The saying goes that with each new season brings new hope. So as my brother and I prepared for the 2016-17 campaign our main hopes were that our adventures in German football would continue unabated and that we’d maintain the mix of big city breaks with voyages into deeper unchartered waters.
With the top flight having taken an extended summer break due to the travails of the Euros it was inevitable that we’d be sniffing around the alternative fixtures for our first trip. In fact, having witnessed various underwhelming high-profile games last season we were perfectly happy to focus further down the leagues.
The opening weekend of the Bundesliga 2 gave us our opportunity; with the fixtures spanning from Friday to Monday and offering us an easily achievable 4-game circuit within the Südwest region. As has become the norm, I dealt with match tickets and hotels while my brother organized travel, so we soon had all prerequisites crossed off and were ready to hit the road.
We took an early flight to Frankfurt before catching the train south to Kaiserslautern. Our choice of accommodation was the Alcatraz Hotel, which was unsurprisingly a name conjured up from the building’s previous life as a genuine prison. Upon arrival the receptionist informed us that our “cell” for the night would consist of two bunk beds for us to sleep in. This wasn’t a problem as it added to the full incarceration experience, although the open toilet in the corner was to later provide some comically monstrous moments that were perhaps a little too authentic.
Our first port of call would be the season opener at the iconic and imposing Fritz-Walter Stadion; a venue that had become a firm favourite of ours due to its hilltop setting and imposing galleon-shaped exterior. The visitors were Hannover 96, who I’d vowed to continue supporting through thin and quite probably thinner if last season’s relegation was anything to go by.
We entered the turnstiles early but then spent the next 45 minutes farcically queuing and re-queuing four times having had our pre-pay refreshments card topped up with Euros only to then have it rejected as being empty at the food stall. We did eventually get our hands on some pre-match snacks but it hadn’t been an ideal start.
The opening ceremony of the Bundesliga 2 was suitably cheap but cheerful and involved flags being waved to represent all of the 18 participants. The home fans then unveiled an almighty banner that nearly covered the entire terrace and must have required many hours of needlework.
“We live for our club” – says the Westkürve
The game started well for the home side but the 40,000 crowd were in for a rude awakening as Hannover’s superior nous saw them romp to a convincing 4-0 win. I was naturally delighted and also quite surprised that so many players shone who I’d have previously considered to be worthless deadwood.
We finished the evening in The Snug Irish pub until it began to get uncomfortably busy and the constant chanting of “Will Grigg’s On Fire” from a nearby table became too unbearable.
The next day we headed for Heidelberg which has become a popular place for us to stay. We checked into our hotel and made a quick turnaround for the S-Bahn to St Ilgen-Sandhausen. It would be our second excursion to the Hardtwaldstadion in barely a year and we looked forward to it as the travelling army from Fortuna Düsseldorf were bound to be a vociferous presence.
This proved to be the case as the atmosphere was lively where we were sat in the mixed section. Sandhausen got off to a flyer and were 2-0 up within 15 minutes, but Dusseldorf grew stronger throughout and having pulled a goal back before the break they sneaked a last-minute equaliser. It was something of a relief to finish with honours even as some of the away fans had taken frequent umbrage at the standard of officialdom and were scaling the perimeter fencing in a none too pleasant manner.
We went back to Heidelberg after the game and had dinner in the Marktplatz. It promised to be an uneventful evening until I was convinced I’d spotted the ridiculously youthful Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann sat an adjoining table. I then spent longer than was healthy trying to gain evidence by surreptitiously taking his photograph without appearing like a stalker.
Sunday morning saw us switch base to Stuttgart for the second half of our trip. We soon jumped on another train to Aalen and then on to Heidenheim for our inaugural visit to the Voith-Arena.
Having reached the destination town we had a vague idea where to go but nonetheless opted for the supposedly safe option of following the first person we saw in a home shirt. Unfortunately the couple we selected were successfully pursued but only until they reached the front door of their nearby abode. I quickly invoked Plan B of using Google Maps which led us to a quiet suburban street outside the main shopping area. As I walked along focussing intently on my phone a local resident jokingly shouted at me something about “Pokemon” so he clearly thought we were searching for virtual creatures rather than obscure overseas football stadia. If I’m honest, I’m not sure if he’d have considered what we were really doing to be more or less peculiar.
We found the ground shortly afterwards, although not until we’d had to climb a steep incline which in 30 degree heat had required a bit too much sweat and toil. We rested with beer and bratwurst before taking our seats near the supporters from Erzgebirge Aue. The match turned out to be what could best be described as soporific drivel, with Heidenheim grinding out a 1-0 win. I don’t know if the journey and the climate had taken their toll, but as the final 10 minutes ticked down I was literally struggling to stay awake.
We had plenty of time to kill on Monday so we whiled away a few enjoyable hours at Wilhelma Zoo, before spending late afternoon relaxing at a street side restaurant along Konigstrasse.
Our final match took us to the Mercedes-Benz Arena for the mouth-watering clash between Stuttgart and St. Pauli. I’m not sure if the players deserved it after their recent relegation, but there was barely a spare seat in the house as 60,000 people packed in. It proved to be a rollicking good game as the hosts came from behind to steal a last-ditch victory.
I know it’s incredibly early days, but having witnessed 8 sides in action I’m going to boldly predict a rapid reversal of fortune for Hannover 96. With the competition favouring raw and ineffectual youths in their line-ups I can see a more cerebral and battle-hardened approach leading the way.
The weekend had come to an end and it had been a great way to whet the appetite for the main course when the Bundesliga starts in 2 weeks’ time.
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