Thursday, 25 October 2012

Hamburger SV 0 VfB Stuttgart 1

The clock on my phone read 05.36 on Sunday morning and my drunk-blurred eyes caught sight of yet another immaculate blonde-haired, blue-eyed m├Ądchen shaking her hips to the relentless Euro techno. I wondered if my German was strong enough to make an introduction and whether I had the bottle. Of course not. I swigged the foamy dregs of my tenth Desperados and stumbled back out onto the Reeperbahn with my mates. 

The sky was lightening over towards the east and this street of hedonism and notoriety was a tide of people heading for the taxi rank, the Imbiss or, quite possibly, one of the many prostitutes who formed a smutty guard of honour on both sides of the avenue. And as we staggered hostel-wards, I felt a pang of satisfaction that not only had the trip I’d organised been a phenomenal success, but also that the best bit was still to come. 

I don’t remember when this trip was conceived, but I’m bloody glad it was. No doubt in a bar in Sheffield sometime in the early part of 2011. First it was Dortmund and the Westfalenstadion, then it was maybe Berlin, Munich perhaps? And then we opted for Hamburg because I argued that it would be the best experience. There’s nothing to see in Dortmund, I said, half believing myself though not really knowing. On my head be it.

First there were six of us, and then inevitably it was five. Then suddenly it was just the four and there were anxious communications. But the days ground down and we were on our way. The prophecy of that night in Sheffield had come to pass - our first European football weekend. Herr Shergold, Herr Blackburn, Herr Payling and Herr Coleman - Into Europe. 

The leafy surroundings of the Imtech Arena (all pictures by
Liam Blackburn)
Friday and Saturday were a whirlwind of leckeres beers, currywurst, alluring neon lights and a genuine desire to relate absolutely everything we did to moments from Peep Show. Sunday morning never really existed but we were blessed in that our game - Hamburger SV against VfB Stuttgart - didn’t begin until half five. Until we actually arrived on German soil, I thought the match was on Saturday so it’s a good job the others were on the ball. 

So with leaden legs and fragile heads but high expectations, we headed to the Hauptbahnhof for our first taste of the German game. The afternoon was a succession of pleasant surprises which make a mockery of the over-priced and often over-hyped matchday experience in the Premier League. 

Hamburg themed lager, anyone?
Whether it was the beer sellers lining the walk from the S-Bahn station to the Imtech Arena selling club-themed beer, fans of both teams mixing happily sharing scarves, pin badges and stories, the lively jazz band in the underpass, the stunningly leafy setting of the ground, the fascinating in-house museum or the bargain ticket prices, there was so much here that English football culture could learn from. I could go on at length. 

Many blogs and pundits have pointed at the German matchday as the template for how things should be done and, where I was once a little sceptical, having now sampled it, I agree one hundred per cent. Passion is not drained by doing things logically and efficiently. 

Consider the tickets if nothing else. In the week that the BBC’s annual Price of Football survey once again exposed the wallet-busting, eye-watering cost of watching the Premier League, I was able to buy four standing tickets for the same price of one seat at Stamford Bridge or the Emirates. My matchday programme was 3 euros, my can of beer 3 euros and the half-time wurst a couple of euros. 

The Imtech Arena fills up before kick off
The terrace behind the goal was broad and steep. We arrived about 45 minutes before kick-off and watched it fill up into a claustrophobic blue mass. Everyone had a scarf or a banner. Everyone was wanting to get involved. I’m massively in favour of introducing safe standing to the Premier League and the atmosphere it can produce is the chief reason. 

Ten minutes before kick-off, a musician with a guitar was hoisted on a cherry picker in front of the Ultras. This was the signal. Great flags in blue and white were lifted from the mass to our right, tickertape tumbled down from the upper tier and every arm was aloft with a blue scarf to join the rendition of “Wir lieben Hamburg.” My scarf, bought on a school trip six years ago, reads ‘Tradition Verpflichtet’. I still don’t know what it actually means. 

The Ultras took it from there. Two clung to the netting behind the goal, missing the action, but orchestrating their comrades with loud hailers. Directly in front of them, a bouncing blur of bodies. Every fresh chant would reverberate across the terrace, amplified more and more. HAA-ESS-VAU, HAA-ESS-VAU. A deep drum booming from within kept a constant like a ticking clock. 

Flags and banners flutter as the teams emerge from the tunnel
There was humour in the hubris too, at least for us English. It tickled us that Michael Mancienne, rejected so readily by Chelsea as nowhere near good enough, has wound up as Hamburg’s first choice centre-half. Unfortunately, Mancienne did little in the game to change our condescending opinion. The bruiser Paul Scharner, who spent four years at Wigan, was also on the bench. 

Just 90 seconds in and Hamburg should have been behind. Stuttgart, playing nothing like an underachieving side fourth bottom, broke clear and goalkeeper Rene Adler, who had to be on alert all afternoon, smothered the ball from Martin Harnik. 

Stuttgart continued to dominate the ball and there opening goal came with a real inevitability. Harnik broke free right in front of us and sent in a low cross for Vedad Ibisevic, who had escaped the handcuffs of Marcell Jansen, to score at the near post. There was the rueful shaking of heads about us, a few groans and then another gruff chorus of HA-ESS-VAU. 

Hamburg responded well and, as the clock ticked down slowly to half-time, thought they’d equalised. Milan Badelji, from out of the blue, rocked the crossbar with a 25-yard Exocet and Artjoms Rudnevs was there to tuck home the rebound. Arms raised, I braced for the mad melee of celebration. From our vantage point it was impossible to see the raised offside flag and the cheering took a good half minute to simmer down. We would be denied our moment of jubilation on this occasion. 

If anything, the second half went even more in Stuttgart’s favour, with their wedge of 3,000-odd fans partaking in some joyous and choreographed chanting over in the far corner. Adler was called into action several times and the mood around us became more and more agitated. Even we became agitated as though we’d been watching Hamburg for years. 

The last 15 minutes saw both teams going hammer and tongs. Stuttgart to make sure their game plan paid off and Hamburg to rescue their resurgent run. But all too often Hamburg’s attacks fizzled in the crucial pass. Even Scharner couldn’t do manage better after being brought on. Sven Ulreich in the away goal wasn’t unduly troubled. The pressure had come too little, too late. 

Not the most memorable of matches, but an experience and a weekend that will stick with me for a long time. 

Next Match: Southend United v York City at Roots Hall on Saturday.