Flying out on the afternoon of a game always makes for a nervous experience. With only three hours between our arrival time at Hamburg airport and that night’s kick off, a delay of any kind was completely unwelcome. Dad and I landed in Germany on schedule and we headed for the S-Bahn.
Way back in time, between 1968 and 1971, my father served in the British Army in Germany. A lot has happened since then: decimalisation, the Hand of God/Maradona, the fall of the Berlin Wall, oh, and my dad had married and my brother and I were born. In the very early nineties, those pre-Sky/Premier League days, he regularly took me to Goodison Park to watch Everton despite him being a Liverpool supporter, but after that we hadn’t been to see a game together until last year when we saw Everton play Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. I don’t think he particularly enjoyed it. Not so much the game, but more the experience of it. Especially the ‘fans’ getting up every few minutes to go and get food or a drink, then coming back late after half-time and spending the majority of the match talking amongst themselves and not watching the game.
A few years ago, I went to Berlin with a group of friends. The closest we came to live German football was watching FC Köln and St Pauli play out a goalless draw on a small screen in a bar. We all vowed to return to Germany for a Bundesliga match. Almost a year later we were back in Germany: a Friday night game between Hertha BSC and VfB Stuttgart, followed the next afternoon by St. Pauli against FSV Frankfurt. Two games in less than twenty hours and I was hooked.
After hearing my tales of football trips to Germany, Dad asked if he could join me the next time I went over. So it was that, after I’d hastily booked a few days off work, we flew over for St Pauli vs Union Berlin – a clash of two of the so called ‘Kult’ clubs, both with a chance of promotion to the top division. Everything was set for a perfect introduction to German football for my father on his first time back in Germany for over forty years.
As we pulled into Sternschanze station we were only two stops from our destination. Five minutes later, we were still there. Quizzical looks were exchanged between passengers and no one seemed sure what was going on. My dad pointed out a sign in the distance, which neither of us could understand, so we decided to get out to have a look. As we reached the sign, the carriage doors closed and the train pulled away: back in the direction we had come. More by luck than judgement, we had made the correct choice. Finding a very helpful – if rather fearsome looking – rail worker, we were directed to a replacement bus above ground, so up we headed and within minutes we were well on our way again.
The fans were already out and about in St Pauli, not to mention the ‘entrepreneurs’ selling bottles of Astra from trolleys on the Heiligengeistfeld. There were police vans parked up by our hotel. The heavy police presence around the stadium surprised me, as I’d read that St. Pauli and Union Berlin fans were supposed to be on friendly terms. Sure enough, we didn’t see any trouble.
In the queue at Millerntor Stadion, a couple of guys ahead of us were rushing to finish off their bottles of beer and one looked round at us and then said to the other in English, “We might as well let these two in before us”. To which my dad replied, “Thank you very much”, to their great surprise. It turned out that they were father and son as well, both going to their first game at the Millerntor. The son worked in Hamburg and his father was visiting from Yorkshire. Wishing them a good game we entered the ground, bought some beers and took our seats in the Nordkurve. The other three sides of the stadium had been recently renovated and looked pretty modern, but our side was all metal scaffolding, tarpaulin, wood and portakabins. A real throwback.
The bell from “Hell’s Bells” started tolling as the teams walked out onto the field. The fans seemed subdued, there was no fan choreo; I later found out that this was a protest to the game being played in the hugely unpopular Monday evening TV slot.
Both sets of fans lived up to their reputations with the away supporters matching the home fan’s intensity. At one point the travelling Berlin contingent sang a song to the tune of “Moonlight Shadow” by Mike Oldfield. For me, that song is forever associated with the Fast Show’s Dave Angel, the Cockney geezer and eco warrior. The first half ended scoreless.
Without leaving our seats we were able to buy more beer from one of the wandering vendors (something that never fails to delight me) and were set for the second half.
Union came out strongly after the restart and were in total control; having a succession of chances, it seemed only a matter of time before they scored. The St. Pauli goalkeeper stopped everything. Unfortunately for him, following tremendous pressure Berlin finally broke through; a header from a corner was once again turned away by the home keeper, only for it to fall to a Union player who slotted the ball in the net from close range.
Celebrations didn’t last long. Three minutes later, a poor St. Pauli free kick into the box wasn’t cleared properly and the ball fell to one of the boys in brown, who smashed a shot from the edge of the area past the keeper and into the goal in front of the Ultra Sankt Pauli. The noise in the Millerntor was deafening.
With only a couple of minutes left, a young guy who had been sitting next to my father got up and left. I’ve always been hugely stubborn about staying right until the end of games, not wanting to miss any action. Sure enough, only moments later, a cross into the Berlin box was lashed into the top corner by a St. Pauli forward and the stadium erupted. The lad must have only just made it out of the ground when he heard the Millerntor roar. Before the final whistle, there was even time for another chance for the home side, only for two Union defenders to manage to get a block in. Finally the referee blew his whistle and the game was over.
Somehow St. Pauli had managed to snatch victory from their promotion rivals. The feeling amongst the fans was electric; scarves were held aloft and a chorus of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was sung. Being a Liverpool fan, my father asked some fans why the supporters sung it, but they didn’t know. I, personally, would rather know why the Union Berlin fans sing “Moonlight Shadow”.
As we were leaving the ground, my dad asked me when I was planning on coming back. The game was over, but my father’s German football addiction had only just begun.
You can follow Nick on Twitter at @BundesligaBrit.