Marathon, not a sprint.

A football season is a marathon, not a sprint. By that token, St. Pauli had stumbled out of the blocks this season, tripped over their shoe laces then started running with their shorts around their ankles up until the winter break. The gamble on appointing club legend Thomas Meggle as coach didn’t really pay off, and the appointment of 61 year old Ewald Lienen didn’t bring with it a sea change in confidence, not immediately anyway.

But under the stewardship and guidance of Lienen the club went into the final day of the season with survival a probability rather than a possibility. He’d managed to guide the team to a remarkable run of form in the second half of the season, given players a new found sense of confidence and most importantly the team were finally exactly that – a team. It meant only a wicked series of results could cause St. Pauli to be relegated automatically on the final day, although the relegation playoff was a more likely outcome. However, in a season characterised by individual errors, it would have been just like St. Pauli to make a mess of it all and fall drastically at the very last hurdle.

Continuing the marathon theme, the Sonderzug (special train) organised by the Fanladen (huge thank you as always!) is a tough endurance race. This year, the 1000+ kilometre round trip to Darmstadt was the test for those willing to put themselves through a journey that would see them leave Hamburg at 6am and return at 1am the following day. It’s the third consecutive year i’ve travelled on the Sonderzug, and i still can’t find any way in which to sum up both the amazing and hellish features of the journey. It’s brilliant, miraculous, and yet bizarre and mental all rolled into one. As summed up brilliantly by Nick in his blog post (see here):

Sonderzug is a post-apocalyptic Hogwarts Express, populated not by wizards and witches, but crammed full of punks, anarchists, ultras, skins and (social) romantics – all members of FCSP’s jumble of a leftfield football fan scene. It hurtles through the dawn towards the Armageddon of 3.Liga, seemingly fuelled by the Astra being drunk by everyone stupid enough not to have hunkered down in their compartment to grab a few hours rest. It’s Astra that seeps from every pore of those brave souls dancing in the disco carriage at 08:00, it’s spilt Astra that forms a tacky bond between your trainers and the carriage floor as you make your way to the bar. Fans bang the roof in time to cheesy Eurotrash tunes that they wouldn’t be seen dead dancing to outside of this train carriage, occasionally bursting into a defiant round of football songs. It’s not even 10:00. Sonderzug is Mad Max mixed with Waterworld, if the water were train carriages, and not, err, water. It’s the dystopian-future football movie that nobody has thought to make (yet). It’s completely insane, yet it feels like the most wonderful place in the world. 

This is half the story though. On a personal note, this meant a hell of a journey before the real journey even began! The trip from Yorkshire to Hamburg and back in order to join the Sonderzug was some sort of special journey in itself. Leaving Barnsley at 6am Saturday morning, driving up to Wakefield to pick up Luke YSP, before heading back down the M1 to Birmingham to rendezvous with Shaun. We’d done over 100 miles and it wasn’t even 9am. It was then onto the leafy suburbs of Buckingham to grab Nick with Shaun driving like Lewis Hamilton in order to ensure Nick didn’t start panicking about our departure time, and then onto Heathrow for our 13:30 flight. After a bit of a flight delay, as always on these trips, we arrived into St. Pauli 11 hours after leaving Yorkshire. Ideal preparation for a 19 hour journey the following day!

The plan upon arrival into St. Pauli was to have a quiet and sober evening ahead of the Sonderzug (wise words said before almost every St. Pauli trip, and almost never end up going according to plan), but catching up with old friends from Hamburg and other YSP members who had made the journey too meant that the beers were soon flowing and the night was passing quickly. It’s at times like this, when people come together because of Yorkshire St. Pauli, that I realise how lucky we are to have set up something so special. Joining our group were Dave and Mo – whom we had first interacted with in the early YSP days on Twitter, and who had supported us since day 1, becoming members and meeting up with us at games. Then there was Heinz and Christian – the father and son duo who introduced themselves on my first Sonderzug trip having seen the Yorkshire flag. Two years later, they are loved by everyone at YSP and are always welcoming and looking after us on our trips to St. Pauli.

After some sobering food (and more beer) in the excellent Backbord, we headed back with Christian to Heinz’s place for sleep. Unfortunately Christian very rarely sleeps, and Heinz is hardly a calming influence! Whisky was opened, more beers were drunk, and songs were sung from YouTube clips of previous Eurovision entries. I’ve no idea.

A drunken 4 hour sleep on Heinz’s sofa followed before the alarm call for the Sonderzug. Thankfully the hangover wasn’t too bad and we were all in a bizarrely buoyant mood with most of us anticipating 3 points. Tiredness does weird things to your mind, obviously! The most surreal event of the morning however, particularly given it was just after 5am, was Heinz opening his fridge. It was full. Of beer. Just beer.

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Heinz’s Fridge.

Before long we had arrived at Altona, boarded the train with all the beer from Heinz’s fridge and headed straight to the party coach, and started having the first beer of a long day. It’s 06:18am. However, the mood was somewhat different to other Sonderzug trips. It was more subdued, people clearly worried about the match and threat of relegation, which soon crept into our mindset and before long I’d resigned ourselves to a chain of results that would see St. Pauli relegated automatically. It was hard to shake that off as we approached Darmstadt, no matter how much beer was consumed.

I’ll leave the stories and wonders of the Sonderzug to those with a better memory and a greater writing ability, but 6 hours after leaving Hamburg the train pulled into Darmstadt and the 800+ St. Pauli fans descended on it, for what the local police called its ‘biggest event in 30 years’. Anyone know what happened in Darmstadt in the 80s? Answers on a postcard.

Darmstadt were on the verge of clinching promotion, a remarkable feat for a ‘small’ (media term, not ours) team that had only just come up from the 3rd division last season. It had an old school football vibe to it which makes you hark back to the days when football wasn’t a game for millionaires, but it also made you wonder how they will cope with promotion. The stadium is set in a forest, and seemingly the only pub near the stadium was a ‘beer garden’ which was more of a community cafe with some grass outside. As Nick eluded to in his blog post, i wasn’t impressed – although admittedly this was probably through lack of sleep! We avoided the huge queue that had descended on the ‘beer garden’ and decided to head to the ground two hours before kick off in the hope it would be quieter and we’d be able to get some food and drink without having to queue round the forest. The aforementioned forest was like a maze, causing comical scenes as our group tried to find any sign of the ground. I’m pretty sure some St. Pauli fans are still trying to use their orienteering skills to find the stadium now, forever lost in the forest. Food was high on the agenda for us, having not eaten since 5:30am and in need of something to offset the amount of beer drunk, but the catering inside the ground was reminiscent of that available at a local non-league side.

There was only one catering van outside the ground, and it was only selling sausage. No vegan option, no drinks. We made a group decision after a collective shrug of shoulders that there must be something better in the ground. Up we walked into the stadium, and we encountered another van. Only it was exactly the same van, with exactly the same options. Sausage or nowt, like it or lump it. Sausage it was then. Thankfully there was at least drinks available inside the ground. Expect it was more expensive to buy a coke than a beer. Go figure that one out. Take note all you European Football Weekend imposters who will no doubt be asking about the catering facilities at the Stadion am Böllenfalltor. Good luck with the maze of the forest!

To appease the EFW types though, the stadium was great, proper old school. Huge floodlights, big open terracing except for a main stand and as Nick pointed out – the TV tower stand that you got in Subuetto sets. It’s so old school that the away team bus has to pull into the stadium, onto the running track behind the goal, and drop the players off to walk down the tunnel under the main stand. Unfortunately the bus before kick-off, ruining jokes that St. Pauli had intended to park the bus all game.

In Lienen, St. Pauli have found a man that not only has decades of managerial experience, but whose personality and ethics also fits the club. His relationship with the fans speaks volumes having only been at the club since mid-December. Granted, that may be a bit of short-termism given the job he has done to date, but i think it’s a sound vote of confidence in a man who fits the profile of the club. In the 1980s, Lienen stood as a candidate for the DKP – The German Communist Party. In an interview with Zeit, Lienen was asked if he thought he belonged at St. Pauli, his response was:

“I am one of those people who believe that many things happen in life for a reason. I’m not saying that my whole life was geared to land at St. Pauli. But you could get the idea. I can identify with the club, because I support the philosophy of the club to one hundred percent” – Ewald Lienen, Zeit online.

Lienen’s passion and connection with the club was summed up pre-match, when he did his now matchday routine of warming the fans up. Fist pumping, gesturing, clapping – Lienen was getting the crowd going as if he was the capo on the terraces. How vital was that routine in keeping the fans with the players during the final months of the season?

The game itself, as i’m sure you watched, was a nervy affair. St. Pauli had little of the game, and seemed intent on nullifying the opponents. It worked for most of the game, until a free-kick seemingly (still haven’t watched a replay!) caught Himmelmann off-guard and found it’s what into the net somehow. St. Pauli struggled to do anything going forward, and the game was only going one way with 10 minutes to go. Focus then turned to the other games, with 1860 Munich and Aue both losing. But Aue made things very nervy when they pulled one back, with people in the away end desperately trying to figure out what this meant for FCSP. Suddenly a young kid to our left get very emotional and started shouting at his phone, presumably he knew another goal had gone in, and he wasn’t just been forced to read the latest Game of Thrones spoilers. Aue had equalised, which by this point no-one really knew what this meant, but it wasn’t good. The full time whistle went, and the scenes of celebration amongst the home support was a stark contrast to the sheer confusion on the fans and players of St. Pauli alike. Someone, probably Rachel Riley, finally figured out what all the results meant and calculated we were safe. Party time!

After a weird pitch invasion, some celebrating with the players and even more so Lienen, we headed back through the maze of the forest and back to the train station with a huge sense of relief. The game wasn’t great, the season hadn’t been great, but we were safe, we’d survived the marathon. Joining us on the train back was some of the players and Lienen himself, and before long we were heading back to Hamburg with another season of 2.Bundesliga ahead of us.

Party time. Shaun had transformed into ‘Disco Shaun’, Nick was chatting to everybody trying to plug his book (this may not be accurate) and Luke and Christian had discovered Champagne. Well, sparkling wine. The music was excellent as always – some proper cheesy 90s pop hits, mixed with club anthems of other German teams (no idea) and some German songs that we had no clue of the words for but we sung along anyway. Or at least we tried. Stories of the sonderzug remain on the sonderzug, but it was a brilliant trip that was summed up with Shaun almost falling down between the train and the platform as we got off the train, and then Christian almost falling asleep on the bench in Altona station.

How to summarise the trip, and the season? With some photos from the trip and a song about the new cult hero, of course.

Group photo in Darmstadt.
Group photo in Darmstadt.
Spot the ball...
Spot the ball…
Goodnight White Pride!
Goodnight White Pride!
St. Pauli parking the bus....
St. Pauli parking the bus….
Asleep. Altona. 1am.
Asleep. Altona. 1am.
Heathrow car park selfie.
Heathrow car park selfie.
You want some?
You want some?
6am trip to Darmstadt? Go on then...
6am trip to Darmstadt? Go on then…
YSP Alte Herren :D
YSP Alte Herren 😀

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You got any?
You got any?

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Stag party YSP.
Stag party YSP.

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