Flights booked, hotel rooms too, I scoured the fixtures. This was a work trip really, ending in Magdeburg for a few days at a travel trade show, but I really wanted to introduce my colleague to the magic of FC St Pauli. We had managed to bolt on 48 hours in Hamburg before the show, but could we fit in four games in just two days?
It was tight, to be honest. We would need no flight delays and lucky connections to make the Friday evening game. It didn’t quite work out, with a delay to our Manchester departure. With bags dropped off at the hotel in Hamburg-Altona, we looked at our watches, then at eachother, then thought ‘what the hell!’ and ran for the nearest cab.
The first half was already well underway as the taxi sped up Lokstedter Steindamm, the driver aware that his passengers were in a hurry, in need of a first fix of football and maybe a beer or two. I had been to the Hoheluftstadion before a couple of years previously and was really keen to visit again. It is the home of SC Victoria Hamburg of the Oberliga Hamburg (Germany’s 5th division, split regionally), a lovely old-style German football ground dating back to 1907. It has open terracing and a traditional grandstand with a welcoming clubhouse underneath, a great place to take in our first game of the weekend. Well, that was the plan anyway.
Fare paid, as the taxi sped away it dawned on me that we were standing outside a football ground for a Friday night game, but there were no floodlights to be seen, nor indeed anyone at the gate. Hoheluftstadion was empty and in complete closed-up darkness. Despondent, having made such an effort to get from Manchester to Eppendorf, we were about to turn back towards the centre of Hamburg when I saw an A4 laminated sheet of paper on the turnstile gate. The game was in fact still taking place, but on the artificial surface of the tennis club a few hundred yards up the road. Game on!
Ah, that Friday feeling, not a care in the world now and watching a game under the lights. We sauntered through into the ground unquestioned and found a spot next to the railing surrounding the pitch. There was a little bar serving beer and soft drinks, but the queue was a long one. Before I knew it my companion, in his late 60s and with little grasp of German, had climbed the steps next to the bar and, peering down at the queue, had managed to engage the bloke at the front. I don’t know what he said, but somehow the friendly local bought two beers for a couple of complete strangers from Britain.
On the pitch SC Victoria, affectionately known in Hamburg as ‘Vicky’, had eased into a 2-0 lead against their out-of-town visitors from SV Buxtehude, a club teetering around the relegation zone. After Vicky’s second goal Buxtehude suddenly sprang to life, first reducing the deficit, then equalising against all expectation. With two minutes left to play Manuel Detje sent the Buxtehude players crazy, latching onto a free kick. It would be game, set and match to Buxtehude in Vicky’s tennis arena, snatching an unfathomable 3-2 victory from the jaws of defeat.
Down the road at the venerable old Hoheluftstadion, the clubhouse under the grandstand was opened for the evening and we were fed and watered by hospitable people. In one corner of the bar was a little memorial to the enfant terrible of Hamburg football, St Pauli legend Walter Frosch. There are so many stories about ‘Froschi’, a hard-living defender who reputedly smoked 60 cigarettes a day and was quoted as saying, ‘My most difficult opponent was the pub.’ One legend has it that he managed 27 yellow cards in 37 games for St Pauli in season 1976/77, prompting the DFB to instigate a ban for accumulating yellows. In fact, the true figure was a still impressive 19. With two games to go and on 18 yellow cards, Froschi told an interviewer, ‘I’ll get another one against Solingen and another in the last game at Wacker Berlin, then it’ll be 20, a nice round number.’ After being called up to Germany's national B team, he famously announced, ‘A Walter Frosch only plays in Germany's first team or in a World Eleven.’ Froschi, who went on to run that same Victoria bar underneath the grandstand after retiring from the game, inevitably succumbed to his hard lifestyle. RIP Walter Frosch.
Saturday came. The anticipation doesn’t change with age. The nervous excitement as the game approaches. The goosebumps. Even now I’m instantly transported back to my childhood. I would plonk myself in the back seat of dad’s latest old banger and we would drive down the hill to pick up Uncle Billy. Billy wasn’t really my uncle. I had already quizzed dad about this. No, Bill wasn’t his brother; he was in fact dad’s boss at the steelworks. We would drive down to Rotherham, dad, ‘Uncle’ Billy and me, park under the bridge (not far from where Rotherham’s spanking new New York Stadium now stands) and walk towards Millmoor. Through the underpasses we would go, emerging at the Moulders Rest, the crowds getting thicker as we sauntered to the ground, buzzing with excitement as 3 o’clock approached.
It is even more nerve wracking at St Pauli. As a founder of an official FC St Pauli fanclub in the UK I will have been promised two tickets, however, until the fan project opens its doors for the day, until you have that golden ticket to an otherwise sold-out fixture physically in your hand, the tension is greater than at any actual match. After all, you have paid for flights and hotel rooms, trusting a promise from a bunch of friends. Good friends don’t let you down, though, and mid-morning the tickets are collected, accompanied by a huge sigh of relief.
If you don’t know St Pauli where the hell have you been?! If you want to know more about the club and its thriving fan scene our good friend Google will tell you all you need to know. Let’s just say that we have been a beacon for tolerance for 30-odd years, banging our drum against racism, sexism and homophobia long before it was deemed the right thing or the cool thing to do. St Pauli and its fans have influenced football off the field, if not on it, and we still have a punk rock edge despite all the attempts of trendy marketeers to dilute the brand into the mainstream.
A couple of hours before the game, in the shadow of the adjacent fairground, that anticipation of football-orientated thrills and spills returns. The fan project’s bar is flowing with beer and hundreds of supporters, including those very welcome away fans wearing VfL Bochum’s blue and white, mingle and chat on the stadium concourse.
An hour before kick-off it is time to enter the Millerntor Stadium. Foreign fans fortunate to get tickets are usually allocated the Südkurve terrace behind the goal amidst the ultras. Yes, that’s right, a good old-fashioned terrace. It is important to get in early to get a decent spot, particularly when accompanied by the oldest person standing on the Südkurve that day by a country mile, one with dodgy knees as well. Beers are bought and onto the terrace you spill to enjoy the build-up to the game. Yes, that’s right, you can drink a beer from a beaker on the terrace. Welcome to Germany.
I fell out of love with English professional football long ago. It coincided with Rotherham United leaving my beloved battered old Millmoor, but the disillusionment was exacerbated by having to sit down at games, with security in high-vis jackets threatening to eject you for the heinous crime of standing up or otherwise generally having fun. Not so in Germany, particularly not at St Pauli. The head of security is one of the original old punks who formed the fan scene. The fans generally police themselves. Beer is drunk, whacky baccy pervades the air, songs are sung and the terrace is soon bouncing, orchestrated by the ‘capos’ perched on the fence beneath us screaming through loud hailers.
I don’t recall the ultras’ choreo from this game, but I have been behind a wall of pyrotechnics at other St Pauli home games as the teams have entered the field. The biggest goosebump moment for me is the ritual at kick-off, when the Südkurve sings ‘Aux Armes’, borrowed from Olympique Marseille, in call and response with the massive adjacent Gegengerade terrace. It is quite something.
The nerves tingling, the beer flowing, two evenly matched sides fought out a goalless first half. Two goals from New Yorker Fafa Picault midway through the second half gave us the points. Fafa’s first goal led to me losing most of my beer and soaking most of my near neighbours, but that’s all part of the magic. Nobody gives a damn. And where else can you walk out of a football stadium straight onto a fairground?! Watching St Pauli for me is like a cross between a homecoming and attending an all-day party. The crowd stays in the ground, celebrating with the team, then tends to hang around the neighbourhood all evening, which is exactly what we did.
Two games down, two to go. On a bright late spring Sunday morning it was time to dust myself down from the night before and get out and about for the next instalment. When it comes to the Oberliga Hamburg there are two clubs I look out for first. One is Victoria and the other is Altona 93. In the early days of German football Altona 93 was a significant player, hosting the first national championship final in 1903 and reaching the semi-final stages on a couple of occasions before World War I. Playing at the traditional Adolf-Jäger Kampfbahn, Altona’s fanbase is similar to that of St Pauli. Many of the original St Pauli fans, frustrated by the increasing commercialisation of the club, have chosen to follow Altona 93 instead, although there are many who follow both clubs.
It was sod’s law that Altona 93 had an away fixture that weekend, meaning I would miss out on the Adolf-Jäger Kampfbahn again. Still, I decided we should go to watch their away fixture. With an 11.30 kick-off, we used Hamburg’s typically painless public transport system, navigating the S Bahn and the U Bahn to the northeastern suburb of Farmsen, a pleasant little walk from the station bringing us to the Berner Heerweg stadium, home of SC Condor Hamburg.
Condor’s home ground, nestled amidst a leafy suburb, was a nice place to blow away the cobwebs from the misdemeanours of the previous day. Or would it be more a case of ‘hair of the dog’, a strong coffee followed by a lager chaser as the game began. There were just a couple of hundred spectators, with disappointingly few having travelled across the city to support Altona. Condor’s ground is one of those traditional German football grounds with an athletic track around it, leaving you further from the action than you would like in your bleary-eyed hungover state. I don’t recall much of the game itself, other than my travelling buddy taking a fancy to Condor’s no-nonsense British-style centre-back. Meanwhile, Carlos Flores slotted home a left-footed strike on 34 minutes for Condor and this would be the only goal of the game.
As I mentioned, in Germany fans tend to stay around the ground after the game. Germans view with puzzlement the British obsession with leaving the game early to beat the traffic. In German cities the public transport system is so good that nobody drives to the game anyway. I will never forget one experience with my dad. Rotherham trailing 1-0 with ten minutes to go, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Come on son. Let’s go.’ Driving out of the car park and past Millmoor, the kop erupted. 1-1. We followed the last few minutes on Radio Sheffield as dad drove those two miles home. Pulling into our driveway Rotherham banged in an injury-time winner. I can’t remember whether I was ecstatic or livid. Or both at the same time. Thanks dad.
On this occasion we couldn’t hang around the pleasant surroundings of SC Condor’s ground for long. We needed to be somewhere else. Norderstedt, to be precise. With a couple of changes the U1 underground train whizzed us to the northern outskirts of the city for a 2pm kick-off at Eintracht Norderstedt’s tongue-twisting ground, ‘Stadion an der Ochsenzoller Straße’, otherwise known as the ‘Edmund-Plambeck-Stadion’.
The Regionalliga Nord is Germany’s fourth tier, split into regions as the name suggests. Formerly the pinnacle of amateur football, the regional leagues now pit the best local semi-professional clubs with the second string of Bundesliga clubs. The northern region covers the states of Hamburg, Bremen, Lower Saxony and Schleswig Holstein, including the reserve team of my very own FC St Pauli. Threatened with relegation, St Pauli II sent a pretty strong side to the northern suburb that Sunday to face 7th placed FC Eintracht Norderstedt 03. Norderstedt’s heyday was in the 1990s, one season reaching the play-offs for promotion to the second Bundesliga. It’s a tidy little ground with an impressive seated grandstand along one side of the pitch. We elected to stand on the open terrace opposite with the St Pauli fans, intoxicated by the sunshine and the occasional Astra beer, conveniently served by mobile beer sellers dotted around the stadium. Imagine that at a UK fourth division game!
Encouraged by strong away support St Pauli defied their position in the table, taking the game to the hosts. On 17 minutes ex-Norderstedt player, Jan-Marc Schneider, hammered St Pauli in front with a clinical right-foot shot. On the half hour mark Andrej Startsev was brought down in the penalty area by the hapless Norderstedt keeper, who would be unceremoniously replaced at half-time. Schneider bagged his second from the spot. Two goals behind and new goalie between the sticks, try as they might Norderstedt just couldn’t get back into the game after the break. Game in the bag and feeling relaxed in the warm spring sunshine in a leafy suburb, the Astra was no doubt helping our mood. There would be some more excitement on 86 minutes though, with Norderstedt’s Karkari dismissed for a last man infringement on St Pauli’s Leroy Mickels. Joel Keller smashed in the resulting free kick from just outside the area and, to rub salt into Norderstedt’s wounds, St Pauli sub Nico Empen added a fourth in the 90th minute.
Four games covering three divisions in the space of two days, all made simple by the wonder and efficiency of German municipal public transport, flavoured with a beer or two and a bucketload of bonhomie on the terraces. Not a bad way to start the working week!
Oberliga Hamburg - SC Victoria Hamburg 2 Buxtehuder SV 3 (attendance 119)
2nd Bundesliga - FC St Pauli 2 VfL Bochum 0 (attendance 29,546)
Oberliga Hamburg - SC Condor 1 FC Altona 93 0 (attendance 240)
Regionalliga Nord - FC Eintracht Norderstedt 03 0 FC St Pauli II 4 (attendance 565)