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.