliga 1 an escape route via the play-offs) rather than enhance the league competition in the German second tier. Dusseldorf finished third but nobody in mid-table was vying for 6th place as they were in The Championship. For these two reasons I'd be disgruntled if I were a Fortuana Dusseldorf fan and relieved if I supported the West Berliners.

Being a Sunderland fan, an FC Union convert and a lover of the underdog, I will be rooting for the away side this evening. KO time is 20:30. Expect an overview over the weekend. You can sign up via e-mail on the right hand side of this page or follow me on Twitter below. Please do so and thanks for reading. The blog has been up 1 week and has received almost 2,500 views, largely due to the official FC Union site highlighting the blog on their Facebook page, with the classic headline "Unioner aller Länder... auch in Cottbus dabei ;-)." The icing on the cake was a Union fan describing the whole blog as the "hammer". No greater praise.

Monday, 7 May 2012


The train from Hauptbahnhof was packed with the red and white of FC Union Berlin fans. It was standing room only for our group which meant that we got chatting to supporters from both clubs. The consensus from the young 17 year old Energie fan was that Union were one of the best supported clubs in terms of volume in the Bundesliga. He spoke disdainfully about the Hertha fans who really do "only sing when they're winning".

Standing room only on the train as Mathias eats his breakfast

The 100 minute journey meant that we arrived in Cottbus for 11:20 where we were greeted by the Polizei. Some of them were very friendly and we managed to avoid an escort by removing any trace of Union, brandishing a press pass (handy) and explaining we wanted to see the sights and have a 'coffee'. There are few sights and we did not consume any coffee.

Armed with no map or clue as to where the city centre was we did what you always do in these scenarios. We followed people in the direction of the ground. After our negotiations, walking back to find what we thought looked a good spot, closed, we ended up in a Kebab shop. You can always rely on a Kebab shop being open and of course selling beers.

The Kebab Shop where we had our pre-match food and quenched our insatiable thirst

The scenic route we took was stunning and a far cry from the cobbled streets and terraced houses that used to hem in Roker Park. We ambled through a small forest parallel to The Spree river and had we been home fans we would have been in the ground to see the teams run out. As it was, we were in the opposite corner and due to The Stadion der Freundschaft having only one way that you could walk round the ground, this resulted in us forgoing a pint and missing the KO by 5 minutes. Poor form considering some of us were at the train station with 40 minutes to spare!

Street art

The opening exchanges were nervy and neither side were prepared to take any risks and expose themselves at the back with Union controlling large swathes of possession. The nerves were understandable for the home side, who came into the game knowing that if they lost and other results went against, them they would be relegated.

The game exploded into life just before half time with Energie having a goal ruled out after a bullet header passed the helpless Union keeper. The Berlin side charged straight down the other end and were awarded a disputed penalty when Cottbus full-back Ziebig was adjudged to have felled Union's Terrode, who looked to be going nowhere. The penalty was dispatched crisply by Markus Karl in to the bottom corner. However, the referee decided the "elf meter" needed to be retaken due to encroachment from several Union players. The follow up smashed off the cross bar and the ball was scrambled away to safety.

The goal that never was for Union

Zombie Natiion was played over the speakers at half-time and this became the adopted Union anthem for most of the second half. Reminiscent of when Sunderland played Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough and Roy Keane, the then Sunderland manager, was serenaded to a version of Hey Jude by the Mackem faithful.

Whilst the majority of the first half had been a pretty turgid affair, both teams appeared to have responded to the half-time team talk and came out with more purpose. Perhaps scores had been fed to the Energie team as the rumours on the terraces were that results were not going their way. On the hour mark Cottbus made the breakthrough but would not be in front for long as Union responded in under 90 seconds. The Energie goal was passed in to the Union net with aplomb, defying the skill seen up until that point, by Daniel Adlung. Ede headed in the Union equaliser after some neat play down the flank and a well delivered cross made it harder for him to miss than score.

The atmosphere in the ground was noisy, with the Berliners in good voice, as they had been throughout. However, it was the supporters from Cottbus who were singing just after 70 minutes when they were awarded a free-kick just outside the penalty area. The Union reserve keeper will have been disappointed that he appeared to be beaten by a well taken but not brilliant strike by Rangelov. The ball was almost in the middle of the goal. Union rallied and were unlucky not to snatch a draw that there possession merited. However, the game finished 2:1 and both sets of fans can now enjoy the 'sommerpause'.

The journey home was a strange affair as we had to go via Frankfurt. Luckily it was the Frankfurt in Berlin-Brandenburg and not the one down south. Uwe skillfully procured more refreshments with at least 5 seconds to spare when we changed trains. I also got the details of a Union photographer who has taken some good shots of the day - look out for the old train that some Union fans traveled on.

The highlight of the day was my travelling companions. The 5 of us supported Union but grew up watching football in diverse places - two of us from the north east of England, one from Jerusalem and Uwe, our new German friend who has a FC Union season ticket, who we sold our spare ticket to. This impressed a Union fan called Matthias who took delight that Union has an international fan base that is "multi-kulti".

We had a last drink in a cafe outside Ostbahnhof and managed to witness a Frenchman on his stag do. The opportunity was too good to pass up and so we got the obligatory photo. The result did not go our way this time but then supporting Union is about much more than the result. I even learned a bit of German that will come in handy. The chant "Auf die Fresse" was my favourite. Big thanks to my translation man - Eisern Union, eisern Union!!

Jonny, Uwe, a Frenchman and Me in borrowed glasses from one of the French people

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Bundesliga, 34. Spieltag Preview

It is doubtful that I will make a habit of commenting on the top tier of German football. The league gets enough coverage as it is. However, all Union fans will be keeping a close eye on today's proceedings at the Olympiastadion on the last match day of the season.

When the Berlin wall came down people from the east came in droves to watch Hertha BSC - two days after the wall fell Hertha played SG Wattenscheid and the fixture attracted over 11,000 east Germans. A fan friendship developed and a subsequent friendly between Hertha and Union attracted over 50,000 fans.

Whilst the rivalry may not be fierce, most Union fans will be glad to see Hertha relegated - last season Union even managed to beat Hertha on their own patch.

Union fans celebrate with red flares as they beat Hertha 2-1 in the Olypiastadion last season. My debut at the home of Hertha.

Hertha are currently languishing second from bottom and their only hope of survival involves beating 1899 Hoffenheim today and hoping that FC Köln do not manage to cause an upset against Bayern and take all three points. If Hoffenheim beat Bayern the Hertha result is immaterial. It does not bode well for either side though as one of them must face a play-off due to finishing third bottom.

Hoffenheim's away form is mixed and they have lost as many (8) as they have won and drew. However, Hertha have the second worst home record in the division and the strange atmosphere of the often half empty Olympiastadion has showed, as they have garnered a measly 12 points at home thus far. Most clubs would be pleased with Hertha's impressive average attendance - it's over 53,000.

It would be a brave man to back Hertha to win this afternoon and avoid relegation. They would then have to beat one of the three Bundesliga 2 teams, who are still in contention for third spot, via the play-offs if they were to retain their Bundesliga status.

However, the last day of the season is prone to throwing up surprises and Hoffenheim have nothing to play for. At least Hertha can cling to the fact that Bayern players will be playing for a place in the Champions League Final although they have already comfortably secured second spot and qualification for The Champions League next season and may be in wind-down mode, keen to avoid any injuries.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Trumpet Man

I'm sure a range of characters will feature in this blog. The first to do so is Trumpet Man. He's a man. He takes a trumpet to games.

It's a feeble trumpet so don't be fooled by the photo below. I traded a couple of pints for an FC Union pin badge that I'll get a picture of when I wear it to a game. Unlike the Union faithful, decked in colours, I have never been one to wear a replica kit to the game. I'd feel an impostor at Union anyway so a big thanks to Trumpet Man for talking to me and my mate Rob and giving me a way to show my support.

I sneakily took this picture (left) whilst this woman's back was turned. Impressive outfit.
Location: Ostkreuz bahnhof prior to a game.

The Big Idea

Standing on the terraces, getting some food inside the ground and meeting the same set of lads for some average football on a cold winter night. Why would anyone not want a season ticket?

To contextualise my passion for watching football, and apportion some blame, I was first taken to a game when I was three years old. It was a Sunderland reserve fixture and I was taken home at half time as it was past my bedtime. My Dad then walked quickly back to Roker Park and took in the second half. The beauty of living 300 metres from the ground. I never decided to become a Sunderland fan. I was born one.

I'll be 33 years old this season and I still have a Sunderland season ticket in name, but truth be told, my Dad uses it each week and I am starting to wonder if I'll ever get to more than a couple of games a season. That's where FC Union Berlin come in. I've attempted to reject the pull of the Stadion an der Alten Försterei but it has finally won the battle. For the 2012/13 season I'm buying a season ticket. At €150 it would almost be rude not to. Union Berlin even play in red and white and you can have a beer on the terraces. With Hertha Berlin likely to be relegated at the weekend, next season will potentially have the added spice of a Berlin derby. A season ticket will guarantee I don't miss the Union home fixture this time around.

The Big Idea is to blog my way through the season and what better place to start than with the last away match of the season. On Sunday, Union make the short journey to Cottbus to play at the Stadion der Freundschaft (friendship). Five of us will making the short journey from Berlin - it'll cost just under twenty quid a man for travel and match ticket. Over 3,000 Union supporters will be there to see Union face Energie Cottbus. The initial tranche of 2,500 tickets sold out quickly and the club requested an increased allocation. I'll be posting next week about my first away game in Germany.

I'll leave you with a few lyrics from the song that inspired the name of the blog. Answers on a postcard for the name of the band.

Before the union did appear,
My life was half as clear.
Now I've got the power to the working hour
And every other day of the year.