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 to 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 where 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 notice a subtle difference in the station names which 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 flinches 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 club’s 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 hands us two CDs 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, 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.
Eeven 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”.
Check out the second part of our German Friday night football, tomorrow on Back Page Football.