If anyone is reading this hoping for an in-depth description and analysis of the first match of the 2017-18 season, away at Bochum, then I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. For reasons I will explain later on, I could only really give you my view of the first half (some decent passing play with plenty of menace but lacking cutting edge – if you’re interested) anyway, so instead I will focus on my first experience of watching FC Saint Pauli in the flesh.
I discovered Yorkshire Saint Pauli by chance a few months ago when an article about a group of liberal-minded football supporters in Leeds popped up on the Guardian website. Little did I know that the following summer I would be adapting my holiday plans in order to accommodate a second tier German league football match because of that one article. But so it was when, sitting in a campsite in Amsterdam, I noticed on the YSP Facebook page that a couple of fellow members were heading to Germany that weekend. I happen to live on Baker Street (Morley, not London but the difference is minimal) and it wasn’t long before the Sherlock Holmes in me had discovered that there happened to be a St Pauli match in two days’ time, that the match happened to be in Bochum and that, as luck would have it, Bochum was not too far off our intended route from Amsterdam to the Rhine Valley. Now all I had to do was convince my wife and child that a two night stay just outside of Bochum was a worthy addition to our itinerary. The daughter was an easy sell (she’s 1 year old and goes wherever we say) but my wife took a little more persuading (number 3 on Trip Advisor’s 10 Things to do in Bochum is a shopping centre which didn’t bode well). However, she agreed on the basis that we were on holiday to experience new things and so we made our way towards Bochum.
On arriving at the closest campsite we could find to the stadium, my decision looked likely to backfire. After wandering the deserted campsite for a good 5 minutes and eventually seeking help from a nearby hotel (which was given to us reluctantly, I must say), we were met by the campsite manager, Frank. After reluctantly accepting Frank’s invite into his smoke-filled office – where he sounded somewhat surprised by the fact we wanted to stay for 2 nights rather than 1 – we were booked in and made our way to what we thought was the pitch he’d vaguely pointed to, way down the other end of the campsite. Once the tent was up and the tea was on, we were content; tomorrow we would head to the stadium, get a ticket, maybe catch the top 2 attractions on Trip Advisor’s list of things to do in Bochum, then I would go to the game in the evening.
We made our way to the Ruhrstadion late in the morning, hoping to find a ticket office. Instead, we were greeted by a very friendly official-looking man in a high-vis jacket. He kindly informed us that the stadium was ‘closed’ tonight and that he had 27,000 people on his list. The message, although not delivered in the most coherent of ways, was clear: the match was sold-out. There were no tickets. At this point I think it’s fair to say the mood in our car changed somewhat. I was reminded that we could have been wandering around picturesque medieval towns with the Rhine River drifting by and castles dotted on the hills around us. Instead we were in Bochum with no ticket for a sold-out second division German football match. Even the prospect of a trip to the Deutsches Bergbau mining museum (number 1 on the Trip Advisor list) did little to lighten the mood so we returned to our campsite to reconsider our plans. At this point I put out the message to the YSP faithful that I was in need of a ticket for the evening’s match, failing to mention that my holiday, marriage and possibly even my life, depended on it.
At 6.30pm I had no ticket. We’d made our peace that it was just one of those things; our campsite was peaceful and nicely located next to a river so it wasn’t that bad after all. We had decided to enjoy the situation we were in and make the most. Then my phone rang. At 6.39pm (less than 2 hours until kick off) the YSP fixer, Scott, came up trumps for me: He had a ticket if I wanted it. However relaxed the mood was at the present time, I knew that I needed that ticket to justify our detour or risk being reminded of it for the next 2 weeks. I jumped at it. The kettle was boiling on the camp stove but there wasn’t even enough time for tea. I typed ‘Bochum Stadium’ into the mostly-ever-trusty Google Maps and was on my way.
It wasn’t until I hit the inevitable traffic and saw a drunken Bochum supporter heading between cars that I realised I was wearing an away team shirt – something I’d never do back in the UK for reasons of self-preservation. I swiftly wound up the window and tried my hardest to think whether or not I’d read about the relationship between Bochum and St Pauli fans in the book I was currently reading – Pirates, Punks and Politics by Nick Davidson (who I later found out to be a fellow YSP member so good job, Nick, if you happen to be reading this. It was a great read and actually inspired me to try to incorporate this game into our plans to begin with.) On parking, I was slightly relieved to receive a message from the group of much more organised YSPers asking of my whereabouts as it gave me a good excuse to run the 1.5km I had remaining to the stadium. As it was, I had no reason to worry as the atmosphere outside the stadium was very relaxed and I later discovered that the two sets of fans seem to get along fine. Once I had found my saviours and got my hands on the elusive ticket, we were heading into the stadium.
On the way up to my seat, one St Pauli fan stood out in particular. An older man with a well-worn brown St Pauli t-shirt and a great big flag, ready to be unfurled during the match. I had no doubt he had been a St Pauli fan for years, maybe all his life, and I couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a fraud; a tourist among die-hard supporters who were here to start another season of devotion, joy and heartache. I shook it off and found my seat. Shortly afterwards, who should appear and take his seat next to me but Mr St Pauli. Now, I speak about enough German to order a mulled wine at a Christmas market so every time he looked my way and commented on the match I could do nothing but grin and nod, maybe a shrug and a roll of the eyes if I thought the tone suited it. Either way, he must have thought I either had no opinion whatsoever on the game itself or that I was just quite rude. If I make a habit of watching St Pauli games in person, I will have to learn the odd phrase in German (something derogatory about the referee would have put me in good stead on this occasion, I think).
For the meantime, no language skills were necessary as I took in my surroundings and watched as the stadium filled up. I was eager to see for myself what made the likes of the travelling YSP members, Nick the author and countless international St Pauli fans keep coming back for more. Were things really that different at St Pauli? The first cheer I heard come from the St Pauli end answered my question in part. The manager had come right up to the travelling masses to give them a wave before the match. Maybe this happens elsewhere too, but I’d never seen it. The next thing I noticed was that the players were taking great care to collect all the balls after the warm-up. Again, maybe this happens in the lower leagues but I couldn’t help but be impressed by a tall blonde fellow who was last off the pitch, carrying the bag of balls and checking all around that every one was accounted for. I made a point of looking out for him later and realised he was playing at centre-back (Lasse Sobiech, I believe). It was good to see a professional footballer taking responsibility the way your average Sunday league players have to. There was no-one cleaning up after them here the way there would be at a Premier League stadium.
The next action came when a group of innocent enough looking people dressed in white t-shirts and shorts came out of the tunnel carrying some sort of folded banners or flags. I was oblivious to what was going on and was very confused when the St Pauli fans started jeering the people in white as they walked around the pitch. The whistles got louder and louder until I was sure (and my suspicions were later confirmed) that they must represent the DFB or DFL (or both). The opening game of the season was an opportunity for the league to roll out a bit of fanfare in the shape of all of the participating teams’ logos. The chosen few to unfurl the logos and kick the season off with a bit of pomp may have known what was coming but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them and the reaction they got on their way past the away end. After all, this may well have been the highlight of their season. Imagine telling all your friends to be sure to watch your big moment, only for them to witness you being heckled and whistled out of the stadium. Then again, maybe they were all terrible people and deserved it. I don’t know. Anyway, as the people in white made their way back down the tunnel, crying into the over-sized logos they’d spent so long rehearsing how to unveil, the game began. I enjoyed the first half from a football perspective and was quite glad that Mr St Pauli decided the time was not right to fly his flag.
During half time, I made my way towards the group of YSPers who happened to have a spare seat next to them. I´d spotted them during the first half and seen how close they were to the standing section (with their constant singing and flag-waving) and was looking forward to experiencing it for myself.
The view was nowhere near as good as the one I had in the first half, but this was a sacrifice I was willing to make to for the much-improved atmosphere. However, when a dedicated fan climbed the barrier to make sure his flag took pride of place right in front of us, the view was limited to one goal – the one St Pauli were defending. One disgruntled fan went down the terrace to try to reason with the climber but his attempts proved unsuccessful. Again, my German skills are minimal to say the least but I can imagine how the interaction went. Something like: “Hey, if you put that flag there, we can’t see the match we’ve paid money to watch,” from the fan to my left which was met by a dismissive shrug of the shoulders from the proud flag owner. It later became apparent to me that some of the fans couldn’t see the game at all. They weren’t really there for the match but for the atmosphere, for the craic. This went some way to explain why a fan would care more about his flag being seen than his fellow supporters being able to see any of the game. As the second half began, I decided to soak in the atmosphere and forget about enjoying the football on show.
The atmosphere was special. Three lads were perched about 10 feet above the ground, armed with megaphones and a no doubt every St Pauli song that has ever been written. They faced the crowd, only turning every now and again to catch a glimpse of the action. It seemed that, to these three, football was secondary to whipping up the away crowd. They took their roles very seriously and I found it quite amusing to see their frustration building as the St Pauli masses got the rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In wrong time and time again. They would go through the rigmarole of getting everyone quiet again before trying to get a couple of thousand people to sing the words Sankt Pauli at exactly the right time. In the end, they succeeded and the relief was clear on all three of their faces. Another moment of relief came when the one furthest from me very nearly lost his footing and had to grab the net behind him to avoid the not inconsiderable drop. These guys put their safety on the line to make sure their team got the support they deserved.
The support seemed to work anyway and, half way through the second half, St Pauli scored to make it 0-1. Those who saw the goal reacted first and the rest of us followed suit. Beer was thrown everywhere and everyone hugged each other. I’m sure half of the fans in our section were celebrating under the assumption that St Pauli had scored as seeing what was happening at the other end was nigh on impossible. It didn’t matter; St Pauli were ahead (the scoreboard confirmed it) and went on to take all three points with a lot of help from a very impressive goalkeeping display at the end we could actually see. After some sustained pressure, the final whistle came as a relief to fans and players alike and the songs continued as I expected they would. The players came over to celebrate the victory and thank the supporters for making the 3 hour journey from Hamburg on a Friday night. Ten minutes later, it was time to filter back onto the streets of Bochum.
I once spent 3 weeks camping in nearby Gelsenkirchen during the 2006 World Cup so already had fond memories of this part of Germany. Now I have another: my first St Pauli match. I was happy to have sampled the atmosphere of the travelling St Pauli faithful and to witness an away win was certainly a bonus. My next goal is to attend a home game in the Millerntor but that will have to wait. As for the present, I had just received a message from my wife saying that our daughter had spent the last 2 hours crying and no doubt disturbing all the ageing population of Frank’s campsite (admittedly, not the best way for my wife to spend our 11th anniversary). I drove back to the tent hoping that the news of St Pauli’s victory would make everything okay. After all, tomorrow we would be heading towards the Rhine Valley with all those picturesque towns, beautiful castles on hills and not a football in sight.