There’s wonder in ‘most everything I see
There’s always excited anticipation before venturing into Europe and sometimes you end up disappointed. FC United’s trip to St Pauli at the weekend, however, surpassed everyone’s expectations.
Apart from the struggles encountered by many trying to get home in the face of the Arthur Ash cloud, the moment in the second half when the Millerntor Stadion’s Gegengerade Stand reverberated to The Carpenters will live long in the memories of all those present.
The, let’s be frank about, quite fey song is not one you would associate with football fans. But, we’re not like most football fans. The song that first aired in a Berlin bar pre-Leipzig on FC’s debut into Europe has been a staple diet of pub sing-ins for many of us ever since, but on Saturday it went mainstream and how lovely and apt it was. Five years to the week since our football club was stolen from us, we are still fighting back and with every passing day that our resistance holds, we continue Manchester’s finest traditions of making the most of a shit situation.
We have surpassed those early hopes, mentioned as they were by those on the steering committee in May 2005. The hope that we would form an embodiment of what a football club should be and that we would show the world how it should be done. We would go to St Pauli and stand shoulder to shoulder with other like-minded football fans across Europe.
We did it and in the end, it was the Germans who stood staring at us open-mouthed in wonder at the ludicrous, but perfectly fitting vocal rendition.
There was a sweet irony in the fact we shouldn’t even have been in that upper part of the stand. Those beginning the singing had earlier had to call on familiar techniques to even get past one of the keenest stewards we have ever encountered. I swear she had hold of my arm even when I was 20 yards up the steps. Persistence was the main focus of her CV when applying for that role. But we’re persistent gets ourselves and we triumphed once again.
That seemingly endless sing-song, conducted in unison by every little clique of red support who was there, was as United as FC has ever been.
The night before, we had found ourselves in a small, previously empty bar away from the Reeperbahn. The 30 or so present had countless years of United history behind them dating back to the 1960s and the toast offered to the memory of Russell Delaney, who had been a strong advocate of the wish to play St Pauli in the early FC days, was as emotional as you could imagine.
We were gathering stragglers by the minute, including one of our longest serving on-pitch stalwarts, who revealed a lyrical hatred for that other club hailing from our city. As 4am came and we wondered how the hell he would manage to get up and train then play on a Bundesliga pitch the following day, we should never have doubted him. He was up for brekka at 9am and started the match.
St Pauli fans found their way to the pub and asked the landlord to turn the music off, as they wanted to hear us louder. They came over and joined in as we sang ‘We’re the famous Man United and we’re going to St Pauli…’
It’s times like that you take a look at where you have come from and grin at the sheer bloody-minded audaciousness we all possess. In achieving what we have as a club, by even getting to St Pauli, we must look back with pride, but also note the lessons offered by our wonderful hosts.
We undertook a tour of the Millerntor the previous day. Their head of security led us round. A man who once lived in a squat a stone’s throw from the stadium and took an active part in the left-leaning politics that engulfed the area and has shaped it since.
We were shown the area between the Reeperbahn and the old docks, where once-upon-a-time people from ‘Hamburg’ were not allowed to enter St Pauli district. It was a place for those who were seen as ‘different’. Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, black people, Asians, those of mixed race, those of certain political beliefs and everything in between. The authorities tried to protect ‘normal’ Hamburg folk by preventing them from being ‘polluted’ by these people and they banned travel between the two areas at certain times. This harboured an outsider culture that still thrives today.
We had a pint in the building where one of the main squats had grown in the 1980s and where the head of security had lived. It played punk music and outside was a vehicle made of a large van with a VW camper cut in half and soldered on top. It contained a wood fire or stove. We know this because it had a chimney and smoke was coming out. It was a sight to behold and added to the weird, yet delightful, feeling in the wind.
They are proud of this heritage and rightly so, but it is under threat. The city council want the area to look like every other city in Europe with glass-fronted catastrophes replacing the buildings currently buzzing with character. On one street there is an old, grand, stone structure with carved windows and graffiti, while on the other there are mock-timber flats, which wouldn’t look out of place in Didsbury. The next time we go, St Pauli locals fear the older buildings will no longer be standing as the rich infest and de-stress in their yuppie flats.
St Pauli’s football culture is also facing many challenges. In trying to further themselves by achieving promotion to the Bundesliga, they have seemingly had to make sacrifices. The new South Stand, that holds their ultras on the terrace at the bottom, also contains plush, padded ‘business seats’ above and a jaw-dropping executive area. Similar to the Stretford End at Old Trafford, but with standing areas.
They have a small number of executive boxes, but unlike the staid and basic affairs in England, each custodian of a box gets to decorate them as they wish. St Pauli see this as another sign of their ‘difference’. The local brewer Astra has done their box up like a lap-dancing club, with nearly naked women adorning the walls. Another firm has used the Sistine Chapel as its inspiration with those inside watching the action through a stained-glass window.
It didn’t sit right with many of us. St Pauli explained that this was the trade off for keeping ticket prices down. The boxes brought 75,000 euros into the club each match. That is a staggering amount. It means that standing tickets behind the goal last season were as little as 8 euros. The ground has been rebuilt and the South Stand could quite easily be placed into Piccadilly Gardens and no one would notice. It would be nice if we could avoid building such a soul-less structure in our own ground.
That is the compromise they have reached and they have done it with the say-so of the membership, which owns the club.
They have over 200 supporter clubs and fan culture flourishes here more than anywhere else in Germany. They are still the most anti-fascist and left wing club in the country and that has to be applauded. But did they have to bend? How important is financial and league-table-driven ‘success’? I, personally, would like to resist this way ‘forward’.
In the Gegengerade during the match there were United and St Pauli mixing freely and we sang ‘happy birthday’ to them as we were there as a consequence of their kind invite to share their 100th anniversary. A bond between our supporters has now been firmly built and it will prosper. It was nice to lay to rest the ill-feeling thrown our way by many at St Pauli who were unimpressed with our trip to Leipzig, who are seen as having a large ‘fascist’ support. We didn’t realise this at the time, as we were at pains to explain. We have much in common with St Pauli and the anti-Tory chants from the FC support received a warm ovation from their fans stood with us.
They are veterans of fan-ownership and the fight for what is right and we are virtual virgins in comparison. That was the scene in the stand as we beamed and bounced with delight and they stared on, knowingly. It was FC United fans that stole the show, which few of us truly expected.
I just hope we can remain as young, untouched and pure as we currently are.
When we created our football club back in 2005, the lyrics to Top of the World were perfectly in fitting with how we all felt back then: “Everything I want the world to be, is now coming true especially for me. And the reason is clear, it’s because you are here. You’re the nearest thing to heaven that I’ve seen…” On Top of the World and looking down on creation was where we were on Saturday. Living out our dream and watching over a group of people who have gone before us. Let’s learn the lessons and keep what we’ve got because we showed St Pauli how it should be done vocally on Saturday and for that we should be immensely proud. If we take the right choices, maybe one day it will be them looking to us for inspiration.