June 2017: “Seen who we are playing on August 1st? St Pauli, away!!!!!!”
I don’t know the date that the fixture was announced, and I can’t really be arsed to look the date up to be honest with you, but a pretty mundane July evening was livened up by Twitter telling all and sundry that The Potters would be heading to The Millerntor at the start of the next month.
I phoned my brother, who lives on the south coast, and he was pretty game for the trip. One problem – as always with me, money! A pretty big problem when you don’t have much, but a quick check of the budget airlines showed that we could do Manchester – Hamburg return for just over fifty notes; Less than it costs to go on the train to London.
And with hotels plentiful and cheap, near to the ground, it was decided that we’d once again be having a few days of brotherly bonding, beers, and banter (apologies for that last word, but couldn’t think of another ‘B’ word to complete the trio).
We’d done Austria pre-season twice, back when we’d just been promoted to the Premier League, and they’d been amongst the best days of my existence on this planet. The opportunity to experience another country and culture, all whilst watching my beloved football team, is a heady cocktail for this son of Sneyd Green. And Austria, especially Salzburg and St Wolfgang, did not disappoint. Simply brilliant trips that made the other 362 days of that year a bit more bearable. From sitting on the Bahrain national team subs bench with them in Kapfenberg (don’t ask), to swimming in the coldest waters I’ve ever been in (don’t ask), to having a picture with Messrs Sidibe and Fuller hiding pies behind their back and Dave ‘Dave’ Kitson being the most miserable sod on planet earth (ask), to trying to get local barmen to sing a line from a Luther Vandross song (don’t ask), to human excrement on a pillow (definitely DO NOT ask).
Ahem, great times.
And the chance to replicate these – minus the pillow – in Germany’s second biggest city was too big to miss out on.
Leipzig away didn’t bother me too much, mainly as they are a club I’ve little time for. But St Pauli? I’d heard stories from mates of how great the matches are there and the club and fans’ mantra and social and political stances. I’d heard first hand from my brother how great a city Hamburg is, too. And at less than £100 for flights and two nights at the Ibis, I just couldn’t say no. Thankfully, I didn’t.
Let’s get it right – St Pauli are seen by many as the hipster team to follow, and one that attracts its fair share of I’ve-been-there-badge-of-honour footballing tourists. But that surely applies for any club which is that bit different? Let’s face it, our crowds in size and composition have massively changed over the past decade. Isn’t football all about the core of the club, it’s soul? What the supporters believe in and stand for?
More than a club? Surely, everyone’s football club should be just that?
And I’ll hold my hands up right now – I bought some of their merchandise, too. I’m on the bandwagon. But not for any other reason that a) official and unofficial tackle there is absolutely mint and b) I absolutely love their St Pauli skull and crossbones logo, that’s why each of my kids got a t-shirt with it on.
Yours, footballing hipster wannabe.
Thanks to a certain leading budget airline, both flights were delayed on each occasion. The second leading to the pilot to rather hilariously state over the tannoy that “it’s because we don’t have enough pilots!”
Visions went through my head of the film Airplane for some strange reason, with me half expecting the stewardess to ask the assembled passengers if anyone fancied having a go at flying the plane. Anyway, it gave us plenty of time for another overpriced, weak beer at Manchester airport and extra time at Hamburg to rest our weary feet. Saying that, I’ve never heard the pre-flight, flight attendant safety talks listened to with such keenness!
It was both welcomed and stereotypically expected, but also massively appreciated, that we got from the airport to central Hamburg with no fuss, no mither, no delays – and all for around three quid, at around 6pm. Time to find the hotel, dump the bags and mooch about.
Our hotel was the Ibis was in St Pauli from which we could see the ground from (thoroughly recommended for a cheap stay, too), a couple of streets off the (in)famous Reeperbahn, which to be honest was as gaudy, tacky, and as bang average as I expected it to be. And as it was a Monday, it was relatively empty, too, giving it quite an eerie feel at night. I expect it to be far livelier but possibly no better on a Friday or Saturday night. I was only pestered a few times, which was a bit of an insult to be quite honest with you. One particularly persistent young lady was eventually given the explanation that “Its just that I really don’t want to disappoint you”.
Tip: just walk a street or two off the Reeprebahn and go in the worst looking pub you see. There are plenty – and they are uniformally like drinking in Stoke in 1978 – and they’re ace!
We walked across it and headed down the hill to Blockbräu by the river – a brilliant place, with ace views and cracking ale. We met up with top bloke and fellow Stokie James Knowles, and also Pete Smith from The Sentinel popped over and talked all things transfer windows, until we decided that football is the least important thing when you have a beer and breathtaking vistas slap bang in front of you.
After a couple of hours there, Pete showed he was the ultimate professional by heading back to his hotel, whilst we sampled a brilliant tequila bar and a few more bars afterwards, including the wasted-on-us swankiness of East. Indeed, take that ‘s’ out of swankiness, and that’s the kind of bar we usually find ourselves in!
No, the Chug Club isn’t a Crewe fan’s dream pub, it’s the name of a tequila bar, and for a tenner each we got a number of lovely flavoured tequilas with beer chasers. It’s a tiny place, a superb local bar that looks amazing – although the red lights inside the bar and windows meant that texting photos home to loved ones wasn’t a great idea, and that was affirmed by the reaction of Twitter later that night! Seriously, it’s a superb place, if you’re in town…….it’s not a brothel!
James later managed somehow to get locked out of the 24 hour bar we were in at the swanky East and miss the last U-Bahn to his hotel, whilst we swanned the 20 yards from East to the Ibis. Chin up, mate! We did look for you, honestly! It was dead that night, but it could be a really good option at a weekend for somewhere smart that is walkable from their ground.
So, game day.
Fancy getting some trainers or sportswear? Go to Hamburg. Whilst it’s not cheap, there are numerous clothes and sportswear shops – including the biggest sports shop in Europe (Karstadt), and one of the best shops I’ve ever been in. Thomas I Punkt is four floors of brilliance, with ace staff, a brilliant choice of brands, and a caravan where you pay for your stuff at! And the street it’s on, Mönckebergstraße, whilst pretty much looking like you’re average high street, is cracking for some retail therapy.
Indeed, Hamburg isn’t a particularly beautiful city. I hope the locals don’t take offence at that, as it certainly isn’t ugly. But it’s not Munich, Barcelona, Paris, or Chester. But what it is, is a really cool city, a happening city, a living, vibrant city. One that makes the most of its location as a port, on the imposing River Elbe, and one that makes usage of every inch of any spare space. Teeming with canals, waterways and parks, it’s a really liveable city – as my brother put it, “one to get a job in rather than one just visit for a few days”.
Hamburg reminds me loads of Liverpool. How it looks, how it is, how it feels. It’s creative and vibrant – no wonder The Beatles decided it was the city for them. The docks and riverside aren’t particularly pretty, but there are pop-up faux beach bars and galleries that dot the banks of the Elbe, and whilst the cranes and tankers don’t make for the greatest of views, try that view with your trainers and socks off, stood on sand with a pint of Astra in hand, munching on some ace street grub, listening to Groove Armada and Massive Attack, whilst the sun is out. It’s a bit different that being at home putting the ******* bins out!
As I’m of a certain age, at 1pm it was an hour in the room and the latest issue of When Skies are Grey, wash, and out. That, after grabbing 100 copies of issue 35 and a few hundred DUCK stickers – which we gave out free to St Pauli fans. Indeed, they love a sticker in Hamburg. They now have dozens and dozens commemorating our trip, too!
Around mid-afternoon, we made our way to the ground, around a Carruthers’ shot distance away from the Ibis. On second thoughts, it wasn’t three miles away!
It’s a ground to walk or underground to, not to park at and at that time it was reasonably quiet around there, but the bar was open, a dozen or so Stokies were there, and we got the chance to mooch around it and the surrounding area. It’s a ground unlike any you’ll find in our league – from the outside anyway. A rather modern football-looking main entrance sits in the middle as you approach it off the main road, just after you pass some brilliant reminders of the history and lifeblood of the city, set in stone. At the side is a bar, and on the other side the club shop.
From the outside, it looks like any corporate, branded, football club shop. Inside, you could spend shedloads of time time looking at the stickers adorning the walls (our DUCK one is right in the middle), and the decent, if a bit pricey, merchandise on offer. We then walked to the side of the ground called the Gegengerade – to be met with what can only be called one long side, with thousands of stickers, graffiti, nooks and crannies, little independent fan shops, a bar, a brilliant photographic museum – this was their fan’s area. It was as if we’d been transported back thirty brilliant years, as the various St Pauli punks, pirates, and public bought fanzines, stickers, unofficial merchandise, beer….and with a massive funfair and cityscape immediately to their right.
Take the time to get there early and wander to this side of the ground. Well worth an hour or so having a beer and taking it all in.
Surreal, impressive – but overall, it was all theirs. The fans. They had been allowed to put their own mark, their stamp, and their ownership on it, and it looked, sounded, and smelled stunning! Like all football grounds should. We bought badges and stickers and in return gave them zines and stickers. They had a genuine interest in us, our club, football in the UK, our city……it was just a buzz of activity from two hours before kick off onwards.
Ah, two hours before kick off…….
Around 4.30pm (I think), the free bar opened. We had received a tip off previously that there may be some free ale on offer for travelling Stokies, and this had been officially confirmed by 3pm. Well, it would have been rude not to, yeah, so off we trundled, past Stokies in the bar next to this new pop-up, free bar, guzzling their ale. Er, that ale that they had just paid for!
“Lads, you just paid for those? There’s free beer ten yards away!”.
Expletives filled the air, whilst pints were swiftly quaffed, and they joined the merry band of Stokies (including good mate Judder and his lad) that were in the bar and the overspill outside, all being served by St Pauli’s chairman! And it wasn’t one beer/one fan, either.The good Lord knows, at around 5.45pm I was ready to move home and become a St Pauli fan there and then, as bottles of Astra flowed like the Elbe. Indeed, soon, most didn’t actually know their arse from their Elbe!
Then, through the assembled throng, came Peter Coates, flanked by Messrs Scholes, and Cartwright – to the free bar. I know times are hard, lads, but……..
Soon, the bar was absolutely rammed, and our club’s top brass joined the 500 or so Stoke following in sampling the free bar. Songs were sung, selfies taken, questions about transfers asked. But whatever else, in that twenty minutes or so, hopefully St Pauli fans (and their club’s main man, who was present in the bar for a long time chatting to Stokies, and a top bloke he was, too) saw that Stoke City, our football club, is about fellowship, community, brotherhood, sisterhood……and all things in between. Er, and free beer, too! But here was our owner, an extremely wealthy but loyal, local man, drinking with the rank and file, in a bar in Hamburg. Brilliant.
And I’m pretty sure he honestly enjoyed it, too.
The queues to get into The Millerntor were large, but good natured, with Stokies doing the club proud – swapping shirts, stickers and stories with our hosts. One long concourse saw reasonably priced beer, ace food and the like – all bought and taken to our seats. Football fans, allowed to be responsible adults, eh? Never catch on, that!
Inside, The Millerntor is mightily impressive. Stands stood menacingly over the terracing below them, and whilst only half full at most, you can just imagine this place for a proper game. I stood, with a beer in a St Pauli beer mug (plastic, obv), looking diagonally over at the gap between the two opposite stands (ah, remember those days, eh?) with the city centre in the not-too-far-off distance. The big wheel outside illuminated against the grey, darkening skies. Beautiful.
The sign in German bearing the legend ‘No person is illegal’ is prominent in the empty stand to our left, and all around us there are stickers and the like warning against homophobic, racist, sexist, excluisve etc behaviour within the ground and further afield. This isn’t just their football club and their football ground – This is their life, the St Pauli way of life, and their commandments and beliefs for a life they want to live…….and as ‘Hells Bells’ booms over the tannoy system as the teams come out, you really do want to come back and experience it all again.
The game? Who cares? Who goes to friendlies abroad for the game? Times that for a thousand when you’re going to St Pauli.
The game finished, Stoke players came over, Charlie chucked his shirt in, we clapped…….and then we drank and chatted with the local folk. Remember the days when the full time whistle meant going to the pub and talking, rather than going on social media and saying how crap such and such a player is? Remember when you had adult conversations over a beer rather than typing 140 characters about how that lad “should never play for the club again”, “get rid of *******, he’s toss”, and “like my arse, Stoke, that was”? Remember those days?
Well, they’re still around.
The night was spent at our favourite/only tequila bar, and also conversing with any number of St Pauli fans in some of the biggest dives you could imagine. It was ace. The beer was ace. The chats were ace. The people were ace. Football was ace. Life was ace! They had a genuine interest in us and our football club, and vice versa, and the smoke-filled, raucous bars of this particular part of Hamburg were now alive with noise, 24 hours after resembling a morgue. Time really did fly.
And at around 2am, after saying auf wiedersehen to two Stokies and three St Pauli fans we were nattering with in a bar that had the rudest landlady ever (she unplugged the jukebox after a Stokie put a song on saying “I f******* hate that s****y band, and “it’s my f****** bar, so if you don’t like it f*** off!”) that was that. I’ve never drank tequila before, but as we made our way to the airport I thought back to two hangover-less nights after drinking it, and vowed to brush my teeth in it in the future. I sat there at the airport, cradling a wheat beer, with my new Diadora (sale) trainers off – my feet literally screaming for a cushion or two or a bowl of iced water, my body screaming for anything else but a cramped seat on a small airplane home.
Hamburg was superb. St Pauli even superber (copyright, J Rudge). We’ll be back, even if we have to buy our ale at the ground this time! If you get the chance to go, for a different kind of football fix (especially at £52 return), then you really must do so. St Pauli fans are passionate, knowledgeable, friendly, like an ale, yet are fiercely proud and loyal about all that their club (and area) represents. It’s not the place to act like a tool as their club is absolutely precious to them and the local area. Without sounding pretentious and patronising, it’s a club, area and city that is simply ace for exploring and doing some research on.
Germany gets its cities so bloody right, don’t they, and this is no exception. Indeed, it’s possibly its finest.
The Chug Club: Taubenstraße 13
East: Simon-von-Utrecht-Straße 31
Blockbrau: Bei den St. Pauli-Landungsbrücken 3
Thomas I Punkt: Mönckebergstraße 21
Ibis St Pauli: Simon-von-Utrecht-Straße 64