Oh the Cologne – a football weekend on the Rhine

Last month I finally ceased procratinating and managed to get myself over to catch a Bundesliga game, it was something I’d been meaning to do for quite a while but for one reason or another never managed to get round to actually booking. The last time I’d been in Germany when there was a regular season game on was way back in 2012, when I visited Berlin. There was quite the apetising fixture as Hertha Berlin has been relegated to the Bundesliga II and were going to face city rivals Union in a league game for the first time. However, the game was being played in Union’s Stadion An der Alten Försterei which at the time had a capacity below 20,000, no chance for a blow-in tourist to snap up a ticket so.

Certain things have to be considered when picking a game, avoiding the worst extremes of the German weather and potential sub-zero temperatures ruled out games in February and much of March so we settled on getting a game in early May as the season drew to a close, it gave a better chance of getting some good weather and being able to enjoy a few beers outside before the kick-off.

I was lucky in having a good guide for German football in the shape of my friend Brendan. Son of an Irish mother and German father Brendan grew up in Hannover where he became a season ticket holder at Hannover 96 before he moved to Ireland a few years ago and I managed to indoctrinate him into becoming a Bohs fan.

The itinerary we eventually decided on was to fly direct to Cologne, get a game at Rot Weiss Essen in the Regionliga West on the Saturday, before getting a FC Kóóln game on the Sunday and flying home that Monday. A good efficient plan.

This plan wasn’t helped by my bringing the wrong passport with me and having to book in a later flight to Frankfurt, meaning I arrived in Cologne several hours after Brendan. First things first, the bar, a nice unprepossessing, traditional local bar next to the apartment where we were staying in Ehrenfeld adorned with some FC Koln memerobilia, including a rather impressive portrait of the almost ubiquitus Hennes the goat.

To explain briefly, Hennes the goat is the mascot of FC Koln, although mascot seems too small a word, the club are nicknamed the Billy Goats on his account,  he appears on the club crest, looming over the other famous image of the city; its Cathedral, and is held in the highest affection by Cologne fans. He’s named Hennes after the former player and manager Hennes Weisweiler, the goat was presented as a gift from a local circus in 1950 and the manager happily adopted him and named him after himself. The current Hennes is the eighth incarnation since then and we did indeed get to see Hennes VIII on our weekend.

One of the other striking things about Cologne is the beer, the local brew is a light lager called Kolsch after the city, it is best drank on draft and is served in 200ml, test-tubelike glasses. The effect on someone more used to drinking by the pint is to lull you into a false sense of security where you convince yourself you’ve drank hardly anything when you’re well into double figures of the diminutive glasses. Usually the local bar runs a tab by marking a beermat to keep track on how many of these refreshing beverages you’ve had. They also tend to be pretty keenly priced, our local charged us a very reasonable €1.40 per glass. Drink til you make a profit lads.

Somewhat bleary-eyed we roused ourselves the following morning, the free-flowing Kolsch and welcoming locals had slightly dulled our senses but we had a game to get to in the nearby city of Essen. About an hour away on the train, wikipedia reliably informed me that Essen was Germany’s ninth largest city and we were off to catch their premier club Rot Weiss Essen in action.

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Rot Weiss Essen’s (literally the Red and whites of Essen) greatest claim to fame is being the hometown club of Helmut Rahn, the man who scored the winning goal for West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final against Hungary. Rahn had been a star forward for Essen throughout the 50’s, helping them to a German Cup triumph in 1953 and the league title in 1955. This was in the years before the foundation of the national, professional Bundesliga was set up in 1963.

The club are a long way from those lofty heights, financial problems in the 1990’s and again within the last ten years see them playing in the Regionalliga West, effectively a vast, regionalised 4th tier of German football. They do however possess a very impressive stadium, the Stadion Essen replaced the much older Georg-Melches-Stadion in 2012 and this modern, four-sided ground boasts a capacity of just over 20,000.

The game that Saturday was against SC Wiedenbruck who were struggling against relegation. With the season drawing to an end Rot-Weiss Essen, who were comfortably mid-table had little to play for, and it showed. We took up our spaces in the main standing terrace behind the goal, a group of locals quickly – and fairly directly – advised us that we were in their spot and should move further back. While the terrace boasted a few thousand souls the other stands were sparsely occupied, I estimated the attendance at no more than 3,000.

The “ultras” group did make some noise throughout the game, with my limited German I could work out that they were big fans of their goal-scorer on the day Timo Brauer, and their main chant seeming to be singing the clubs name along to the tune of Mike Oldfield’s 1983 hit Moonlight Shadow. So imagine “carried way by a ROT-WEISS-ESSEN!

This wasn’t the most enthrawling of games; Weidenbruck took the lead through a wickedly deflected own-goal, Essen equalised but rarely threatened and Weidenbruck had the better of the play and ended up deserved 2-1 winners. We took the opportunities during the various lulls in play to hit the bars and enjoyed the really quite good quality local lagers and the odd wurst. Both teams did try to play football and were technically adept but played at a deadeningly slow pace and seemed to telegraph every pass, all of  which looked like they had already been agreed upon on the training ground the previous day. The few moments of pace and creativity tended to come from Weidenbruck and generally created some manner of attacking opportunity as a result but these forays were disappointingly rare. As for the overall standard, my limited knowledge would suggest that either of these sides would have struggled against a decent League of Ireland side. That said, perhaps Essen’s apathy was simply a result of it being a “nothing to play for” end of season game against an opponent motivated to avoid relegation?

With the game over we went to a couple of decent local bars in Essen with a group of Bochum fans we’d met. Bochum were playing away that weekend and the guys fancied catching a game. They were also in the first flushes of young adulthood and had a drinking stamina that Brendan and I have long since lost. We somewhat sensibly turned down their kind offer of a visit to a house party followed by a local club night and got the train back to Cologne.

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Recuperating on the train back from Essen

We did get a second wind once we reached Cologne and did manage a few more Kolsch before ending up in a fairly uninspiring “club” but at least we got to plaster a few Bohs stickers around the place. Having survived our Saturday game and subsequent outings relatively unscathed (okay slightly in bits) we had to psyche ourselves up for the main event – FC Koln versus SSV Jahn Regensburg in Bundesliga 2.

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Koln were the Champions in waiting and already guaranteed promotion back to the top flight after just a year in the second tier, Regensburg, a Bavarian club had done relatively well that season, but it had just been confirmed that their manager, Achim Beierlorzer had agreed to join Koln for the upcoming season back in the top division which added a little bit extra to the atmosphere for the loud and colourful travelling fans.

Incidentally Regensburg is the Bavarian town the club come from while the “Jahn” in their name refers to a Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who was a 19th German nationalist who is seen as the father of the gymnastics movement. So there you go.

The Koln stadium is a relatively short tram journey from the city centre and both we and our hangovers got out there early to soak in a bit of the matchday atmosphere and also collect our tickets. The stadium is located in a huge swathe of green space on all sides and there was somewhat of a carnival atmosphere, plenty of food vendors, people having picnics, live music playing.

At the rear of the stadium are a number of well-kept public football pitches which were all well-occupied by groups of all ages and then further beyond the pitches stretched a large and picturesque public park where people were treated like adults and could have a beer and a barbeque without fear of censure. Imagine!

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After trudging for what seemed like an eternity to collect our tickets from a small office operating from a not-so-nearby hotel we got ready to head onto the terrace. Fortified with some beer and pretzels we felt a bit better and were about to take our position as nominal Jahn Regensburg fans for the day, through this did mean hiding my snazzy new Hennes the goat pin badge.

This was clearly going to be much different from the Essen game, the Rhine Energie Stadium was pretty much full a good thirty minutes before kick-off and even getting a good vantage point among the away fans proved a challenge. With the game kicking off there was something of a carnival atmosphere in the ground, understandable since Koln were already promoted, but many of their fans were far from happy. From early in the game right through to after the final whistle there was an array of banners held aloft by huge numbers of the Koln faithful in the opposite terrace criticising the board and their running of the club. Promotion from the second tier was something that had to be achieved but the fans explicitly viewed it as a situation they never should have been in in the first place.

The game itself was no less lively with Regensburg racing into an early lead thanks to a 7th minute OG. They doubled their lead before on the stroke of half-time as Koln had a player sent off and only seconds later they conceded a penalty. While they finished the half a man short and 3-0 down, but by that stage things were only getting started. Koln mounted something of a comeback through the unlikely figure of German international Jonas Hector who was playing at left-back who managed to score two second-half goals either side of a Sargis Adamyan goal for Regensburg.

On 76 minutes a frantic, 10-man Koln seemed within touching distance of an unlikely draw when substitute Anthony Modeste grabbed a goal to bring the score back to 4-3 but as they continued to throw everything into attack in search of an equalizer, and I mean everything, Koln were caught on the break by Regensburg with the Koln goalkeeper Timo Horn caught up the pitch the visitors had an empty goal to shoot into as they scored their 5th and destroyed any slim chances there might have been for a Koln comeback.

Still it wasn’t all bad for Koln, despite their defeat in a hugely exciting, frenetic game they still had the won the Bundesliga II and got to raise the divisional trophy on the pitch after the game. There was also some cheering and celebration when news filtered through that results had conspired to make sure that Hamburg finish fourth and outside of the play-off places. Der Dino, never the most popular club to begin with, must be getting very used to the enthusiastic application of the German concept of schadenfreude over the last couple of seasons.

As the Koln players lifted their trophy the lines of stewards were quickly bypassed and first hundreds and then thousands of spectators began pouring onto the pitch. Located as we were in the away end, a significant number of riot police kept us penned in and well seperated. The Koln fans however began by taking apart the goal nets as souvenirs before eventually the goal-frame closest to us collapsed under the weight of supporters climbing on top of it.

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We were eventually spewed back out into the stadium concourse and walked on towards the tram stop at the far side of the open green space that surrounds the stadium. No more than 15 minutes later we were back in Ehrenfeld and despite promising ourselves that we would do otherwise we ended up in a local bar after a quick dinner.

The Cologne locals throughout our short trip were friendly and engaging, and in this instance a request that we keep an eye on another customers dog led to a conversation about football (he coached a team playing in the regionalised 6th tier) and even the possibility of arranging a match against Bohemians.

So after years of procrastinating I got myself to a couple of games in Germany, plenty of colour, excitement and genuinly good people who love their sport, I’ll definitely be back.

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