Part Two - HERE
Part Three - HERE
Long before the football, long before even being in the right country for the football, Tom and I meet, bags packed, passports checked and double checked, at Liverpool Street station. Tom admits to have not had a "great night's sleep” as he’s too excited and I have to agree. As the Stansted Express makes its way to the airport, telling us all about “liquids and gels” in three different languages, the curse of the Egg McMuffin still hangs over us, a respectable looking suited man sitting on the table next to us tucks into a late breakfast, even the putrid smell wafting over can't dampen our anticipation.
Tom’s girlfriend, code-name ‘Sparrow’ is perhaps the single most organised person in the world. I would not go as far as saying she is anal, she allows herself some fun as long as there is an ‘M’ in the month or it's between 18:30 and 19:15, but she has been kind enough to cobble together a “travel pack” for us full of boarding passes and checking in details. When presented with mine, I feel a little let down, a bit of an anti climax to say the least. It's a few printed A4 pieces of paper in a plastic sleeve, and looks very thrown together last minute. Tom’s on the other hand has been bound, like a 15th century Bible, with full colour pages and maps with points of interest highlighted. It also contains page after page of helpful German words and phrases, enough to rival the Rosetta Stone.
Our time in the airport is brief, and highly scented as we run the gauntlet of the makeup plastered perfume pushers, and try and avoid the man who has put his hair in bunches and is miming along to a Spice Girls song. We do though take a second to admire one traveler, who has taken the idea of ‘traveling light’ to the extreme, considering he only has a half empty Tesco bag and a jumper.
Black and yellow is everywhere, Borussia Dortmund fans display their support any which way they can, one is sporting a particularly jaunty pair of BVB trousers. The queue at our gate looks like a ‘Football Special’. There is also a small smattering of purple and white, as Fiorentina fans make the journey home after the previous night's loss to Spurs in the Europa League, which got my holiday off to the perfect start.
Our short time in the air is joyfully uneventful, except for Tom deciding to start eating within seconds of sitting down because he “can't eat in the air”. We admire the snazzy blue jackets the aircrew have to wear and spot the Signal Iduna Park on the way into land.
Back on terra firma, through passport control, we walk out into a crisp, cold, grey but not unpleasant West German afternoon, and wait for our bus to the hotel. “We have been in Germany twenty minutes” are Tom‘s slightly shaky words following our bus drivers evasive manoeuvre when trying to save all our lives, when forced to avoid a swerving car on the Autobahn. Some people are thrown from their seats, some are showered in glass, which we can't work out where it's come from. His eyes roll back into his head, and he channels a voice from another dimension “this is going to be a weird trip”.
Alive, and wondering if I should have gotten out of bed this morning following our near death experience, I saw a light, we check into a hotel that does not look like it's been decorated since before either of us were born, but at least Tom’s prayers of “not sharing a bed” which was not guaranteed after reading the small print of our reservation, have been answered, plus we have a bar, and not just a mini bar, but a bar, like from a man cave in an American movie, with leather topped stools and everything, which will be perfect if we decide to entertain.
We are not able to enjoy the leather sofa, or make ourselves a Cosmo in the hotel, as we are forced into a quick turn around, the first of our three games while over here is about an hour away, and we have to work out how we are getting there. After prodding and poking the ticket machine, even with it translated into English, we are struggling, so head to the ticket office.
The gods are smiling on us today for the second time, as the impeccable English speaking young woman sells us our ticket and even prints off some instructions of what platforms we are to use, and where we are to change, “we wish you a pleasant journey” it says. It's a nice change from your normal grunting grump behind glass at your average station back in Blighty.
“I can't believe they have double decker trains” says Tom as one of the bunk-bed style trains pulls into a station which feels like a bit of a time warp, it has a Dunkin’ Donuts, but also has all the reassuring sights and smells of modern traveling, people huddled in corners drinking and slightly shifty looking characters with vacant stares.
It feels like we are going the right way, we are following our printout to the letter, but we are still not quite sure. Tom is wrestling with his phones settings, having arranged to be able to use it here, its not letting him do what he wants, and at the moment he wants to call Sparrow to check that the nest is ok.
Our first debate of the trip is ‘do we get a beer for the train or not?’. Not being totally sure if it fit’s in with local etiquette, we air on the side of caution, deciding to make this journey a dry one. How wrong we were! The short ride is accompanied by the constant popping of bottles as the locals get their Friday night off in the right way, and when a fan in a Rot-Weiss Essen scarf (RWE) the home team of the game we are off to, gets on board, and is joined at the next stop by a fellow fan in a RWE shirt they enjoy a beer together, like the inmates on the roof of Shawshank Prison, while we look at each other, lamenting our decision.
My ‘F’ in GCSE German is not going to get us very far, unless we want to ask people “where is the butchers, cinema or Cathedral?”, so we discuss the best way of going about things, wanting to find a happy medium between ‘shouting until they kind of understand what we want’ or ‘mutely pointing until they give up and give us anything so we fuck off’. Tom has the best plan, just repeat “danke, danke, danke” whilst smiling, and everything will go swimmingly.
At Essen station there is more and more red and white and a lot more beer, and we feel on track, until I take us to the wrong platform, but realise my mistake before we get on the wrong train and end up in Berlin. This is were what had so far been a simple journey goes a little awry. We board the train, but where is all the red and white? We are following the instructions we have been given, but now it definitely feels like we are going the wrong way.
We disembark at what we think is the correct stop, in a sleepy suburb, but only as the train is pulling away do we realise our mistake. A subtle difference in the station names, means we are in the general area of the ground, but not quite as close as we wanted to be. Both feeling a little dazed, the combination of traveling and nearly meeting our maker, means neither of us have the aptitude to get to grips with the local bus service, so we cheat, and jump in a cab.
Being from London, nine out of ten cab drivers fit a general stereotype: chatty East Ender, with ever so right wing tendencies, who love a bit of Talk Sport. Our driver could not be further from that if she tried, the silver haired woman, maybe in her sixties scoops us up in her Mercedes Benz and whisks us off.
Finally we see what is the undeniable sight of a group of football fans, congregated in of all places the car park of a petrol station, distinguishable by the scarves tied around their wrists and forearms, which I think is a cracking look. Many also hold flagpoles of different lengths, one has a large drum. Comfortable now in the fact we are in the right place, we jump out further up the road, next to a detached house by a railway crossing, with an even larger group outside.
The detached house, is in fact a bar, outside a red and white gazebo is selling food. From the front are hanging what I can only describe as condiment udders, one mustard, one ketchup. On the other side of the house is a small trailer, it’s front open, overflowing with scarves, like it had been cut open and was bleeding polyester. One in particular catches Tom’s eye, a well endowed woman on it displaying her support.
Thud, thud, thud goes the noise of the drum in the distance, as the group we had seen moments before at the petrol station, have now occupied the middle of the road, the drummer front and centre. Not one of them flinching at the oncoming traffic, as they make their way past us on mass to the stadium, which is glowing just the other side of the train tracks.
This is not though where we want to be, we are of course delighted to be in the right place now, but we must find the ‘Fan-Base’ to collect our tickets. Lucky for us the first person we ask, has a fine grip of English, and points these two weary visitors the right way.
“Opposite a shop called Nagel” says our directions, which I had received from Roland, a member of the fan-base, Toms eagle eye points out the aforementioned shop, we have arrived. A black chain link fence is opened onto a small gravel car park, in front of a single storey, white prefab structure. People are milling around outside, they are almost hard to make out such is the brightness of the light above what looks like the door inside. Two stewards are unable to help us find Roland, after I jab my finger at an email on my phone and thrust it in their direction. We therefore take the plunge, push past the crowd outside and step in.
Inside is a hazy, smoke filled football nirvana, two men immediately in front of the door are hunched
over a Fussball table, one man stands watching, with a novel way of holding his beer. Around his neck he has a knitted red and white bottle holder, he casually chats away, with his beer always to hand, this creation has Dragons Den written all over it. Beyond him are long wooden tables, each one with the the clubs badge on, people sit at them energetically talking amongst themselves. At the far end is a busy bar, and the best place one person suggested we would be able to find Roland.
Thankfully my poking this time worked and one man from behind the bar metaphorically takes us by the hand, leads us back outside and introduces us to Roland, I’m not sure I have ever been so relieved to finally meet someone.
Short, sturdy and with grey hair, Roland like Weihnachtsmann not only hands over two tickets to the ‘Westkurve’, the grounds standing section, home as one fan described as where the “hardcore” will be, he also gives us a club pennant, lanyard and match day newspaper, which they give out free instead of a programme.
He also hands us two CD’s of music made by the fans, including himself, he tells us smiling he likes to sing and play guitar “punk rock” that's played in the stadium, he explains you won't hear anything from the “top 100” here. He also has a hand in the decor as well, around the edge of the ceiling are scarves from clubs all across Europe, many from games he’s attended.
Roland is glowing with enthusiasm, when we first spoke on Facebook he had offered to give us a tour of the local football sights, which we were unable to take him up on, only because of the time we landed, and even with the clock ticking ever closer to kick off, he still wants to show us a few things of interest before we head into the ground, and sets off at a furious pace, with us slightly behind him, weighed down with all the presents. Before leaving he notices me admiring a wall of stickers, and divulges the relevance behind one of them, which features RWE and Werder Bremen.
“Our highlight was the 1994 cup final against Weder” and although they lost 3 - 0 in Berlin, he said it was like “70,000 friends” in the ground that day, a union that still stands over 20 years later.
The Stadion Essen stands almost on the same footprint as its predecessor, which was named after the club founder, and local mine owner Georg Melches, Roland makes sure we don't get him mixed up with the former Wham frontman. He points out a new edition, with a familiar feel for many, the tall silver letters that spell out the name of the old ground, now an installation on the way into the new. Beside it stands a wiry looking statue with a miner's pick and helmet, called the ‘First 15’ which was the name of the first break of the day the local miners would get, who so many made up the fan base. Further along, and high up on a railway bridge overlooking the new ground the fans have painted “Fuer Immer GMS” (Forever Georg Melches Stadion)
As we get closer, we can feel all the energy and life of Friday night football. “You see the green man” asks Roland, pointing to a man in green vest selling cigarettes on the way in “in normal life he is a cop”.
At this point Roland bids us farewell, “older ultras sit now” he tells us, he won't be joining us on the terrace, so we arrange to met at the fan base after, but not before he shares one last bit of club history with us, that he is clearly so passionate about, even though he was born “in the blue and white city”, that's Gelsenkirchen, home of Schalke 04, the arch enemies in these parts, saying their name is akin to an actor saying Macbeth. Considering he has been coming since 1964, you imagine there is not a lot he doesn't know. He proudly points to another statue, this one of Helmeut Rahn who scored two goals in the 1954 World Cup for West Germany, and is probably their most famous Son.
The queue to the gate is littered with empty bottles, and Tom for the first time witnesses a bit of a German quirk, which I first saw in Berlin, and puts a bit of context to the old woman with a torch looking into a bin at the station in Essen. They are what you might call ‘Capitalist Wombles’, as I'm not sure the welfare of planet is at the forefront of their actions, they are driven by money, the more bottle's and glass you can collect the more someone will pay you for it.
Past security, and past the steward who asked Tom to leave his bag by a bin, which was never going to happen, the entrance to our block, W1 is dead ahead, we can make out the fence behind the goal, and the pitch beyond. Not wanting to miss anymore of the build up, we head straight through.
Maybe down to bad timing or a an attack by the local anti blogging league, but as we enter the stand a banger is tossed a few feet from us goes off. To say I did not shit myself, and momentarily lose all hearing in my right ear would be a lie, but I wanted to stand with the Ultras or “fanatics” as Roland described them, so I needed to carry on like nothing had happened, and book myself in for a hearing test as soon as we got home.
The Westkurve is already bustling, red and white flags of various sizes are going full pelt. As the stadium announcer reads out the opposition team's names, each one is greeted with a hearty shout of “arschloch” from the crowd around us.
A troop of children holding flags, have appeared from the tunnel in the stand to our left, are standing on the centre circle and begin what you might call a choreographed display, as every fan who has one holds their scarf outstretched above their heads and sing the club's anthem.
When the home team is read out, they get a much warmer welcome, the announcer reading out the first name, and the crowd roaring the surname. We hear the visiting supporters of SG Wattenscheid 09 (SG) in a corner at the opposite end of the ground, in an otherwise completely empty stand. They have their own flags and banners in the club's colors of black and white. It's a short trip, only about 12km and Roland told us this could be considered as bit of a “derby”. Their attempts to sing bring sarcastic waves of ‘we forgot you were here’.
Red megaphone in hand the RWE Capo climbs the fence, bangs his chest, and turns his back on the game kicking off behind him, beside him one of the biggest flags sways back and forth “Ultras-Hooligans”. It’s incredibly hard to concentrate on anything other than the man at the front, the hype man, the conductor, his gravelly voice organising the crowd, starting every chant.
“Need one of them at the Emirates” says Tom, I think every ground could do with one. It's a notion that seems so alien to British football fans, but is commonplace on the continent and the rest of the world. He’s mesmerizing in a totally platonic, heterosexual way, it’s hard to remember there is even a game on, and although I have no idea what he is saying, his actions speak volumes, as he pumps his fist towards the crowd, demanding more volume, more singing.
Not that our blogs are what you might call a ‘match report’, but we like to give a little bit of an insight into the game itself, this however is a lot harder than usual, because of the sheer amount of things going on, the football almost becoming a bit of a sideshow.
With less than ten minutes gone RWE go behind, an own goal after a clearance from a free-kick loops up over the keeper, and is probably the worst possible start for the home side, who are one place above the drop zone. Roland had described them as a “young side” and in the opening moments some of that naivety is clear, their play has been sloppy.
For a brief moment the terrace is quiet, the bearded Capo on his platform looks gutted. He is not alone though on his elevated position, he was a vice Capo, a second in command who starts the crowd again, breaking the brief moment of malaise, getting things quickly back to normal. This is tested though when shortly after SG hit the bar with a shot from a free-kick.
Maybe it's the current league position, being a goal behind or that the whole ‘smoking is bad’ message has not quite sunk in, but there is a thick layer of cigarette smoke around us, one lady in particular is constantly puffing away, and I wonder if one is finished before the next one is lit.
Although our stand is busy, there are plenty of empty seats in the rest of the ground, each stand standing alone, with a considerable gap on each corner. There is even what looks like a sofa pitchside, with some people chilling out and watching the game, which is a new one for us.
“Missed the beer man” says a thirsty Tom, as the keg carrying Sherpa, skips up and down the terrace, holding empty plastic cups above his head, tempting all who clap their eyes on him into getting another beer. As if by magic, another one appears, and like the adults we are, we are trusted with refreshing ourselves in sight of the pitch.
“Rott” shout the stand to our right, “Weiss” shout our stand, “Essen” shout the stand to our left.
The home fans are becoming increasingly more frustrated, “they love a middle finger” notices Tom, as many around us thrust their digit violently in the direction on most occasions towards the referee.
Food is on both our minds, having not had anything since breakfast, it might be a good idea to have something to soak up all the beer. Maybe the only downside of being able to buy it where you stand is that you end up having more than you usually would. One fan in front of us has us interested when they appear with a mountain of chips smothered in mayo, another with a thick hockey puck of meat in a bread roll. Tom is not sure how confident he is with going on a food run, the language barrier makes him think he might not return with what he wants.
Perhaps my longing stares at other people's food have been noticed, as well my manic note taking, but one inquisitive fan asks me I’m writing “a cookbook” and I can't work out if its a well crafted German ‘fat joke’ or a genuine question.
“I think I found my dream job” says an enamoured Tom, who is seeing a Capo in action for the first time. He is now jumperless, tattooed up to the nines, continuing his tireless work. “lor, lor, lor, lor” is his latest offering, “I think this one, is multilingual”.
“Torrrrrrrr”, RWE are level just before half time, a super half volley from the edge of the box. Although the home side have woken up since the goal, and look an altogether different outfit, its SG who have the last chance of the half.
“I could eat ten of these” says a returning mustered covered Tom. Sinking our teeth into the sausage in its out sized roll, a little bit of life floods back into our slightly sozzled veins, and by the time we have finished, half time has flown by. The Capo signals the start of the second half with a few sound effects from his megaphone.
I’m not sure if you have ever been doused in cold beer when it's about -1 degrees, but that's what happens not long into the new half, when the fans are so appalled by the referees decision, that it starts to rain beer, cup’s fly over our heads. One person either has a bad throw or it’s a member of an anti blogging league who threw the firework, but one side of my face and jacket is now soaked with beer. If I'm honest though I could not give a damn, I’m having far too much of a good time. Helped by the overwhelming smell of the Gluhwein, a heady mix of hot Ribena and Calpol the woman next to me is drinking, I’m getting through the ordeal.
The man with the megaphone, cups his ear, asking the crowd to channel all that anger into louder support.
“Torrrrrrrrrr”, 2 -1 the game has now done a full 180 and swung in the favour of RWE as they go ahead following a low shot from the edge of the box, that leaves the keeper rooted to the spot, queue more beer precipitation. The Capo holds his scarf, and the rest of the crowd follow suit, he starts to whirl it around and they copy, creating an ample breeze that helps dry my booze soaked hair.
“Have you watched much of the game?” Tom asks me, and I have to admit the answer is “no”.
Ear splitting whistles and boos follow the referee's decision to wave away what looked like a certain RWE penalty, he has deemed it simulation and gives SG a free-kick instead, such is one fans anger that he flicks his still lit cigarette past us and straight into the ear of a fellow supporter. In the following on pitch melee a RWE player is sent off, but it's not clear why, “that changes everything” says Tom, and although I don't know exactly what the man behind me is saying, the amount of times he says “scheisse” I get the gist he is not happy.
Despite having the fewer players RWE are still in the game, and almost score a third, only for it to hit the post. I’m a little preoccupied by the now drying beer face pack I have on one side of my head, and the fact one slightly worse for wear home fan has nose dived down about there steps and is being peeled off the floor by his friends.
RWE are so close to pulling this much needed win off, only in the dying moments they give away a penalty, following their own two recent shouts for one. In front of the SG supporters the penalty is scored, and the players celebrate before them.
The final whistle comes not long after the equalizer, once again our eardrums are tested by the booing and cat calls from fans, as the last of the beers fly towards the pitch, some have climbed the fence in front of us and straddle the top, “it can't be comfortable” suggests Tom. They violently shake the tall poles that hold up the net to prevent anything going on the pitch. The referee is forced to hide under a couple of umbrellas, like a Roman tortoise and is escorted off the pitch, such is the volume of debris coming his way. One fan despite the high fence has managed to get on the pitch, but is quickly collared by the stewards
We let the Westkurve empty, and take a quick detour to the front of the stand, before making the short walk back to the fan-base to rendezvous with Roland. It takes some effort not to slip over on one of the countless mini bottles of Jagermeister that must fuel the non stop singing, and I have to stop myself taking a photograph of every sticker, that cover every available space. Many may be the handy work of the young flag bearing fan who stood behind us, his flag constantly in motion above our heads. He seemed to have bottomless pockets, full of stickers of different designs, frequently peeling them from their backing, and sticking them wherever he could.
“I really like your place” says Tom to Roland in the now not so full fan-base, “it’s a shed” he replies. The lights have been dimmed, and there is room on one of the long tables for us to take a seat. Behind us, like in many clubhouses the league table is on display post game, but this one is not being broadcast on a soul stealing sports channel, this is the black and green of teletext, occasionally ticking over to the second of two pages, powerless to do anything until it ticks back to the first.
Mathias one of the many helpful people here, his hair slicked into a serious looking quiff, and wearing a heavy duty leather jacket, joins us. My Spurs scarf has been quite the conversation starter, with them being drawn against BVB in the next round of the Europa League. “You can tell your coach who the best players are” he says, and I'm secretly distraught my cover has been blown, and feverishly try to set my papers on fire under the table. Tom drifting off with all the Tottenham talk, is brought back in the room when we hear that Ozil was a youth player at RWE.
A huge thank you to Roland, Mathias and all the fans in the fan-base and stadium, even the one who chucked the beer on me, for making it an unforgettable night.
What a welcome, what an atmosphere, what a way to get our weekend underway.