Oberliga Niederrhein (level 5)
VfB Hilden 03 v VfB Homberg
Saturday, 25th May 2014, 3pm
Entrance €7, Programme €free
Distance 362 miles, Attendance 250
There’s a serene pleasantness about buses that make them the ideal mode of transport between games; not in London you understand, in Germany.
Granted between Paul-Janes Stadion and Hoffeldstraße we had to take two – changing at Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof – but the gentle pace with which the public interact with them is on total contrast to our own daily 24 hours of capital rush (not a Geddy Lee reference, that would been 21 or 12 or something hairy like that). Naturally, such a ride between said stadia – oddly via the autobahn or not – can induce some complacency.
Ambling from the bus stop on Hochdahler Straβe, the early afternoon sun was beating down in earnest. We’d just come from an incredible footballing display, where age was clearly irrelevant to the quality but, this next game was to be the climax of our season. This was the last thing we’d remember of the weekend.
With nothing riding on the match – and our minds bussed into submissive calm – it was time to kick back, enjoy the afternoon and pray one didn’t get sunburnt having had one too many of the cold ones. Somewhat aptly, three-one(s) would’ve been a very agreeable outcome today before this season’s rotund lady warmed up her larynx but, I had my heart set on something a little more everyone’s-a-winner-smash’n’grab-high-score-draw. Of course, I hadn’t shared this with my travelling companions, or those we were about to join; I was keeping my cards tight to my chest on both this and other matters.
Whilst already considering next season’s destinations, I’d been carefully preparing for a guaranteed unmessy finish to this one. Unlike my fellow English hopper, I’d learnt my lessonwith such “nur ein kleines Bier” Germans before. Topping up last night’s champions’ league final distracting German-sized portion of the schnitzel und kartoffel – in preparation for today’s end-of-season bar – I’d forced down some additional breakfast bakery ballast before getting on the first bus early this morning and, restricted myself only to the vital fluids of Paul Janes fizzy pop.
Like the other three matches this weekend, the Hoffeldstraße game we were heading for meant nothing (though I’m sure some media types and coaches would growl something about “pride” and “mettle” at this juncture). Village side, SV Hönnepel Niedermörmter – “HöNie” to its friends – had already stormed the league, and the four at the bottom had long since plunged into the abyss. Of course, at this level of German football, this information could also be meaningless. The Oberliga Niederrhein has many quirks. As well being infiltrated by some big club’s poorly supported B teams, the step up to and/or from this level can lead to financial burdens that, many local clubs just cannot support. The outcome; they elect to stay put. Whether this will be the case this year is anyone’s guess however, I doubt very much whether all of the promoted and relegated sides – HöNie (1st) , VfL Rhede (17th), VfB Speldorf (18th), SV Uedesheim (19th) and, PSV Wesel-Lackhausen (20th) – will be in new leagues come August.
Strolling up to the turnstiles, Christian was just happy neither Hilden or their visitors would – this campaign at least – be topping his Schwarz Weiss team; Peter was happy we would, at long last, be seeing his beloved Homberg side play. Whilst I wasn’t sure at this point how well Jeremy had taken to a weekend full of Deutsche lower league wonders (he told me later his “eyes had been opened”), I was merely content that Homberg – the very last team to be listed on my season – were another fellow yellows outfit and, to top it all, three of the four of us would this afternoon be taking another new ground. As with the potential league table outcomes, all this was quite clear to me.
Aside from the shocking cerise pink Homberg coach – with only a black and white badge on similarly coloured buildings – the Hoffeldstraße entrance is/was fairly nondescript. Inside however, the bustle and vibrancy spread from the faces to the action. Beyond the friendly turnstile operator, a large terrace – home to both bar and barbeque – was filling nicely up. To make Delia weep with envy, grab the mic and demand some support for bakers; through the door to the right, the club bar was playing home to the finest imaginable array cakes and pastries. In front, more senior supporters had begun to place metaphorical towels on the choice seats, in the tented shade, overlooking the pitch.
All this, and us, and the plush club buildings stood on a raised terrace behind the near goal. The three other sides had manicured grass banks, flanked by private gardens to the right and high trees to the left, affording everyone excellent viewing – even above those standing pitch side – as the players strolled out parading a banner thanking fans for their support.
Making a mixed impression, potted-Deutsche was clearly appreciated by the bar staff but not so much by the double-denimed visiting chairman, who didn’t quite grasp my plea for his team sheet. Having since suggested that one German friend assist my reintegration to the language I studied so long ago, the amusing retort pointed out the obvious, my match reports would be a mess but I wouldn’t starve…
“A man cannot stand on one leg”, proclaimed the same wise voice, before wolfing down a couple of mighty Würstchen and his beer prior to kick-off. If that adage wasn’t strange enough; there then followed an afternoon of almost utter madness. Following the players down to pitch level, we made our way to the left, sun-soaked side of the 3G pitch. Lined up with their backs to us, Hilden donned fetching red(ish) and black; Homberg (somewhat worryingly) stood in all white. Without going into details, Peter explained how the players had chosen this change strip and it had been lucky thus far.
In a fast-paced yet evenly contested first period, the visiting players also rolled the dice first as Ognjen Petrovic fired a shot just over from a cleared corner. Soon his young keeper, Philipp Gutkowski – a university student – pulled off a brave double save to deny both Vincenzo Lorefice and Pascal Weber. Moments later his attempts weren’t so fortunate. Blocking the first shot, he parried Weber’s follow-up but had no chance of keeping out Weber from the rebound.
Christian muttered something supportive about Homberg being a goal down; Peter muttered something a little more industrial and – whilst Jeremy soaked up more of the sun – I finished my beer and considered strolling towards the goal Gutkowski was now collecting the ball from, having spied a few continental non league dogs needing their photo taken. Before I could leave however – amid some amusing anecdotes of the Del Boy antics of one visiting player’s father and Dominik Hotoglu’s propensity to shoot rather than pass – Homberg were already endeavouring to get level. Eventually their efforts paid off.
Having found a sight on goal, Almir Sogolj rifled home low to the keeper Malte Engelhardt’s right. From low to my right – topping the bicycle horn I’d spied in the bar earlier – the clacking of a wooden rattle filled the air. By now I was thankfully in the shade of the other side of the pitch. Whilst away from my companions however the distractions over here were countless. At the far end the oldest band of ultras one could imagine huffed and puffed by the corner flag. Between us, atop their grassy knoll, fascinating locals of all ages were lined up, enjoying this Sunday afternoon; some were standing in self-appointed rows, others having brought their own seating arrangements. The light was good, I had my camera; my mind was set…
As the cheer went up for the third goal I of course had my back to the game. Making it 2-1 to Hilden however, Stefan Schaumburg’s effort had clearly been missed by more than just me. Raising the camera once more, to capture the enjoyment of those about me, applause rang out again. Given all the bon viveuring, the game was naturally being played in good spirits both on and off the park, and I was recording some fine moments. This calm would all change after the interval however at 2-2 (this time I’d missed Sogolj heading his second), there was for now an agreeable contentment amongst all.