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.