FC Schalke 04 vs SV Werder Bremen

German Football Trip – Part One – Part Two – Part Three

Our first day in Germany involved some last minute heroics to salvage the start of our trip, and it ended in a fascinating and competitive game at the home of FC Viktoria Köln.

Our second day, Saturday, began in a more relaxed style. Matt and I had tickets booked for FC Schalke 04 versus Werder Bremen later that night, so we were in no rush at all. With Gelsenkirchen, home to Schalke, roughly 30 minutes away by train, we had the majority of the day to explore our base of Düsseldorf. Matt knew the city very well from previous visits but I was keen to explore what the old town had to offer.

We filled up on the all-you-can eat breakfast at the hotel before strolling into the city. Naturally we stumbled across a huge sports store just minutes down the road, and couldn’t resist exploring the contents within. I’m a sucker for sports shops and thankfully I was in good company. Matt found a Borussia Mönchengladbach home shirt in the sale, the lovely Kappa edition from last season, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get it, especially since we had a Gladbach visit on our schedule for Sunday. I was tempted by many items as well but managed to hold onto my willpower, saving my cash for later.

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We continued on, stopping to see the Königsallee canal and some of the views from the shores of the Rhine. Chelsea versus Man United was the day’s early game, so Matt and I found a bar to watch that and enjoy a couple of Altbiers, Düsseldorf’s famously historic dark beverage of choice.

Lunch was also in order before we departed for Gelsenkirchen and Matt, knowing my love of pizza, knew of a nearby place that he’d proclaimed to be one of the best in the city, if not Europe. I have to admit, Matt delivered on his promise, it was a truly excellent pie and exactly what I needed to soak up those Altbiers.

Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof was our next stop, via a store in the station for a couple of cold train bevs to enjoy on our journey. It doesn’t matter if you’re in England or Germany, drinking cans of lager on the way to the football is exactly the same in every language, and looked down upon by those not participating in exactly the same way too. Especially when you’re an idiot like me and drop a third of your can onto the seat next to you. In my defence, the train did move suddenly. I blame the driver.

Our train pulled into Gelsenkirchen soon enough and we began to see floods of fans converging in our direction, decked out in the blue and white of Schalke. I was also pleased to see a great deal of green as well, as the Bremen fans appeared to have travelled in good numbers, and more importantly, in good spirits.

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A short tram ride from the station dropped us at the doorstep of the enormous Veltins-Arena, Schalke’s 62,271 capacity home, opened in 2001. Matt and I took a quick lap of the modern ground before settling on a couple of beers and some match day gear. As is my custom with new teams and new stadiums, I picked up a pin badge for my collection, and quickly donned it onto my jacket. I also grabbed a scarf, basic with blue and white stripes, that Matt keenly observed I could also wear to Tranmere games. His comment cemented my decision, and I gladly handed over the €15, safe in the knowledge that the scarf would see repeat service.

One aspect of the German football experience I was most excited to see was the fan’s commitment to the club colours. Nearly every person in attendance was wearing at least some item of clothing to show their support, be it a scarf, hat or shirt. Many fans even go the extra mile and have their shirt printed with their favourite player’s name, which is something I really love to see at every game I attend. I can happily spend hours scanning the crowds before kickoff to see all the different kits from years past, as well as the famous (and not-so-famous) names that adorn them. This vibrant sea of colour the fans create is something the Americans do really well, as do Germany, but there are large groups of fans in England and Europe that don’t really go for it, which is a shame as I think it enriches the experience, aesthetically at least.

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To that effect, purchasing a scarf was the very least I could do. Matt was already wearing a Schalke shirt from a previous visit, and I was very tempted to drop money on one too, but I had already decided to save my cash for Sunday’s game at Gladbach, and their stylish Puma kits this season.

With just over half an hour to go before kickoff, we made our way to our seats. Schalke’s home is sublime for viewing angles, and there didn’t appear to be a single bad view in the house. When we initially booked our tickets months before, the game had been very popular and as a result, Matt and I were set to be separated by a couple of rows. Thankfully it only lasted for most of the first half, as a couple of empty seats nearby were left vacant so we took possession of those for the majority of the evening.

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As soon as you settle into the Veltins-Arena, you cannot miss the awesome sight of Schalke’s Nordkurve. Home to approximately 16,000 fans in the dedicated standing section, complete with giant flags, and generating the loudest atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event. The roar is deafening and Schalke’s stadium roof helps that wall of noise reverberate around the entire arena. It really was a spectacular scene to witness and the fans kept up the noise for the entire game.

Unfortunately, the game developed into quite a dour affair, with both teams lacking a player with the creative spark to captivate the audience. I was very keen to see Schalke’s emerging American star Weston McKennie, as well as the Moroccan Amine Harit who I watched during the World Cup, but neither man was especially effective on the day. The majority of build-up attacks from both teams would fizzle into nothing, or result in a shot high and far over the goal.

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Eventually, it was the visitors who struck first, and against the run of play. Bremen hadn’t looked much of a threat as the end of the first half neared, when suddenly midfielder Maximillian Eggestein received a pass on the edge of the Schalke box. The talented 21 year-old German controlled the ball in one smooth motion before using his right foot to lash a shot past Alexander Nübel in the Schalke goal to make it 1-0 to Bremen. Nübel was making his first start for Schalke and the 22 year-old keeper was not helped by Eggestein’s shot bouncing into the turf before he dived, making it harder to stop.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Schalke faithful, conceding just before the break, and sadly their team couldn’t muster much of a response after the restart. Austrian striker Guido Burgstaller had the best chance for the hosts, when he beat his defender down the right wing, putting him one-on-one with Jiří Pavlenka guarding the Werder goal. The angle was acute and ultimately Burgstaller’s low shot was saved well by Pavlenka, who used his legs to deflect the ball just wide of the post for a Schalke corner.

Ten minutes later, Eggestein struck again to put the result beyond Schalke. When the youngster received the ball, there appeared to be no imminent threat, but he swiftly shifted the ball onto his left foot, dragging the ball away from Schalke midfielder Nabil Bentaleb and into space. It was all the room Eggestein needed to get a shot away, a low drive into the far corner beyond Nübel’s outstretched palm, and just like that it was 2-0 to Bremen.

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Their remarkable away support, slightly to the right and opposite of where we were sat, exploded in celebration. The 5,200 who travelled were a very lively and active bunch and despite being dwarfed in size by the immense home support, the Werder fans certainly made themselves seen and heard in their glorious emerald green. Sat there in my blue and white scarf, it was hard to begrudge their joy and the Bremen boys had been methodical and precise in their performance, if not spectacular. Green is also my favourite colour, so they win some points there too.

Schalke had a few half-chances in the remaining minutes, but not anything clearcut, and by the final whistle they appeared exhausted from the sheer effort of chasing the game. Sadly, it was not a very memorable performance from either side and not even Eggestein, with his well-taken brace, was particularly dominant or extraordinary over the course of the whole game.

Having said that, it was still an extremely memorable day and the atmosphere created by both sets of fans will stay with me for some time. As we left the Veltins-Arena behind and efficiently boarded our trams and trains back to Düsseldorf, I could still hear the songs and chants from the crowd echoing in my ears.

We spent the rest of the night in the bars of Düsseldorf enjoying a few more Altbiers, plotting the next day’s journey to see Borussia Mönchengladbach, game three on our trip.

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FC Viktoria Köln vs SV Lippstadt 08

German Football Trip – Part One – Part TwoPart Three

You’re crazy.

That was the reaction from some of my friends and family when I told them I’d paid for a four day trip to Germany, based solely around watching as much football as possible.

Together with my Tranmere-supporting buddy Matt, we set out on our Bundesliga journey. Matt came down from Birkenhead, and I was coming up from Bath, so we met in the middle at Birmingham before flying out to Düsseldorf first thing Friday morning. Matt had combed the fixture list, scouted the best dates and flights, and put the whole thing together. He’s a veteran of the overseas football adventure, so I was lucky to have him guide me through it all.

Upon arriving in sunny Düsseldorf, I managed to fumble my way through all the secondary school German I could remember to order lunch, before finally dropping off our gear at the Holiday Inn. Our attention soon turned to our first match of the trip; Eintracht Frankfurt against Fortuna Düsseldorf, about an hour and a half train journey from our host city.

Everything on the trip had been smooth sailing so far but we were about to stumble into our first problem. As we arrived at Düsseldorf ’s station we saw our direct train to Frankfurt had been cancelled. We still had hours to spare before the 8.30pm kickoff so it wasn’t an issue to catch a different train. However, a glance at the departure boards indicated something was seriously wrong, as any train that passed through the Frankfurt area was severely delayed. Consequently, the majority of trains returning to Düsseldorf had been cancelled as well, or were delayed significantly into the early hours of Saturday morning.

We had a tough decision to make: Should we persevere and try to get to Frankfurt, even if the journey there takes double the time and we might not make it home until 3am? We had already booked both train and match tickets as well, so it would essentially be money lost.

Ultimately, we decided it wasn’t going to be our day and resigned ourselves to the fact we weren’t going to make the 150 miles or so south to Frankfurt.

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However, we were not to be deterred, and so, with adventure still in our veins we settled on another plan. We stepped off our train in Cologne and Matt had found that a local team had a game that night, in Germany’s fourth tier Regionalliga West division. We would not let a transport hiccup ruin our trip on it’s first day, and thanks to a short search on Google Maps, we had committed ourselves to finding this game in the eastern part of Cologne. We boarded a tram in that direction, with the promise of live football still very much alive.

Along the way we stopped into Cologne’s famously gothic cathedral, found Köln legend (and former Arsenal favourite of mine) Lukas Podolski’s ice cream shop, and sampled a few of Cologne’s famous Kölsch beers from the century-old Früh brewery.

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Finally, we arrived at our destination, the 6,214 capacity Sportpark Höhenberg stadium, home of FC Viktoria Köln. As we stepped off the train and made the short walk to the turnstiles among the local fans, decked out in black, red and white, I was struck by this charming ground in the Cologne suburbs. It was a swift tree-lined stroll to the stadium and the floodlights from neighbouring 5-a-side pitches pathed our way.

FC Viktoria Köln, originally established in 1904 and finally formed over decades of mergers with other local sides, were hosting SV Lippstadt 08, visitors just east of Dortmund and about a two hour drive away. Despite my disappointment at not seeing the Bundesliga game we had originally planned for, I was extremely keen to see what a German lower league game could offer. After having seen my fair share of lower league and non league matches this year, I was interested to see how the German experience compared.

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We joined a small line to purchase our tickets and paid €9 for admission. We were pretty certain we’d paid for the standing section but once we got into the ground, there appeared to be no way to access that area, and all the stewards pointed us towards the grandstand when we showed them our tickets. Like most non league games, we weren’t assigned individual seats so we set up camp pretty close to the halfway line, all the while hoping a season ticket holder wouldn’t come by to kick us out.

Before kickoff, I took the time to browse the Viktoria fan shop, a little trailer set behind the grandstand, home to a host of replica shirts, scarves and all the other club-related items you would expect at almost any other club. I used up the extent of my broken German with the helpful lady in the trailer, to buy a club badge to pin to my jacket (a fair €3), to show my allegiance to the home side for the evening. Viktoria’s badge appealed immediately, with it’s distinctive and dominant red V, and it gave me a very V For Vendetta-vibe. In the meantime Matt had purchased more beers so we settled in for the game.

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Drinking beer at a sporting event in the UK isn’t uncommon, particularly if you’ve ever been to the rugby or cricket, but holding a pint at the football is another thing entirely, a forbidden act in this day and age. It did feel good and the Germans are smart enough not to abuse the privilege. It’s a shame that there are too many idiots at home who can’t be responsible, and y’know, not be massive dickheads.

As the teams emerged from the tunnel and filed onto the pitch, Lippstadt’s away support burst into life. There couldn’t have been more than 100 of them who had made the trip but at least 40-50 of their group created such an incredible noise for such a small group. Armed with a drum, some flags and flares, and even a firework released just before the referee began the game, Lippstadt’s support really raised the bar for atmospheres at lower division games.

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The match began and it was evident early on that these were two fairly even teams. Viktoria began the night top of the league and were riding a winning streak, but third placed Lippstadt were keen to assert themselves, with an effective press and pacey counter attack.

What most impressed me was both team’s dedication to playing fast, fluid passing football. This was a world away from the playing style I am used to seeing at most English lower league games. Viktoria and Lippstadt were committed to keeping the ball on the deck and playing it out from the back, and the crowd would audibly groan when the home goalkeeper couldn’t find a nearby option, opting to send the ball long instead. Matt and I both agreed that either of these sides could present some problems to a few established League Two teams back home.

The first half flew by and after a day’s intake of German beer, I needed food – I was ready for my first currywurst. I dashed down the steps out of the grandstand, to the small beer and food tent outside and paid a couple of euros for this plastic dish of diced-up sausage, coated in a spicy brown sauce. The currywurst was as good as advertised and the perfect half time meal for my first game of German football. I mentioned to Matt that from that point on, all I wanted to eat was currywurst, and I was only half joking.

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The second half got underway and Viktoria grew with confidence, and were soon rewarded when they took the lead. Just fifteen minutes after the restart, substitute midfielder Hamza Saghiri made a late run into the box and was on hand to crash the ball home. A low cross from the right flank was missed by the Viktoria centre forward but Saghiri was there to pick up the pieces and make it 1-0 to the hosts. He had only been on the pitch for two minutes! The fans around us rose in celebration and the particularly vocal home supporters to our right really made themselves heard. It was fully deserved for Viktoria and I was happy we were treated to a home goal.

Viktoria increased the intensity and should have extended their lead multiple times in the second half. The attack was led by the young German winger Kevin Holzweiler, a diminutive presence who caused havoc in the Lippstadt defence. Due to his size (5’4), trendy haircut, pace and trickery, he reminded me a lot of Swiss international and Liverpool winger Shaqiri, and in my beer and currywurst-addled state, that is what I deemed to call Holzweiler for the entire game. He was seriously impressive though, regularly cutting onto his favoured left foot to curl in a shot. He came close too, crashing one against the crossbar, with a big oooooooh resounding from the fans.

With 15 minutes left and Lippstadt struggling to match Viktoria’s energy, the crowd rose to applaud the return of their captain Mike Wunderlich, who had come back after a long injury. Wunderlich (great name) got a huge reception from the locals and he had a late chance he couldn’t convert, but the fans loved him anyway.

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The referee blew the final whistle and we applauded both teams for putting on such an excellent and competitive show, a deserved 1-0 win for the home team. The quality of football was much better than we could have anticipated, and as I mentioned previously, it was a vast improvement over some of the play I’ve seen at a similar level in England. The technical ability and dedication to possession was pleasing on the eye, and both Viktoria and Lippstadt played the game the right way.

So, I hear you ask, what happened in the Frankfurt game you missed? Oh, just a 7-1 annihilation of Düsseldorf, that saw Frankfurt forward Luka Jović, just 20 years-old, score five goals in one game.

Nothing to write home about then.

Still, despite that result and our inability to be there to witness it, I was very much comforted by the game we did see, and Viktoria Köln can safely add two more fans to their supporter base. We successfully turned what could have been a disaster into a triumph, and it was an outstanding way to begin our trip.

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Bath City FC vs Welling United

City’s Community Day Cheer Cancelled Out

You know the football season is well under way when September draws to a close and the calendar turns to October. Those sunlit afternoons soon become a distant memory, as the cold and the rain begin to rear their familiar heads. Before you know it, darkness has consumed you by half time and you can no longer feel your toes.

Thankfully on Saturday the 29th September, the chill of October had yet to reach us, and for one more day it felt like summer. For Bath City FC, those final rays of sun bathed the luscious green turf of Twerton Park on their Community Day, the one day of the season the club expects to draw their largest crowd, largely thanks to their unique ‘Pay What You Want’ scheme. It does exactly what it says on the tin; you pay whatever amount you like for admission.

In the build-up to this fixture the club had done a fantastic job spreading the news, with posters all over the city advertising the day and all it’s events.

When I arrived outside the ground with half an hour to spare before kickoff, I could certainly tell that the Community Day spirit had gripped the city. There were visible queues for the turnstiles, something I rarely see on my visits to watch City. Leading up to the queues were a number of stalls from local businesses, including pop-up food and drink stands, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves in the sunshine.

I waited for Matt, my Tranmere-supporting friend, who happened to be down south this weekend and kindly accompanied me to the game. Matt had been to Twerton Park before, a couple of years ago for a game against Truro, but we had never visited together. We’ve recently booked a mini Bundesliga tour and we fly to Germany later this month, so there are a few more games together in our near future (and I will be writing about it all, so watch this space).

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I paid at the turnstile, purchased my programme, and found my customary spot on the terrace, close to the half way line, and applauded the players onto the pitch as they emerged from the tunnel. It was 5th placed Bath versus 4th placed Welling United, an organised outfit that had made the trip along the M4 from London. The home side entered the afternoon on a four-game winning streak at Twerton Park so confidence was high as the referee blew his whistle to begin proceedings.

However, right from the start it was clear that Bath were going to have their hands full with a very disciplined Welling team. The visitors burst into life in the opening stages and City ‘keeper Ryan Clarke had to be alert to deny them an opening goal.

As the game progressed it became evident that Welling were very effective in pressing Bath, consistently disrupting the hosts and preventing them from gaining any sort of rhythm in possession. I had last seen City in mid-August, when they were almost faultless in a rout of Gloucester, but on this day they weren’t given an inch, and their attacks regularly stuttered into nothing.

Welling were content to sit back and burst forward on the counter, and the strategy paid off in the 25th minute. Hesitation between the Bath defence and Clarke in goal allowed Welling winger Gavin McCallum to nip in and delicately lift the ball over Clarke to give the London side an early and deserved lead.

In an effort to respond, City centre back Jack Batten had a fine header saved and Adam Mann made a burst down the left wing before firing a fierce shot over the bar. Unfortunately that was all the home side could muster and despite growing in confidence, City were unable to create any more clear-cut chances before half time.

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In the second half Bath faced the same defensive press yet again and really struggled to create anything truly threatening. Their best opportunity to get something from the game came late on, with about ten minutes left. Centre back Batten burst out of defence and carried the ball through the Welling midfield, before playing a perfect through ball into the path of substitute forward John Mills. Sadly Mills struggled to get the ball out of his feet and his delay on the shot allowed the Welling defence to close him down and cut out the danger. The City crowd groaned in frustration, as it was the closest the home side had come all afternoon.

Only a minute later the result was put to bed when confusion in the City defence allowed a Welling cross to go almost unnoticed, and Danny Mills was on hand to poke the ball home to kill off the game, 2-0. It was the same sort of defensive lapse that allowed the first goal to be conceded, and something Bath manager Jerry Gill will be disappointed to see occur twice.

Despite the result, the 1,585 fans in attendance set a new record for Bath’s Community Day, and it was the most attended game at Twerton Park in over seven years. With the club just announcing a loss of approximately £137,000 for the year 2017/18, they will be keen to retain as many new fans, and old, as they progress further towards their goal of self-sustainment and the redevelopment of Twerton Park.

City fans should not be discouraged though, as Gill’s side have made a fine start to the season. With young talents like right back and Man of the Match Joe Raynes impressing on a weekly basis, things are looking up for the Romans.