I board the U-Bahn at Schönleinstraße which straddles the border of Neukölln and Kreuzberg - two different worlds. Kottbusser Damm separates them, but one wonders for how long, as estate agents brand northern Neukölln 'Kreuzkölln', in an attempt to drive up yield for foreign investors.
The U-Bahn usually snakes its way through the city but I won't experience that today as I alight one stop before Alexanderplatz. I'm heading north to Jannowitzbrücke where I'll take the S-Bahn, changing once to board the Erkner bound train, on a familiar route to the Stadion An der Alten Försterie. Today is different though; it is I who will attempt to straddle two worlds. It is I who wonder what I would even call myself if anybody asks. Am I am fan? Most certainly. Am I a writer? Hardly.
At Jannowitzbrücke I glance left at the top of the stairs as is my custom. I'm fascinated by the TV Tower. The view from the platform Jannowitzbrücke captures Berlin beautifully. An odd mix of the new (Alexa Shopping centre), the old (Soviet Style apartments) and the ugly (a Lidl sits directly underneath me). The 'fernsehturm' is obscured by a grey helmet of mist, reminiscent of Union's mascot - the Knight. There is no red and white today; neither on the tower’s top nor on the S-Bahn to Köpenick. Today is not a match day.
Two days prior to a game Union always train behind closed doors and at noon they hold a press conference. I've somehow invited myself and it beats my usual lunchtime activity of buying delectable Turkish food, just. I'm crossing the divide though; I've been a Sunderland fan for 30 years and never been to a press conference. I'm a fan not a journalist. I wonder how to act. I can't very well work the room introducing myself. This is Germany. The British may be reserved but the Germans are - and I must generalise - cautious folk. I tighten my grey scarf and remind myself to at least appear professional. I'd thought better of wearing my Union scarf. Later I spot a chic black and red number with a very small Union logo. Subtle. I'll have to get hold of one of those.
There is a security guard at the gate before I have finished explaining I am here for the press conference. I turn left, walking behind the new stand, gazing at the yellow bricks that are being installed on the exterior. Christian Arbeit later tells me the yellow bricks are used to deliberately and are pertinent to Köpenick and the industry there. Fucking brilliant. They think of everything. An emphatic nod to their roots when building, what could have been, a ghastly all seated grandstand.
The press conference takes place in a grey portakabin. Everything is grey today. I expect Neuhaus to be grey, bored by the questions of two points from nine and a defeat last weekend in Köln. He's far from it. Before all of this though, I take my seat on the back row. I text a couple of people. Count thirty two red seats for the press and 16 hacks and mull over digging in to the sandwiches. I'm eager to gobble one down but decide against it. I don't want to blow my cover.
It's almost noon when Christian Arbeit pats me on the back. I'm slightly lost for words but manage to say hello and then come out with, 'exciting.' He humours me, he's done this many times before yet still says, 'I hope so.' For Arbeit, Neuhaus and the press pack it is another press conference. I'm taking in every detail. Only two women and one seems to be involved with ensuring the TV camera is in the correct position. The rest blokes. My cover has been blown. I'm every inch the fan scribbling notes before a word has been uttered.
Arbeit is all smiles and handshakes. He's clearly a pro and has a good rapport with the press. He's an imposing figure and would not look out of place on stage swinging an axe. He's a huge music fan and back in his office we discuss his favourite bands and tales of pints necked with the Manic Street Preachers in Huxley's round the corner from my apartment. Brilliant.
Neuhaus enters and a hush descends on the room. He walks purposefully to his seat on Christian's right and takes up his position; hands clenched, elbows on the table and his face scanning the room. I look down at my notebook.
The press conference begins and Herr Koch (I missed which organisation he represented) says something, almost by accident, in response to Christian. Arbeit, at ease with the room, laughs and asks him if he has something to say. It's a relaxed atmosphere and Herr Koch half apologises and Arbeit resumes and explains that there is an empty seat to his left as there is no player attending the press conference today. The journalists are probably disappointed. Perhaps players are less guarded and easier to get a good sound bite from. As a fan I am pleased. No player means the Friday night game is being treated as huge and a must-win. I've made noises on the impossibility of 3rd place for Union. Of course, I always hope. I always believe we can get a couple of results and maybe lady luck will join us in the forest. Or does she just hang around with the Old Lady?
Neuhaus expertly deals with the press and has his script prepared. The audience seems largely local and it's not exactly a jousting match. It's more like watching two tennis players warm up before a big game. Neither plays their strongest shots. After the introduction from Christian, Uwe explains that there are two different types of people. Optimists and skeptics. I remind myself to look up 'skeptisch' in my dictionary. I imagine it's akin to an English manager saying pessimistic. Always best to be sure though; my German teacher often tells me to beware of the 'false friends' when learning German as an English speaker. Nuehaus proceeds to deliver a master class in saying a lot but saying very little. Union have only taken two points from nine is one view. The other is that they went to league leaders Hertha and played them off the park and have only been beaten once this calendar year. Last weekend was a bad day at the office, nothing more.
Mattuschka was unavailable due to a bout of flu against Köln and the press open with an obvious question alluding to Mattuschka's importance to Union. Neuhaus explains he is club captain and of course important. You can probably guess the rest of the answer. The second question delves a little deeper although it's a practice serve and only at half-speed. The journalist opts for a two part question. Why was Silvio preferred to Özbek last weekend and is Özbek fully fit. Neuhaus returns the classic answer that he has been set up to give. The question has been dinked over the net so he can smash a neat volley - he obliges.
My view is that Özbek is a new signing and probably short of match practice. Union conceded a goal in each half and whilst looking more comfortable on the ball in the second period, never really posed a threat. Silvio or Özbek - take your pick, the result would have been the same as too many players had an off-day. Silvio is fast losing currency at Union. He tries though and when a player gives 100% at Union, much is forgiven. The press clearly sense this.
The third question is more intriguing and the contract of Menz is enquired about. Neuhaus talks a lot and appears to say, 'who knows?' I make a note to follow this up with Christian afterwards but fail miserably. I'll find out what is going in the papers like all the other fans.
The questions move back to Köln then on to the second string and a journalist asks about the fitness of Felipe Gallegos. What fans don’t always realise is the hard work that goes in to signing a decent young player on a season long loan. Union had many targets and for their loan signing to be injured all season is a cruel blow for those that had worked so hard on securing his signature.
We then move back to Mattuschka and the training session earlier in the day. If you can learn a lot from language used, which I think you can, it is clear that Neuhaus rules the court. 'Deutlich' is his word of the day and he 'clearly', no pun intended, calls the shots.
The rally ends with Arbeit answering a question on ticket sales. Around seventeen to eighteen thousand are expected on Friday evening when Union face Erzgebirge Aue he tells the room as he concludes the press conference.
It was an interesting experience and I feel privileged to have been invited. I'm hampered by two aspects and only one of these I can cure. My German was not good enough to follow everything that was said. The other aspect, which I can do nothing about, unless I fancy being Neuhaus' arch enemy, are the media questions. They're doing a job and they need copy. They can't serve too hard - this is a face to face knock-around. I guess the harsh words are delivered by the pen. Looking at the authoritative Neuhaus, this is perhaps wise. Above the journalists heads the club have produced warning signs. Much like a ‘mind your head’ sign although it says ‘Caution, headline area.’ The signs face both ways and act as a comedic nudge to journalists and Union staff alike. Arbeit explains that this went down well with the press and you can’t help but feel, as Union slowly progress, that the press conferences that will be held in the new media centre below the almost complete main stand, may soon attract a much wider audience.