Saturday, 6 July 2013

New Union Berlin Website!

To the few hundred people who took the time to subscribe to this blog, many thanks. My first season with an Union dauerkarte was fantastic. A group of 6 people (including myself) have put together the above site. Hope you enjoy it!

Friday, 21 June 2013

The State of the Union

Obama was in Berlin this week. You've probably worked that out unless you've been living under a rock. If you're reading this then I'm guessing you're probably not a cave dweller. He did not give a State of the Union address - he may as well have done though. His speech writers would have had an easier job in writing about the calm before the storm, which pretty summed up last nights stroll on the 'felde, than the bland message he apparently gave to 4,000 cherry picked loyalists. 

Pre-season is all about the new men. That and drinking beer and getting a closer look at the replica shirt. I'll discuss the new men after taking care of the other two topics. The beer was cheaper than at Union although a hefty €3 pfand for the Erdinger was a bit steep. I don't like the new kit. It's a bland affair and is neither modern nor retro. It's a halfway house of a kit that disappoints. In fairness, nothing would have been better than last years strip - aside from a red and white striped effort. I'll have to wait another season for that.

Of course I could wax lyrical about various passages of play and consult my notes on the first half and my half time overview of proceedings but it was a fucking friendly. Against a side that were there to give Union a work out. The opposition harried, attempted a high line but were probably unlucky to concede only 7 goals. Union were in 3rd gear. 

Martin Dausch is a name that we'll no doubt be hearing a lot this term. He's an attacking player and his interchanging with Silvio was at times impressive. However, Union often come unstuck at home when Mattuschka roves too far forward and the game becomes narrow with a 4-3-3 in action rather than the 4-4-2 that was intended. Dausch will have to be careful he does not fall into this trap although one suspects the energy that he possesses will be of huge benefit to the team dynamic. 

Quiring was hugging the right flank and the man from Marzahn did what he always does. Produced stunning effort (rescuing an over hit cross from going out for a corner just in front of the 400 or so Unioner) yet suffered momentary lapses of concentration (when he misjudged a simple ball and ran to get it back successfully from his man). He's a young bloke with fire in his belly and the scorpion (date of birth was printed in the programme - handy) was an impressive outlet in the first half. It was of no surprise that Dausch' goal came from good work on the west wing. The keeper could only parry and the debutant was able to stroke home a goal to celebrate his first outing in Union colours. All this in under 5 minutes. 

If there has ever been a more nervous debut then I've yet to witness it. Mario Eggimann, the experienced Bundesliga defender, had the first touch of a gigantic land mammal. He proceeded to pass the ball between his feet as if it were a hot potato just grilled at the ground. Perhaps he was quite literally just finding his feet after a short summer or else the surface was unkind to him. He's a big lad but I would not be expecting raking 40 yard balls out of defence from him - possibly a good thing anyway. He became much more comfortable as the game progressed and was always looking for the short ball. He was rarely tested defensively and the freak goal (it was drilled in from an acute angle and seem to take Haas by surprise as he deflected it off the post and into his own goal) had nothing to do with him so although he'll be disappointed his defence did not keep a clean sheet, he'll no doubt of enjoyed getting his first game out of the way.

There were over 8,000 police in the city centre on Wednesday for the visit of the American President. Apologies for all the 'key words' - just hoping the NSA pick up on this piece as could do with the extra readership! Union were bombing forward launching wave after wave of attack and made it 3-1 just after the half hour mark with Silvio adding to Terodde's earlier effort. I nearly missed the goal as about 20 coppers went marching by in full kit. Must have been hot but probably a good assignment. Why on earth you need that many police (around 50 in total) is beyond me. I resisted the temptation of taking a photograph of the fat policeman eating a burger with gusto in his van. It's rumoured that Joe Kinnear will sign 'Gusto' next week. 

Damir Kreilach was the third debutant and was operating in the centre of midfield. He was largely anonymous which as a defensive midfielder is a good thing. He has a neat touch and plays it simple and was like the fat plod - always hungry - but for the ball rather than greasy meat. Let's hope this occurs at the Alte Försterei as Union try to break down another side coming to sneak a 1-0. 

So, what is the state of the Union? I'd say there were a lot of positives judging by this work out. Clearly Martin Dausch will add an attacking option. He'll keep Mattuschka on his toes. The Union stalwart bagged a couple. A stunning 30 yard free-kick, that he placed with power rising high over the wall and nestling in the top corner, was the pick of the 7 goals. His penalty was put away with ease as he wrong footed for the keeper. 

With rumours of more additions to the squad this season should be an interesting one. The big challenge for Uwe Neuhaus will be finding a way to accommodate so many attack minded players. The 'we'll score one more than you' style worked at home last year but this mentality was non-existent on the road. Pfertzel and Parensen at full back won't work against better opposition. One wonders if Union are chasing the right targets or with the potential signing of Brandy, simply taking advantage of Duisburg's misfortune and ushering Silvio out of the door. He only has one year left to run on his current deal. It's unlikely that it will be renewed next year.

Whatever happens on the pitch the Unioner will continue to follow their side. The few hundred that made the trip across the city for the very enjoyable opening friendly will have had to get home quickly if they were to have avoided last night's storm. I was in 7th heaven as I jumped in a taxi - just as the Unioner will be if Neuhaus' tactics can be repeated on the opening day for real.

FT.  FC Viktoria 1889 Berlin 1:7 FC Union Berlin 

First half: Haas – Pfertzel, Eggimann, Schönheim, Parensen – Kreilach – Quiring, Dausch – Zejnullahu -  Silvio, Terodde

Second half: Glinker – Kopplin, Puncec, Stuff, Kohlmann – Koch – Köhler, Razeek – Mattuschka - Nemec, Skrzybsk

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Mein Erstes Mal / My First Time

It’s two weeks now since the last game of the league season at the Alte Försterei. Enough time having passed for some reflections on that game, and some of the contrasts between the British and German experience of football. As UnionBerlinMan has chronicled, a season that at times threatened the glimpse of play off glory stuttered to a halt through March and April, and as Duisburg arrived on the banks of the Spree, the decent and boisterous crowd seemed prepared for an enjoyable but not over-taxing kick around in the sun.
The Duisburg faithful – sporting blue and white inflatables that made them look like Smurfs – were not the only exotic visitors to Köpenick that weekend, however.
A small delegation of British supporters, anxious to rediscover the joys of standing, enjoying a social ale, and a refreshingly Robbie Savage-free match day experience, had been wooed by the Wilson’s blog posts – and the promise of disarmingly cheap beer – to understand and digest the Union match day experience.
We Are Back For Attack
Without being over-analytical, and also without particularly having consulted the others, save for a few hours of rambling post match banter in the bars of Neukölln, after a couple of weeks reflection, I thought I’d offer some ideas of what felt familiar and what was different.
In many ways, the match day experience itself was very familiar. Even for two of our party who are long term and ‘proper’ fans of the two of the English league’s big boys (The Guv is a west London Chelsea, Geoff a United supporter from Timperley) the sight of thousands of people cramming into boozers, decked out in replica kits, the security searches at the gates and necking of beers on the train, were all pretty par for the course.
And the ground itself – given that Union are second tier – was not that different from some traditional British grounds. Two of our number – the Hatton brothers – are born and bred Fulham fans, and the Cottage with its wooden stands and steep home and away ends is perhaps the closest of any major English grounds to the Alte Försterei (of course with the major difference being the seats – or lack of them in Berlin).  But my memories of watching Sunderland at Barnsley, Burnley, and other lower tier grounds, where until recently at least you could stand where you want, were very much in line with the Union set up.  Geoff, who is increasingly following Altrincham when he can, would probably felt the most familiar with the idea of 90 minutes on concrete steps, surrounded by moustachioed, well rounded men. Though I think the terraces at Alty are a little more sparsely populated.
So lots of things to make us feel at home. And even the stuff that was different was different in a quirky way. We could see why Wilson, Jon Darch (he of Safe Standing fame, no less) and the other expats we met had really taken the place to their hearts.
QPR Mike, a despondent season ticket holder if ever there was one, recounted the tale of some poor Norwegian sap, over at Loftus Road for a taste of the “EPL”, being warned by a rotund female steward for having the temerity to sip on a warm plastic bottle of Carlsberg within sight of the pitch. Watching Rangers this season would have driven anyone to drink, presumably, but Mike and the rest of us were relieved – and delighted – to be able to tuck into a few lagers while watching the match.  A helpful chap with a keg on his back even brought it right to us (NB it is possible there will be Germans reading this who are thinking “what is so radical about allowing grown-ups to drink a beer?”. Enough said).
And of course the atmosphere, and the fans – though similar, actually felt really different. Like Wilson, I’ve been following Sunderland for many years in the UK. Often, parts of the experience – while bonding and uplifting in many ways – has left me despondent about people. The negativity, refusal to respect other opinions and the frankly unimagintative nature of much of the singing (“he scores when he wants...” ; “Your support is f**king shit” etc dragged out ad nauseum by fans of all teams) felt in stark contrast to the actions and passions of the Union fans. The genuine warmth with which fans greeted the “out of contract” players in their pre-match lap of honour, which was reciprocated by the players themselves, was a superb touch. And the hearty, positive and robust singing throughout the game (OK my German is scheisse, so they COULD have been singing “Union till I die...”) really did make the hairs stand on end – even for a neutral with no interest in the result, and even less knowledge of the players.
Some of the lads and Union's Mascot
Pretty much the same group of us had – in 2011- been to Hamburg to watch St Pauli v Wolfsburg (1-1 draw) and before that to FC Bayern v 1.FC Koln (2-2 draw). So it was nice to see a positive result this time. But our overall impression of German football support, and in particular the way the FC Union fans and club conduct themselves, was incredibly positive.
Keep the red flag flying high
Post match, of course, the rituals were mostly the same – copious ales, amusing banter (to us anyway), a “sing-off” with some random St Pauli fans – our homages to Owen Hargreaves, Mark Schwarzer, Fitz Hall and Anthony le Tallec bamboozled them – and of course a late night kebab. I’d definitely recommend a visit, and we shall certainly return. Thanks Wilson, Jon, US Matt, and of course all the Union Fans we met and who made us feel very welcome. If any  of you are ever in the UK get in touch and we’ll return the hospitality.

As a footnote, toward the end of the Duisburg game, a Union supporter, impressed at our interest in his club, gave me his scarf as a reminder of the occasion. It was a great gesture. The following week, watching Sunderland lose to a late Bale goal at Spurs, I happened to be sitting next to young German lads who’d bought tickets for the game on the internet, not realising they’d be in the middle of 2000 heavy drinking and boisterous mackems. They were a bit perplexed, but seemed to be enjoying themselves, even though they had no idea about Sunderland or even where it was. I told them of our trip to the Alte Försterei and they were impressed, and complementary about the club (even though they themselves were Bayern Fans). But given the generosity of the Berliners, I felt I should complete the exchange – sort of – so gave one of them my SAFC London Branch badge, which he sported with pride for the rest of the match. I still think he was pleased when the final whistle blew.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The last day of the season - Bochum v Union

On occasion, to understand the present, you must revisit the past. To understand today's clash against Bochum I must first recount 'Spieltag 1' against Kaiserslautern. From the 'diary'...

Spieltag 1

1. FC Kaiserslautern v 1. FC Union Berlin

Sky TV had decided to televise Union’s opening fixture - on a Monday night. It must be a 1500km round-trip I thought (I was only about 100km off). North-east v south-west. What a distance to travel. Last year Kaiserslautern were in the top flight. A huge test for Union. Whilst Germany does not quite shut down in the manner of France or Spain in August, it’s a quiet time of year for the worker. Would there be a 'factory fortnight' where factories shut down as they did in the north-east of England? Would the Unioner be on holiday? Would the match being on TV reduce the away attendance? I had nobody to ask. I’d have to watch and try and discover how many fans had made the trip and decipher the German commentator.

A blunt summary of the first half would be that it was terrible. Goalless at half-time. I sat on my sofa in Neukölln fairly happy with 0-0. I was surprised to see Union’s club captain on the bench. I’d written rave reviews on my blog about Mattuschka. Shit, is he on his way out I thought? Whilst this was my first year with a season ticket I’d watched Union since I arrived in Berlin in the summer of 2010. Mattuschka was the most likely to cause the opposition problems. He was only just over 30 - what was going on? Again, I had nobody to ask. My German was OK but I’d not discovered message boards at this stage and anyway, the ‘eisern virus’ had not caught hold of me at this stage. Not to the extent that I’d later find myself scratching around the club website trying to read as much history about the club as was possible. If I put as much effort into learning the language as I did with Union I’d be fluent. Understanding Union and learning German went hand in hand I always told myself as I wasted more hours searching for news about the club I was becoming addicted to.

Back on the sofa I was sat with my Ringtons tea - flown in via a parcel from my Dad - and was hoping for a point. I’d managed to understand that there were over 30,000 fans in the stadium although the commentator was too quick and I did not catch the exact figure. Fucking German numbers, everything’s backwards - my excuse. With Mattuschka ‘benched’ the midfield included a player I’d rarely seen - Tijani Belaid. The youngster appeared a cut above the rest in the second half which was less than 10 minutes old when Union were 2-0 up. This was brilliant. The season was going to get off to a flyer - momentum is key I told myself. It was just a shame I had nobody to watch the game with. I’d hoped that Union would help ingratiate myself into the city and that I’d meet more Germans. II was delighted but the euphoria was tinged with that lonely feeling that only true football fans will appreciate. Sitting on your own watching your team winning with nobody to celebrate with. I explained to my girlfriend that Union were two up. She humoured me.

As a Sunderland fan I’d seen countless promotions and relegations. I had actually lost count and I was only in my early thirties. Every season we seemed to have something to play for on the last day of the season. However, even if the last day had been spent narrowly avoiding relegation there was almost an optimism. Things would be different. Here Union were two goals to the good against decent opposition and I started to feel optimistic. What a time to start writing about the club. Union were more similar to Sunderland than I thought. They conspired to squander the lead and then the sucker punch - Kaiserslautern scored in the 86th minute to make it 3-2 to the home side. Always the way, I consoled myself. I’d hoped for a draw. That would have only been one point so a defeat is not that bad.

‘Fucking get in’, I screamed. Luisa just looked up and smiled. She was now used to my outbursts at a screen that could not hear me. Nobody who cared about the result could hear me. I did not care though. We’d sneaked a draw - 3-3. It felt like a win. That’s how it starts. They reel you in, they wow you, they disappoint you and in the end everything is as it was. The same. I was getting those same feelings for Union that I got with Sunderland. I just had nobody to share them with apart from Rob who I had bought my season ticket with. I’d said to Rob that as long as we went to about 10 games the ticket would be worth it. I was beginning to realise that I would not want to miss a game. I had to find more people like me.

Ergebnis: 1. FC Kaiserslautern 3:3 1. FC Union Berlin

Date: Friday 3rd August 2012

That was my personal account of the first day of the season and for the last day of the season I'll be watching the game in Zur Traube - or as I call it, The Union Kneiper. I've only been a handful of times but already I'm on first name terms with the staff and a few of the locals. I've written over 60,000 words about Union this season. Some of it published, some of it saved for my book that I'll write one day about the club. I've decided I'll keep a few years worth of diaries and write the book when 'something' happens. The blog was designed as a way to chart my first year with a season ticket. Keep an eye on for the Union news in English and a big announcement in early July...

Oh and if you were wondering - over the course of the season I have found there are plenty more people like me!


Thursday, 9 May 2013

Preview for Minton & Co - 1. FC Union Berlin v MSV Duisburg

A short and self-indulgent blog post previewing the last home game of the season for my good mate Minton and his gang of reprobates. 

1. FC Union Berlin host MSV Duisburg on Sunday afternoon in their last home game of the season. In the history books the season will go down as one where Union regressed, albeit marginally. In 2011/2 Union finished in 7th place and amassed 50 points. Even with back to back victories in their final two games they can't surpass this total. They can finish one place higher should 1860 slip up. Unlikely. Last weeks 3-0 away defeat came as no surprise as Union's miserable away form continued - they are yet to beat the Bavarians in ten attempts. 

The Home End

Duisburg sit one place behind Union and 3 points adrift of the Berliners. Whilst it's a dead rubber, with neither team having anything to play for, the game promises goals as jointly the clubs have shipped over 90 goals. If there is a repeat of the Union v Rostock match, which ended 5-4 at the end of last term, the leaky defences could breach the hundred mark. 

The form guide would suggest a score draw. The Alte Försterei has been a happy hunting ground for Duisburg though, as they have won twice in the capital. One of Union's two away victories in the league came against Duisburg. Could they be the first team that Union do the double over? I'd back Union to win 2-1 or go draw HT and home win FT.

The old grill walker - now you get your sausages from the Kiosk

Daniel Göhlert and Christoph Menz will be bidding farewell to the Union fans and will no doubt receive a warm send off from the supporters. I'd like to see Terodde and Nemec up front reeking havoc. Whilst it is good to give youth a chance I'd rather see the young striker Skrzybski on the bench and given a run out for 30 minutes. He was withdrawn just after the hour mark in the reserve fixture on Wednesday evening. You'd assume, to save his legs for Sunday. 

For those fortunate enough to be going to the game you'll be treated to some Clash covers (amongst others) by the band, 'Kiez Germs' after the game. The team will stick around after the match and sign autographs. It promises to be a sunny day in Köpenick on Sunday - let's hope for a performance that mirrors the support from the Unioner this year!

Und Niemals Vergessen...Eisern Union!!!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Union's mid-season promise extinguished

Union had a dreadful start to the season; if Neuhaus' men don't thump Regensburg on Friday evening at home, they risk creating a neat narrative for sports journalists. A season of promise decimated by two book-ends of worthless point gathering. The two draws against Dresden and Paderborn have been book-ended themselves by two pastings on the road. Both Frankfurt and Aalen put three past Union without reply. Union were dispatched far too easily and the result on the message boards has been the rumbling of discontent. Will we take this form into next season some Unioner are wondering?

Whilst it is difficult to second-guess 'Eisern' in the transfer market, they clearly won't be lavishing large sums on new players. Acquisitions will be frugal and loan signings key. Gallegos netted two for the reserves during the week. That is possibly more his level than with a team challenging for the top end of Liga 2. Union will be hoping that if they do manage to sign a decent player on loan they see more of him than they have of the injury ravaged Chilean. 

To defend Union's start to the campaign is easy. They were beaten by Hertha and Braunschweig - the top 2 - and managed a point at Kaiserslautern who will finish 3rd and were playing in the top tier the previous season. In the same way Union are unable to defend away from the Alte Försterei, it is difficult to defend an away record that has yielded a feeble 2 points from 18. The fact one of those points was at the home of the Champions is some consolation; it also beggars the question, why can't Union find that form more often? 

There is the theory that Union have found their level as a mid-ranking Bundesliga 2 side. No shame in that. The history books tell us that is what Union were striving for. Many will tell you they'd rather Union continue in the current division. That's a lovely concept. A team that has a destiny of being placed between 6th and 10th every season. They have the odd cup run, flirt with a play off spot but ultimately the fans can go every week safe in the knowledge that nothing will change. The awaydays change as the top tier spit out the dross each season. The home form is a constant. The away form likewise as Union continue to rely on the atmosphere the Alte Försterei magically generates.

Football does not always go according to plan though. What is the plan anyway? To become less reliant on the club captain Torsten Mattuschka must clearly be at the forefront of Neuhaus' mind. How do you do this though? When Mattuschka is on form Union can often appear unstoppable at home. His touch, vision and dead ball skills are second to none. However, progress is paramount. One could argue that to build a team around one man is not to build a team at all. A tautology if ever there was one. 

Should Union fear next season or write the end of the campaign off as simply players with an eye and a half on the summer holidays and not having to run up and down the concrete steps at the ground during training? The mid-season effort was supreme. Union lost only 1 game in 13 between the end of September when they beat Köln to early December when they rightly collected all 3 points against Kaiserslautern. 7 wins and 5 draws meant that the festive optimism reverberating around the Weihnachtssingen was not simply fueled by the drink. It was fueled by facts that not even a 4:3 reverse against Braunschweig could dampen. 

The run was important though as Union's momentum slowly took them away from the relegation scrap and eased the pressure on the players. Nemec in particular seemed to benefit as Union's points tally increased. The effort that was expended may have been too much for Union to hope to maintain throughout the later stages of the season. Recently the team as a unit have lacked the bite that Suarez showed with his feet and mouth today. Perhaps a direct effect of the mid-season efforts. 

Union welcome Regenburg to Köpenick on Friday and will be expecting to add to the goals for column against a side who leak on average almost 2 goals per game. Perhaps with only two home games left, the Friday night fever restored with the sale of alcoholic beer the team will give the fans something to shout about. The Dresden atmosphere has been much discussed. A full-house means more 'part-timers' so lets blame them. I reckon a few beers, an early goal and another 3 points will have everyone looking at the positives again. 

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Not a match report - Union 0:0 Dresden


I had an inkling I'd not write a match report about the Union v Dresden match on Friday evening. Perhaps it was knowing that I had an epic Berlin weekend ahead; the weather was looking decent and it was the usual 'gang of three' at the Försterei as we sat outside Abseitsfalle supping our Berliner Pilsner. Never has a €2-50 beer tasted so good. 

Rob, Matt and I had convened, as ever, at Ostkreux mid-afternoon. The joys of freelancing. We were knights without masters. Just without a lance - something the policeman in Newcastle probably wished he'd had! We were not looking for any trouble and there was far too many police around to risk it. Perhaps they should brief the police better when they drop them in Köpenick though. It's best to at least know the team colours the fans are wearing. 

After our leisurely beverages in the 'Offside Trap' bar we headed towards the ground. The sun had come out, we fancied a decent spot on the terraces and we knew we'd get a drink inside anyway. €1 per beer more expensive but well worth it. Unless the match is deemed a 'security risk' and the sale of alcoholic beer is banned. Shite. Oh well, we soon discovered that Glühwein still had alcohol in it. Just what you want on a balmy Spring evening. 

I used to work with Rob in London and it safe to say that football has always united us. We've played in the same (pretty average) team and we now go to Union with our dauerkarte's. I met Matt when another mate Rob was visiting Berlin. We got chatting at the train station after the Köln game and my one season blog did not frighten him off and we've slowly developed a friendship aided and abetted by Union - and Eddie Izzard last week. But chiefly Union. That's what blokes do. They go to football as a way to socialise. Girls do it as well. Just blokes do it more.

Why all the stuff about Union and my two mates? I'm not entirely sure but I think it is two fold. I'm not in the business of offending people (if I was I'd have recounted our take on Mormons) so don't take this the wrong way if we've met or we meet in the future. It's just football becomes ritualistic quite quickly. 

Ostkreuz pre-match. Abseitsfalle for a drink. Union Tanke for a drink when the weather is awesome. You get into a pattern of behaviour astonishingly rapidly. The football at Union is often criticised as being secondary in importance to the fans after the atmosphere. I'd go a step further. The atmosphere is a by-product, and thus also secondary to a bunch of people meeting up with their mates. Whether English, German, American, male or female. It's not about the result, it's not just about the atmosphere and it is certainly not about success. 

I'm fortunate to come from a one club town. It was a town when I grew up and Sunderland's city status was conferred upon it. It has no cathedral. The football club is its Mecca I've always thought anyway. Whilst Union are a capital side the club does not have the look, feel or style of a team from the capital. Boundary changes welcomed in Köpenick as part of Berlin for starters. Adding to this feeling - for me as an Englishman - is that Germany is not at all 'capital-centric' due to many factors. All fairly self-evident if you open a history book. The Alte Försterei is situated on the edge of the forest and encapsulates the community feeling with Union's ticket office and press team still being housed in the Old Forester's house. I'm as at home at Union with my mates as I was at Sunderland with my mates. One teams results always has and always will mean a whole lot more to me. I can say that after a 3-0 derby win on enemy territory.

The Gegengerade bathed in Sunshine

As we strolled along the back of the gegengerade with our strange tasting beer in hands we ruminated on how funny it was that we were now able to recognise the regulars. It was the 15th home game of the season and we looked out for Chris and his mates from Marzahn. Rob chatted away as we stood in the dazzling sun with well over an hour to go before kick off.  Later we finally saw Simon and managed to catch up with him during the second half. Everyone has their ritual at Union. Felix was down below us photographing the fans - and a bit of the match. We were looking forward to the game, the atmosphere, but above all just being at the match together and sharing drinks, sausages and jokes. I also had my first pretzel at Union. I strongly suggest trying a Käse covered beast. Tremendous. Must taste even better with a beer.

The Match

The game finished 0-0. Turgid. Dull. I read a few adjectives on Twitter. I've seen worse games. I'm not sure if I have seen worse at Union. Dresden came to not get beat. It's probably what the Newcastle v Sunderland game would have been like if Martin O'Neill had not been dismissed by the brave Sunderland Chairman, Ellis Short. A defensive one up top from Dynamo stifled the home side. 

Classic Union choreography


Anyway, this is no match report but it is my final blog post after a home game. I'm at a wedding for Union's penultimate home game so Rob will man the fort. The last game of the season will see a guest post from another good friend as he tastes Union for the first time. The blog and twitter moniker were designed to be a 'one season only' affair. I've made no firm decision on the @UnionBerlinMan account after bumping in to a couple of people on Saturday and Sunday that I was connected to on Twitter. I quite like the name and don't think I have the energy for another blog about a different subject matter - the old kneiper's of Neukölln do need to be checked out and what better excuse! In the name of research. A few match reports for the new Union in Englisch website perhaps? That will be with you in the summer. We'll keep you all posted of course. 

The evening ended via one of Friedrichshain's best pizza restaurants and a Späti. Whilst it was not classic Union on a Friday night we all kept up our side of the ritual. Saturday morning was a struggle. In my defence I was still drinking an Irish coffee in Mitte just after noon the next day. Union surrendered their 5 home Friday night games played, five won record. We cemented our friendship the way blokes so often do. 

I can only apologise for the lack of football involved in this blog post. I could have never predicted what my first season at Union would entail. It's been about the people. My mates Rob and Matt. Everyone else I have met at Union. People who have sent nice messages via social media - from America, Canada, Finland and of course the UK. All of these components have added up to create a story I'd never have envisaged. Certainly not when walking out of a Neukölln bar and being asked if I was the Union Berlin man! The blog post is sounding like the season is over. Well, after Union's 1 point from 6 away from home and the subsequent draw against Dresden it genuinely is in terms of relegation or promotion. It's fitting though for this narrative.

Union is about more than the result. Union is bigger than Köpenick. It's bigger than Berlin. The spirit of Union lives inside every Unioner. That is what a club is. A combination of people, friendships and memories. From those no longer with us - many asked for their ashes to be scattered at Roker Park and I can only guess this happens at Union - to those who are the current day spine of the support. 

A club may be defined by statisticians by the results. By the money men by the balance sheet. For me it is the people. Managers and players are rightly part of the history and are a fabric that weaves between the fans. The fans are always the strongest though. They invest the most in their club. Their time; often at vast expense in relation to income. I'll always go to Union as long as live in Berlin. I'll always be a Sunderland and Union fan for as long as I live. Thanks for a great season everyone. Einmal Unioner, Immer Unioner!
As ever, pictures are from Groundhopping Etc. A big thank you to Felix for the season's images. Like his page to make sure you don't miss any Union snaps.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Iron Man: Uwe Neuhaus is not for turning

Firstly an apology to all Union fans. I'm very sorry that the 'Iron Lady' nickname for Maggie Thatcher ever came about. It's a slight on the club, the fans and above all the metal substance that we see on the Periodic table as Fe.  Two years ago Dirk Zingler (Union President) had to answer to media mutterings about his links to the Stasi. Recently, my hometown club Sunderland AFC appointed Paulo Do Canio and were lambasted by a man who many think is a war criminal and a newspaper that hacked the nation. Pretty much. Who said football and politics don't intermingle?  

'Spitting Image' of the 'Iron Lady'
Neuhaus has been relentless in pursuing his 4-4-2 approach this term, both home and away, no matter the result or consequences. The Iron Man of Union Berlin is certainly not for turning. He may have dropped his shoulder at the start of the campaign, toyed with one up front but he's boldly kept faith with Terodde and Nemec leading the Union attack. Why is this? It's probably one of the most interesting tactical questions of Union's season. That and why does does Ozbek wear his collar up, Neuhaus never wear a suit and Zoundi get such a great reaction from the Gegengerade. I think he just has one of those names to be honest.

The Iron Man

There are a number of reasons. Firstly, how else do you play so narrow yet allow space for Mattuschka to shine and influence? Nemec, in particular, plays as what Big Ron would have called, as an 'auxiliary winger' - I do miss racist Ron and his non-racist commentary. Nemec pulls players out of position and this opens up the centre for 'Tusche to exploit. The advantage of this approach is that often a full-back and centre half are torn between who marks the big Slovak. On occasion Nemec drifts wide and curls in a cross-cum-shot - see Last Sunday. 

Secondly, Nemec and Terodde are building up an understanding. If you watched the last two away games you may have thought they were two strangers who had met once and decided they did not like each other. If you've been at the Alte Försterei all season you'd have witnessed a blossoming footballing front-two romance. Nemec was a little frigid at first but when he found his feet, this combined with Terodde hitting a purple patch. Clearly, with time spent on the training pitch, the two gradually developed an understanding. Goals followed as a Berlin Spring follows Winter. Yes, it was a bit slow but worth the wait.   

Thirdly, it is a matter of personnel. The Union midfield is made up of workers. They've not chipped in with their fair share of goals this campaign. If we remove Mattuschka from the equation the rest of the team have been hugely disappointing this season. Especially in light of going away to Kaiserslautern on the opening day and scoring three goals; you'll recall it was Parensen, Zoundi and Pfertzel that netted that day. Neuhaus - his gamble of dropping Mattuschka nearly paying dividends - was a man caught at the poker table with a hand that nearly worked. His problem was he wanted to keep playing the same hand. With Union winless in four, it took the derby against Hertha for Neuhaus to go for 4-4-2. After that he was a gambler fixated on the steady hand. Keep playing, stay at the table and eventually a pair will flush out those bluffing. His pair have done enough. Not enough for promotion but perhaps enough to better last season's 7th place finish.

Neuhaus has known no other way this season than 4-4-2 if he wants to win games. He decided against going one up front against Frankfurt and Union were resoundly dispatched 3-0. Another manager may have opted to pack the midfield and hope that the extra man aids the defensive unit. No tinkering with the defence this year has made a blind bit of difference. Stuff out, Stuff in. The defence looks shaky, devoid of confidence and one pass away from an error. Perhaps Neuhaus knows that attack really is the best form of defence and that is why Union have such an enviable home record and his able to rule Eisern with an iron fist. Let's hope he continues the good work. 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Mein Erstes Mal / My First Time

The third installment of the Mein Erstes Mal / My First Time series. This article will feature on the new website but if you'd like to share your first time at Union via this blog then please get in touch. 

“The tears of Emil Kremenliev”

1. FC Union Berlin vs. Hannover 96 1:1 (0:0), att. 9,072, July 30, 2001

"You have to come to Union", Martin said, and at first I didn't think much of it. The first football games I had seen live were in the Olympiastadion in the late 1990s: Hertha played a very successful season; it was the only time they ever qualified for Champions League. I went along with my high-school friends, but we didn’t really get hooked.

I got into football late to begin with. Oliver Bierhoff’s golden goal in the Euro finals in 1996 sparked my interest and it was all downhill from there. I gorged on the vast array of statistics the sport offered and took a general interest in how the other Berlin teams were doing. Tennis Borussia played in second league, backed by a sleazy investor, convinced they’d end up in Champions League. That bubble burst quickly. Union were also in the headlines: as a third league team, they had a fantastic cup run with thrilling matches that propelled them all the way to the final. I did not see any of that in the stadium, though. I merely observed those teams from a distance.

"You have to come to Union!" When Union clinched promotion to second league during the same year they got to the cup final, and I had moved to a place close to my university that also happened to be two miles away from the Alte Försterei, I finally heeded Martin's call. My first Union match was their first-ever appearance in 2. Bundesliga, on July 30, 2001. It was a hot Monday night, I wore shorts and the mild evening breeze wafted through the unroofed terraces. I rocked back and forth on the crumbling steps as I waited for the game to start. I was able to satisfy my hunger for stadium sausage without even leaving my spot, thanks to the “Grillwalkers”, powerful half-man, half-grill cyborgs who roamed the stands plying their wares. If there is anything I miss about the “old” Union, it is these fellows.

9,072 people showed up that night, which was about the average home attendance for the season. Union played Hannover 96, who were the odds-on favorites to win the league (which they easily did in the end). They would not have an easy start into the season, though: Union fought and played well, motivated by a vivacious crowd.

I recognized some familiar melodies from my time at Hertha, but there were also several unique Union chants, like a call-and-response of “Eisern” and “Union”, bounced off the Waldseite (behind the goal) and the Gegengerade (opposite of the main stand). Songs that you just had to sing along to, some even told you to: “1. FC Union Berlin – und alle!” (“everybody!”). There was also a unique way to celebrate goals, though I had to wait 76 minutes to hear it, after Kostadin Vidolov entered the box from the right wing and gracefully curved the ball around the keeper into the far corner.

After you shout the player’s name, the stadium announcer says: “Und niemals vergessen…” (“never forget”) and the crowd roars back: “Eisern Union!” three times. That night I would have loved to shout it more often, but Vidolov (who was the Torsten Mattuschka of the time) only hit the crossbar with a cracking free-kick. When one of Hannover’s men was sent off with a red card in minute 81, everything pointed towards a big surprise. But only sixty seconds later, the ball crossed the Union goal line. The tabloid headlines next day would scream “The tears of Emil Kremenliev” – the unlucky Union defender who accidentally headed a rather harmless high cross into his own net.

It was a bit disappointing, as I felt Union had deserved to win. But it was not disheartening. People in the stands were still in good spirits. I was filled with a feeling of comfort and community that never, ever left me. It was probably just as well that they didn’t win, I got to experience early on that winning is not necessarily what Union is about. A lot of Union fans are in it out of conviction, no matter how the team plays. Many of them are also strong advocates for the team, telling their friends and families about the good time they had at the Alte Försterei. Today, I am proud to count myself among their ranks. And I will tell you what Martin once told me all those years ago: "You have to come to Union!"

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The chase for 3rd place

Win a game at home and Union find themselves in the media glare as play-off contenders. Lose a match away and their mental strength is questioned when away from the Alte Försterei. The players know their away form has not been good enough. Why else moot paying for travel to loyal supporters for the forthcoming long-distance away games?

A wise man told me you can prove anything with stats. Union are therefore the 5th best team in the league.

A blog I read recently highlighted the fact the players are not machines - very true. At only the very highest level can players perform consistently.  I'd argue that the truth about Union's season lies not in home or away form, nor in their defensive frailties but in their squad size. Union are a team punching beyond individual weight. Collectively Union - players, manager, scouts, backroom staff, fans, stadium - form a colossus that no team in the league can rival. Union's 'us against them' mentality turns what should be guaranteed losses into points. They've taken 4 points from Kaiserslautern. The retort - we'll buy one of your best players. They've traded 3 points a piece with Köln, who are genuine play-off contenders after a slow start this term. They went to rivals Hertha and were unlucky not to take all 3 points back to East Berlin.  

The Union squad has been assembled, not on a shoe string budget, but on a thread, dangling from the coat tails of the clubs that have paid them handsomely for the likes of Ede, and to a much lesser extent in terms of revenue, Markus Karl. Every club below FC Hollywood is a selling club in Germany. It's just to what extent they are a selling club. Union, mindful of not sliding into financial ruin once more, are speedy to sell and must pontificate before making a signing. Many of these involving no transfer fee. 

What do Union look for in a new signing?  In the youthful Nemec they looked for raw talent and a player that would strive to reach the 'next level' whether that be with Union or another club. He's slowly found form this season. Time, good coaching and now goals have put him on the brink of the Slovakian international squad. Judging by his early displays for Union, few would have predicted such a rise. Whilst the rise has not been meteoric, he's grown in strength and his positional play has improved. He also looks confident. Whether from 25 yards out against Braunschweig or 6 yards out against Pauli. His header at the Olympiastadion perhaps the pick of the bunch. Exquisite positioning, brute strength and fillip of good fortune at Mattuschka's beautifully angled cross. He's a signifier of Union's intentions and the club's potential. If they can cling on to such players whilst balancing the books then they can be expected to start strongly next season. They'll move from rank outsider to a bookies favourite for a top 3 finish. Coping with the expectation will be a new experience.

I've dreamed of Union putting a late run together and finishing third. I've also studied the run-in for the teams in and around Union. However, it's Kaiserslautern who the chasing pack must catch. The match against Köln will go a long way to deciding who gets the chance to play for a place in the top flight. After that game Kaiserslautern have a relatively easy run of games. Conversely, Union face tricky away games and only three more home games. The weight of those last eight fixtures precludes Union from entering the race for third - this year. Five away games and three at home would suggest making up the 6 point gap is a bridge too far.  

A stronger start to next season, a couple of extra signings, key men staying free from injury and the club have a solid platform to challenge next year. As ever, football is about momentum, hard work and that element that nobody can predict, luck. I've always thought you make your own luck. Union have the necessary ingredients. Let's hope it's a promotion cake we're all scoffing in 2014! 

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Mein Erstes Mal / My First Time

The second installment of the Mein Erstes Mal / My First Time series. This article will feature on the new website but if you'd like to share your first time at Union via this blog then please get in touch. 

By Tim Hobden

Forgive me for breaking with convention, but my love affair with 1.Fc Union wasn’t forged by the cracking atmosphere.  Nor was I wooed by the defiant fan culture.  Shockingly, it was the team, the players, and one game in October 2008, which means I now nervously wait for Tweet updates from the Alte Försterei.

It was a standard lads’ weekend away. I’d managed to lure a small band of mates away from the confines of an Irish bar – don’t ask me which one – into the drizzly Prenzlauer Berg afternoon.

I didn’t intend spending four hours mainlining Berliner Pils while gawping at Soccer Saturday, as it excitedly told me Rotherham were drawing nil-nil with Macclesfield.  Nor did I want to don a sweaty helmet and put my dignity at risk on a city Segway tour, while an American tourist repeatedly shouted: “So, where’s Hitler’s bunker?”

I wanted earthy city culture. Not post-modern attempts at art in a derelict warehouse. I wanted proper sights and sounds. And, I won’t lie, a decent bratwurst.  A simple scan of the interweb informed me of a third division tie between FC Union and SC Paderborn. That’ll do.  A rallying clap of the hands gathered two semi-enthusiastic pals and one who clearly misheard the activity on offer, while four still found Jeff Stelling more appealing.

I strode purposefully towards the U-bahn with a finger stuck to the Kopenick stop on the map and my less than merry band in tow.  The thongs of red bobble hats, scarf skirts and sleeveless denim jackets bubbling out of the station suggested we were headed in the wrong direction.

On the assumption they weren’t all bound for a 40th birthday party where the theme was ‘random third division football club’, we about-turned and followed.  Unfortunately, my first experience of Union was at the less-than-grey Jahn Sportpark. A Soviet-style complex with huge floodlight pylons arching over the oval.

Cordons of disinterested police stood stony faced as we purchased bottles of one Euro beer from vendors lent over shopping trolleys… we all wondered how Rotherham were getting on.
For the record, I got my sausage (two). And we filed into a block behind the goal. Fans packed into one side, the rest of the stadium was sparsely populated at best.  It was nice to see a series of vehicles parked on the running track in a flashback to a 1980s Stamford Bridge.

Meanwhile, Paderborn fans obviously hadn’t got the email and almost universally forgotten to turn up, despite the fact they topped the league and were facing the second placed team.
As initial impressions go, it was less than inspiring. I was about to be proven wrong.

A Kop-style display of unfurled scarves and a grumbly choir shouted out the Eisern anthem. The chants began in earnest and we would get a taste of Union fans in full flow.

It was, however, all about the game. To be as brief as possible, Union were two nil down and had a man sent off. They looked dead and buried.  The ten men were beleaguered with a little over 20 minutes left and we started mulling drinking holes to head to.  But, in a script Roy of the Rovers writers would declare too fanciful (and, yes, they would use that word), Union turned the game on its head in spectacular fashion.  Three goals, including a winner at the death, fired the team to the top of the league, leapfrogging Paderborn in the process.

A more spirited comeback I don't remember seeing and haven’t seen since – especially with top spot at stake.  And that was it. I was hooked… all over 20 minutes of football.

By the time we reached the bar, the late afternoon Premiership match was about to kick-off. We couldn’t have cared less.  Talk was about a stunning football match, warming shots of Jaegermeister to toast each ripple of the net – and, where the hell is Paderborn?

We had been collared by a supporter in the stadium who told us all about the fans redeveloping the ground, the rivalry with Dynamo etc. Yes, it all added spice.  But, in truth, it didn't need tarting up. This was my new team… and to think Soccer Saturday almost got in the way.

Here is a decent snapshot of the afternoon – listen to the cameraman is the video (for some reason I am picturing a man with a huge beard).

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Union narrowly edge 'Kult-duell' as they hit 4 past Pauli

It was billed as a 'cult duel' by portions of the Berlin media and on paper it had the makings of a classic. The game was sold out with standing tickets being sold on Ebay for around four times face value. I did wonder whether the game would live up to the atmosphere or crumble under the weight of expectation. I've only witnessed one goalless game at the Alte Försterei - against Vfr Aalen back in November. A game so forgettable, I had to research when it occurred. Since that game, and prior to the Pauli fixture, Union have taken part in  games that have yielded an astonishing 43 goals in 12 matches. 

It does not take a statistician to see that Union have major problems defensively. Only five clean sheet in the league this season must make for depressing reading for Union's backroom staff. Uwe Neuhaus had uttered the classic refrain in his midweek press conference that it's common knowledge that 'you don't change a winning team' and after a defeat Neuhaus always rings the changes. 

It was a surprise to see Christian Stuff on the bench as he made way for Schönheim / Kohlman - as Menz was also a casualty of the defeat in Cottbus against 10 men. One wonders if that match will play a crucial point in determining Union's fate this season.

Pauli came in to the game on the back of three straight wins and Neuhaus has talked up the visitors defensive capabilities whilst almost marveling at how well they have done of late - dragging themselves in to contention for a late challenge to the play-off spot. The Bundesliga 2 is a tight league and is impossible to call as most of those attempting to displace Kaiserslautern in 3rd are inconsistent. This was again demonstrated on Friday night as both Energie Cottbus and Frankfurt dropped much needed points against mid-table sides. 

As is worryingly becoming the norm I had a few tasks to take care of prior to the game. The photography exhibition needed to be taken down so that the Eiserne Botschafter could use the room for a screening on Sunday night. I also had some tickets to shift and sold 2 tickets in Sektor 3 for less than the lad I was with had paid a tout for his solitary 'karte.' Love football hate ticket touts and all that. My journey to the 'other side' of Köpenick brought with it good fortune though, as when a mate turned up and informed me the Pauli team bus was parked outside the hotel opposite, I darted over, ignoring the red man much to the bemusement of the locals and gave the bus a small make-over. The manufacturers logo was now hidden by an 'Union in Englisch' sticker. All good fun.

The Pauli team travel through Köpenick advertising the English fan club

As we walked up the stairs at the Alte Försterei I heard Christian Arbeit say that Köpenich would 'stay red and white' and understood what he was on about when I saw one of the St.Pauli banners - 'Köpenick ist Braun und Weiss.' Again, all good fun. The atmosphere was up there with the best I have experienced pre-match at Union. Arbeit was unable to read out the Union team due to the incessant chanting from the home faithful. The place was unevenly packed with Sektor 3 (the gegengerade runs down one side of the ground) looking sparse at the corner near the visitors and overflowing into the aisles near the home end where we were situated next to a couple of St.Pauli fans decked out in their colours. 

I'll apologise now for getting on my high-horse but it is stuff like this that makes going to watch Union special. Two blokes, sharing jokes with the home fans and completely at ease with wearing club colours surrounded by rival fans. There is of course a bond between the two clubs. However, it is moments like this that the media will never pick up on. Preferring to talk of an increase in fan violence and other such nonsense. The two sets of supporters had actually chartered a boat to arrive in Köpenick together - a 4 hour trip from Friedrichstraße on a cold March afternoon. Rather them than me! I'll wait until August when the Botschafter organise their annual trip along the Spree to the match.

The atmosphere had been cranked up for this one. The first time Fortress Försterei had been completely sold out since the building of the new stand. Over 21,000 were there to witness what transpired to be a pulsating duel. The game living up to expectations. Naturally the opening stages were tentative with both teams battling it out in the middle of the park. The game and party atmosphere that has become a regular occurrence when Union play on a Friday night, kicked into life bang on 20 minutes. I imagine the Pauli coach would have been pleased at the age old football mantra of going away from home and 'keeping it tight for the first 20 minutes' and wondering whether Pauli could extend their winning streak. 

Simon Terodde, quickly becoming Union's star striker these days, was the man who broke the deadlock. 

Andrew Cherrie describes Union's opener as part of his excellent live Twitter coverage
Mattuschka, a thorn in the side of St.Pauli this term was instrumental again and as the result suggests won the midfield battle. He was shackled, often by 3 Pauli midfielders, but appeared to always find that extra yard. He's a quick thinker and always a step ahead of the opposition - if not literally then certainly mentally. When in this sort of form he's a joy to watch. Play of this quality is not always part and parcel of the Bundesliga 2. 

The live tweeting is always good when you've actually been to match. I always re-read the tweets and this next 'passage of tweets' shows clearly the passage of play that led up to Pauli's equaliser.

Cherrie describes the build-up to the first Pauli equaliser
The goal always looked likely. The defensive re-shuffle had not made Union appear anymore stable than usual. To give credit to St.Pauli they defend from the front and it was an evening devoid of time on the ball. Short, sharp and 'schnell' was the order of the day.

At 1-1 Union again put pressure on the visitors as they attacked the goal containing the noisy Pauli contingent. Union restored their lead just before half-time although Mattuschka almost contrived to miss what was a simple tap in. He hit the ball with such force that it flew into the back of the net via the underside of the crossbar. His muted celebrations were perhaps more to do with playing his 'get of jail free card' than effortless nonchalance. 

The game remained 2-1 until the 76th minute which saw a peculiar spell of 3 goals in a mere 7 minutes. The goals were always coming and it was simply a matter of which team would tire first. The money was on Union. 

Cherrie predicts the Nuehaus substitution
The equaliser eventually came for St.Pauli in the shape of an absolute rocket from the full-back.

2-2 heralds the start of a 7 minute goal fest
Union seemed to discover the tank was unlike the beer sellers backpacks and in fact not quite empty. They immediately launched wave after wave of attack in an attempt to restore their lead for a third time.  They were rewarded in front of the home end with young Nemec adding his name to the score sheet after Zoundi had fired spectacularly wide when only a few yards out and one on one with the keeper. It was again the mercurial Mattuschka who created the opening with a beautifully weighted ball slipped into the path of the Union striker. The Försterei was bouncing and the 3-2 win that had been predicted at half-time by our resident tweeter was looking good. 

Union were not finished and even had time to substitute Mattuschka and replace him with Menz before adding to their goal tally. It was Terodde again who gave the scoreline a touch of class. A 4-2 win sounds comfortable. This was anything but. It was a hard fought victory and a very valuable 3 points as Union only have 3 home games remaining. Union won't finish 3rd due to their poor away form but bettering last term is certainly achievable. Terodde's goal was of his own making. He received the ball with his back to goal and held of his man whilst swiveling and unleashing an unstoppable shot. He kept it low and it sped past the keeper to make it 4-2. The game had certainly lived up to expectations both on and off the pitch.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

A Tale of Two Cities

I'm in the middle of reading a Charles Dickens biography.  I'm not usually big on literary references within the blog but I was reminded of this quote and thought it too good an opportunity to miss. This passage says it all about Union on a Friday night in Berlin followed by Sunderland on a Saturday afternoon in the north-east of England.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,it was the season of light,it was the season of darkness,it was the spring of hope,it was the winter of despair.”  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

The best of times on the pitch were at Union as we demolished Aue 3-0. The worst of times was the sad realisation that in almost a year without a Sunderland home game, I'd drifted so far from the club, that I was not bothered about the match - just seeing my mates. 

The age of wisdom can be found in the two club's balance sheets. Union remain solvent, admittedly after a turbulent past. Sunderland continue to spend Millions of a Billionaire's personal fortune on chasing a dream of mid-table security and the odd European away day. The Premier League is driving away goodwill, if not fans; appearing to be a great signifier of the age of foolishness.

Belief, as I have argued before, is paramount to the football fan. Always believe, we must 'still believe', even when the German fans are taunting us with 'It's coming home', as they did against Arsenal at the Emirates recently. The incredulity was seeing three penalties in two games. It should have been at least four.

Spring poked his nose out at the Alte Försterei and the team responded with an equally dazzling performance. The Stadium of Light offered only the coat tails of winter darkness. The clouds loomed over the spaceship looking stadium. The place is a far away galaxy compared to Union's quirky home in the midst of the forest.

Hope springs eternal at Union for a 3rd place finish. However, the Unioner also hope for progress. That would be 6th and quite an achievement. It's been a winter of despair on Wearside as Martin O'Neill's men have steadily slid down the table. Inching towards the Championship - at least the rest of the season will be interesting. Was life better in The Championship, one friend asks.