Union Berlin: Finally There
As the cult club embarks on its first ever Bundesliga campaign, UK-based fans talk to JOE about what makes Union so unique.
For Leighton Jones, it begins with a short walk from his house in Derby to the bus stop at the top of the road
From there a bus goes directly to East Midlands Airport, where he boards a two-hour budget airline flight to Berlin Schönefeld. If there's enough time before kick-off, he might make for Alexanderplatz or somewhere else in the city centre. If not, he'll head straight to his final destination: Köpenick, and the Stadion An der Alten Försterei.
It's a journey Jones has grown used to since he started following Union Berlin, the football club that calls this eastern corner of Germany's sprawling capital its home.
"I went to five games in total during last season," he tells JOE. "It'll be more difficult to get tickets this year, but I've got my eye on going over again soon."
Jones' support for the German club began when he first visited Berlin several years ago. Disillusioned at the way in which Swansea City, his own club, was being run, he was drawn to Union's values and standing as a fan-run club.
"It feels like something more than just football with Union," he explains. "Fan input is essential there. Big club decisions aren't made without approval from their supporters, which, to me, is exactly how it should be."
This ethos goes some way to explaining the appeal of Union, a club that - despite relatively little success on the field throughout their history - can boast of fan groups across the world.
"In the UK you can feel like you’re more of a customer than anything else; at Union it doesn’t feel like that at all," says Kyle Walsh, a Union supporter from Edinburgh. "You matter there, regardless of where you’re from."
The intense bond between the club and its fanbase was famously highlighted in 2004, when Union were on the brink of extinction due to financial difficulties. As a solution, supporters devised the Bluten für Union - bleed for Union - campaign, donating their blood to raise funds for their stricken club. With their stadium in desperate need of refurbishment four years later, supporters again took it upon themselves to resolve the matter: over 2,000 of them voluntarily rebuilding the ground in time for the 2008/2009 campaign.
"It's a fascinating club," adds Walsh, who started following Union after a preseason friendly between them and Celtic, the team he supported as a child, in 2013. "The fans have never been shy of standing up for what they believe in and I'm sure this season, as we've already seen, will be no different."
The 2019/2020 campaign is a historic one for the club. For the first time since the unification of Germany, Union - once situated in what was East Germany - are competing in the Bundesliga. Their place was secured after relegating Stuttgart - a team including the Bayern Munich-bound World Cup-winner Benjamin Pavard and veteran striker Mario Gomez - in a play-off at the end of last season, triggering spectacular scenes at full-time.
Months on and Union's eagerly awaited top flight debut was hardly the stuff of fairytale. Humbled 4-0 at home by RB Leipzig, the contest was as good as over when Timo Werner scored the visitors' third minutes from half-time. Emphatic defeat was not enough, however, to disperse the 22,400-strong crowd, the vast majority of which remained in position on the predominantly terraced stands long after full-time to salute their players.
While the result may have been a disappointment, the occasion offered a window into what Union's fanbase is all about. Before kick-off, they staged a moving tribute to deceased supporters who were depicted on placards inscribed with the words 'Endlich dabei' - 'finally there' - held aloft in the crowd. Each placard was counted towards the official attendance.
For the first 15 minutes of the game, the usually boisterous support fell silent in a protest aimed at Leipzig's ownership by an energy drinks company. The move generated as many headlines as the game itself.
"Protests are nothing new," Walsh says. "Similar things happened when we played Leipzig in the second tier a few years back and when protesting against the German Football Federation changing football fixtures to suit TV audiences instead of match-going supporters.
"It’s nothing abnormal for us as a club. The values it stands for are important and this is how it shows itself."
Striking a balance between club tradition and the increasingly commercialised world of modern football will pose a challenge for Union as they embark on their first season in the Bundesliga. To Rhys Webster, whose footballing allegiances are split between Union and AFC Wimbledon, a slight change inevitably comes with the new territory.
"To an extent, commercialisation is unavoidable - especially after the promotion last season. I think most fans accept that so long as it doesn’t reach the levels of Bayern or disrupt the values the club has, it’s fine and is part of where they are now.
"If it doesn't have any impact on the club and the experience of watching a game at Köpenick, I don't think it matters too much."
Webster first saw Union while visiting Berlin with friends several years ago. Now a member of the club, he attends games as often as is financially viable, enticed by the unique atmosphere on offer.
"Honestly, I don't think there's anything quite like it anywhere else," he says. "The singing is non-stop, everyone seems to be in a good mood and local fans seem impressed when you tell them you’re a member. From my experience, there’s never been any animosity. If anything, you’re welcomed with open arms."
As its name suggests, the Stadion An der Alten Försterei is surrounded by woodland, with many supporters arriving at the ground via a short walk through a tree-lined path from Köpenick's station.
"Making that walk - even that adds to the experience," adds Jones. "It sounds strange if you've never been, but it's as if you're attending a festival; not a football match."
"Nothing beats the atmosphere when you're inside," says Walsh, who attended six Union games last season. "You're free to roam when you're through the turnstiles, then it's just a question of finding a spot and making yourself hoarse for the journey home.
"Home or away, Union fans are the same. I went to Dortmund in the cup last year. We heard the Yellow Wall sing You’ll Never Walk Alone at the start and we were quiet for that. After it, we didn’t hear a thing from Dortmund's fans.
"I'm sure the atmosphere is a result of the relationship between the club and its fans."
While the increased demand for tickets will make it more difficult to attend matches at the Stadion An der Alten Försterei this season, all three men are undeterred. Webster has mapped out a few possible fixtures already, Walsh has his eye on the meeting with Eintracht Frankfurt in late September and Jones is considering a November weekender for the visit of Borussia Mönchengladbach.
"Maybe it's a little more special now they're promoted," Jones says. "But I'm hooked now and would have gone regardless.
"To me, it's how watching football should be."