Friday, 28 September 2012

There's a first time for everything - Union v Köln

Union Berlin V Köln. Of course, a fixture of huge importance to both sides, as prior to the game, both were winless in the Bundesliga II this season. However, I’ll always remember it as the Friday night one of my good mates ‘got it’. He finally understood football.

My mate Rob was in Berlin with his girlfriend and was given the option of an alternative tour of Berlin street art or a Union match. Union were without a win this season and the street art tour was highly recommended – Cruise being Cruise chose the football. A decision made stranger as this was only his second ever football match. He does not really like football. Who can blame him, as a Colchester United home game, was hardly likely to get him enamored with the beautiful game.

I’d clearly done a good ‘sales job’ on Cruise. ‘You can drink beer, eat a sausage and have some banter with me while the game is on mate’ was all it took. He must love beer and sausage. He diligently took my advice as we took on refreshments at Ostkreuz where the purchase of a Berliner Kindl beer is mandatory. The train filled up with Union fans and we were sharing the carriage with some away fans. No sign of trouble - just a mass of red and white on display from both sets of fans.

The plan had been to go and visit a statue in Köpenick but time was in short supply so we abandoned that cultural idea and instead headed through the forest towards the ground. The game was Union’s third sold-out home game in a row and we’d arrived with precision timing at the busiest period – half an hour before kick-off. However, such is the efficiency of the facilities, we had ample time to get ourselves fed and watered.

“This was only the second match of football I've ever been to and the first one I've enjoyed. The crowd were electric, the chaps with beer backpacks were a welcome feature, and the whole atmosphere of walking up through the trees, the grills and bars outside the stadium and the friendliness of the crowd reminded me more of a festival than a sporting event.”

The game kicked off with the Eisern in good voice. Everything was going well for about 2 minutes until disaster struck. The referee awarded Köln an absolutely disgraceful penalty. The fans in the home end were seething. It looked harsh from our end of the ground but I had a sneaking feeling that perhaps the Union defender had scythed the Köln striker down. TV replays show it was a fair challenge from the side. Union were one down and had an uphill struggle ahead. However, their fans continued to show their support and there were still 87 minutes to reverse the score line. My 2-1 prediction was still on.

Union commanded large swathes of possession and Köln seemed content to harry and press without Union actually creating too many clear cut chances. The Union goal, poked home by Silvio on the half hour mark, had something a touch comical about it. Perhaps it was the defending or perhaps it was the way the way the ball seem destined to cross the line. It was akin to a game of pinball where you know finally you’ll hit the ‘high score thingy’ if you keep whacking the ball in the same direction. That analogy is especially for Cruise.

Union's youngest fan?

The second half continued in the same vein with Köln appearing happy to try and hit Union on the counter-attack. Köln were being made to look every inch the team without any confidence and it made sense that they were also chasing their first win. In a previous blog I cited Mattuschka as the driving force behind Union’s likely success this year. Due to being on the bench and struggling to find form he’s had a quiet season so far, but he rose to the occasion and after the ball was well worked to the left flank, he cut inside, before curling a delightful chipped pass in to the bottom corner to make it 2-1 on 56 minutes.

Rob and I went berserk and ended up chatting to some guys around us who had certainly been taking full advantage of the bloke selling beer from his backpack – as had we to be fair. The Dortmund fan was very impressed by the atmosphere. High praise indeed. The Union fans started hoisting their scarves aloft and chanting. Rob was trying to capture this on his phone. I stood surveying the scene. My mate who did not like football was in Berlin and was loving it. Union held on with crowd urging them over the finishing line to notch a valuable first 3 points of the campaign. Job done on all counts.

Hearing him wake up and sing 'Union Berlin' on Saturday morning was brilliant. I'll leave the final word with Rob. It says it all and is an equally damning indictment on the modern game in the UK.

"If football was more like this in the UK I'd probably be a football fan. For the first time in my life I felt like I 'got it'."

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

It's the hope (plus Steve Bruce & Jimmy Hill) I can't stand

Union faced mediocre opposition for the majority of the July pre-season and it was only the last 3 games that provided a stern test of their attacking verve and defensive agility. Prior to the spate of pre-season friendlies, I wrote on July 10th, my chief concern, was Union's "lack of fire-power". I was made to look foolish - or so I thought - when they hammered home over 60 goals in their pre-season friendly matches.

At present, Union resemble the Sunderland team that Steve Bruce was in charge of last season. The similarities are many (and mounting) and I'm getting worried now - if Bruce had not been swiftly sacked by the forward thinking Ellis Short we would have been relegated. Is Bruce somehow exacting revenge on me for my constant barracking of the fat Geordie on Facebook? Union have taken only 1 point from a possible 15 thus far.

Mrs Doubtfire

Not getting stuffed

Union are yet to be hammered this term unlike last year when they suffered a couple of heavy defeats. Union's defeats have been narrow - and thus avoidable. It was the same with Bruce's Sunderland.

In addition, when Sunderland have been relegated it has almost always gone to the wire. We were reliant on another side getting beat, when I was in the away end at Notts County, and we survived after a shocking 3-1 reverse. We took 17,000 away fans to Maine Road, and were relegated after an epic encounter which we lost 3-2. We lost 1-0 at Wimbledon and our striker missed a gilt-edged chance to level. It's still talked about. Coventry delayed the kick-off so they could play out a draw and relegate us - this also is still talked about (it was in the 70s!). So much so, that Jimmy Hill, who orchestrated the disgrace, was roundly jeered at Craven Cottage a couple of years ago. Let's hope I'm not at VFL Bochum on the last day of the season in mid-May chewing my fingernails!

Not knowing your best XI and formation

When sacked, one of Bruce's many excuses, was the squad needed time to gel. This was not helped by Bruce not knowing his best XI and formation. I'm guessing Union fans are seeing the link here. If you're not, Union manager, Uwe Neuhaus has fielded a number of different starting elevens this season and has also tinkered with the formation. Players are, in the main, creatures of habit. They like a system and they like to play it on a regular basis. Bruce was unclear tactically and relied on motivation alone it appears - which was also clearly failing as Martin O'Neill demonstrated. I'm certainly not putting forward any view here that Bruce and Neuhaus are similar. I'm merely pointing out the similarity of the problem both managers face(d) and where teams/managers can end up if this is not remedied quickly.


Another Bruce excuse was that the Sunderland squad was somehow injury jinxed. You could write a book with the copy that Bruce fed the local rag about Sunderland's injury problems last year. Again, I'm not painting a picture that Neuhaus is similar here. However, a couple of Union players made comments about the spate of injuries post the Berlin derby. I just hope that Union do not fall into the 'Bruce trap' and focus on the excuses/explanation rather than the solution. Football clubs have a squad for reason. Bruce had a soon-to-be International footballer sitting in the reserves. Give youth a chance and focus on the positives rather than getting your excuses in early is of paramount importance.

James McClean - from reserve player to international

The derby defeat

Union have suffered what Bruce’s Sunderland suffered last year. A narrow derby defeat. For Sunderland this sapped the fans' morale and the defeat arguably had a damaging effect on the atmosphere at the SOL. Newcastle inversely went on a good run and managed to finish in a position way beyond most sensible Geordies' (I know a couple) wildest dreams. A key difference with Union is that the fans always back the team. They were applauded off at the end of the derby defeat.

Lack of creativity

One of Sunderland's major failings, in pretty much every relegation season, has been a lack of creativity in midfield - although Bruce would laughably claim "we created enough chances to win two football games". This is one area that I see a glimmer of hope for Union. Chances are being created. It's just a case of getting confidence back and converting a few more chances. Easier said than done of course but surely Mattuschka will return to the side and be dictating play like the Tuschka of old and Nemec will be given a chance and start banging them in. This conclusion though reminds me of being a Sunderland fan. I'll leave you with the name of a fanzine that I used to read in my youth. 'It's the hope I can't stand'.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Berlin Derby - Union v Hertha

I was stuck on an aeroplane so missed the biggest game of the season. Luckily my partner in crime was there and has kindly written an excellent blog - thanks Rob, pints on me next time!

If you ask me, football fans are far too keen to panic. Whether it be a fumbling goalkeeper or a misfiring striker resulting in a poor run of form, the default setting is to panic. It may be true when looking at Union’s points tally (1 from 12) to reach for the panic button, but Monday night was about much more than simply getting three points and climbing up the table

The “Stadtmeisterschaft” really means something. I’ve never lived in a city where two teams dominate the footballing landscape. For the uninitiated, Union in the east, the other lot in the west. As an east Berliner I’ve loved going to see Union over the years, but this was going to be my first derby experience.

One of the first and most interesting things I saw was the presence of a few Hertha fans getting a pre-match beer and sausage at an ostensibly Union meet-up point. There was no trouble, no lingering mendacity, just a couple of blokes in the wrong shirt enjoying their wurstchen. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there could (or maybe even was) some trouble between rivalling ultras, but from my limited derby experience I can’t imagine that this image is replicated at similar matches.

Just under an hour to kick off and the main stand is RAMMED. I emphasise this because usually you can rock up say half an hour before kick-off and still wiggle into a fairly decent spot on or around the half way line. Instead the Unioner were there in force, flags, scarves and voices at the ready. When the Hertha players came out to warm up, the whistling was deafening. Like I said, this game really means something.

After an inspiring display of choreography from the Union Ultras, the game was finally underway and for the first quarter of an hour or so, things were looking good for Union. I’m not entirely sure if they had a detailed, tactical plan, but the high-tempo up and at ‘em approach seemed to be working. I’ve maintained that Union are one decent striker away from being a consistent top 6 finisher in Liga 2, and the inability to take (or even create) clear cut chances continues to be a problem.

Once Union had huffed and puffed for a bit, Hertha started to settle in to the game and after a slick passing move, Wagner stuck away the first goal after half an hour. The first half rather fizzled out after that, but after two minutes of the second half Union had their first clear cut chance – a header at the back post which Nemec headed wide. A chance none the less, and this gave us some hope that more was to come. Which it did.

Although not before some Unioner with whom we were standing marked us out as a couple of foreigners and asked us how we ended up at the game. In our Denglish we told them our stories and in no time at all they were educating us about Leipzig’s Liga 4 team. Unlike much of Berlin, where an English accent is an invitation to holding a conversation in English with a German in possession of an American twang, Unioner are always more than welcome to put up with a litany of grammatical mistakes.

After 69 minutes a cross found its way to the diminutive Quiring at the back post who forced the ball in with a crouching diving header. And the crowd went nuts, I mean really nuts. We were jumping and hugging our new mates from Leipzig and I can honestly say it was one of my most euphoric moments watching Union. With twenty minutes to go it was honours even and with the momentum of the goal, Union were looking good to at least make sure it was honours even.

Hope is a funny emotion; I suppose the antithesis to panic in many ways. Whilst panic induces blind pessimism, hope allows a form of unfounded optimism to wash over the soul and increases expectancy to the point where you truly believe that anything is possible. Well, for at least three minutes last night I had hope, and then after conceding a free kick following a nothing foul, Ronny drilled a low, left foot shot from around 22 yards that squirmed under keeper Haas.

And that was that really, the game ran away from Union, and despite the introduction of Silvio, we were unable to convert pressure and desire into chances or even shots on goal.

Still, come full time the Union fans were in full voice. We believe in our club and players and despite the result remain dedicated to the cause

Eisern Union!