Rot-Weiss Ahlen 1 Erkenschwick 4 (1st December 2013)
I had planned to have a leisurely Sunday afternoon in Ahlen, walking round the town centre, perhaps finding a nice restaurant or pub for a meal, and then strolling down to the football ground for the game a couple of hours later.
Deutsche Bahn, the German national rail network, had other ideas though. Not content with allowing me to pre-book online onto a train that wasn’t running that day, engineering works turned a one and a half hour journey into a three hour one. It was a journey that allowed me get a full appreciation of scrubby trackside embankments as the train tricked through Essen at about 1 mph for longer than I’d care to remember, as well as a chance to play several rounds of the fun railway game “guess why we’ve stopped in the middle of nowhere this time“.
Arriving half an hour before kick-off, I had no option by to turn south from the station and head directly to the ground, a 10-15 minute walk away. It’s not a bad little walk, half of which is down a path by a small river. All very peaceful, but just that shade too peaceful to get those nagging doubts going. “Why are there no other people going to the match?” “It really is today that games on, isn’t it?” “Surely I should have seen at least one other person by now”
These doubts lasted at least until I got close enough to see the floodlights, but then I got near enough to hear distant 70s disco cheese being played over a tinny PA system, and I knew I’d be alright.
As much as I like going to foreign football, the prospect of a 5th division Oberliga wouldn’t normally have me making plans for a visit. As it was though, there wasn’t a huge choice among the places I hadn’t been to already (as the train inched eastwards, hopping off at Bochum – also at home on this day – was very tempting) but I knew Rot-Weiss Ahlen at least had a proper stadium.
The club had seen in the millennium kicking off in the giddy heights of Bundesliga 2 for the first time in their history, and spent eight of the next ten years at that level, before things went a little sour. Relegation to the third division in 2010 was followed by a double relegation in 2011 for insolvency, and they now face life in the 5th tier, facing a long way back.
Opting for the luxury of a seat (unreserved) for €12, and having just avoiding going in the away end by mistake, I made my way into the ground, as “Football’s Coming Home” crackled over the tannoy. RW Ahlen average around 700 these days, considerably higher than the Oberliga average, but still small enough to definitely feel “non-league”. At least the queues at the beer and food stalls were quick, and there was no queue at all at a kiosk that might have been a club shop. I say might have been as it was hard to tell. They did have the (free) programme in there, but apart from a few pennants, the window displays seemed to instead offer a selection of sweets. Not knowing the German for “just browsing” I didn’t feel like peering through the kiosk’s one open window. Instead, with beer in hand (a bargain €2 for 0.4L) I found a seat in the main stand.
The ground feels every inch a typical 4th division English ground, built over the years bit by bit, but is in fact a new ground, only opened in 1997. The main stand certainly looks older, mainly because its red seats had faded and weathered to that sunburned cellulite look that makes them look awful. Only the middle two sections of four were open. Not typically a problem with crowds in the 700s, but still enough to have me pick a row featuring a child who ran up and down the row to collect drinks and return empties every five minutes. It was a compact sort of stand. The sort you can imagine being full of regulars called the Germanic equivalents of Bert and Alf, who’d spend all game moaning about how rubbish it all is, before a cheerful “see you next week” when they left.
Opposite was a covered terrace of about the same size. Getting to it necessitated walking round three sides of the ground, and the lack of necessity meant it was pretty sparsely populated. The anti-hooligan fencing at the front seemed almost absurdly pointless now.
To the right was the newest part of the ground. Built in 2009, but looking more like 1979, a real “old skool” stand with pillars, a paddock at the front and seating at the back, curving slightly behind the goal. Oddly the terracing here wasn’t that popular either, and the Rot-Weiss Ahlen ultras, all 100 or so of them, chose to sit in the seats behind (or stand in them, to be exact).
In true old-fashioned English lower division style, the remaining end was uncovered, and naturally enough, this was the away end. A glance at the Erkenschwick official site shows they normally get around 300 at their games, and about a third of that number had ventured the relatively long way (by Oberliga Westfalia standards) to this match. The site stats also showed that a bizarre 8-5 win at FC Gütersloh at the end of October was considered so unusual that they chose to record it as “8-5!” in their results grid. And I’d leave thinking 5 goals, let alone 13, was a decent return.
Even with the low crowd, it was quite easy to imagine what the place must have been like in the Bundesliga 2 “glory days”. It must be great with a few thousand in, all rammed in, close to the action – the sort of ground that makes following football away from the “big boys” such an enjoyable experience.
I’d started the game sat in the main stand. The teams had earlier walked on flanked by cheerleaders dancing, if that’s the correct term, to You’ll Never Walk Alone. Gerry & the Pacemakers’ every popular (especially overseas) hit is not be the paciest number going, and it reduced the poor girls to movements so ponderous they might as well have been doing tai chi. It must have dulled my senses, as a full five minutes or so had passed before I realised I was watching from the “wrong” end. For a bit of variety as much as anything else, but also because goals are more likely there, I generally choose the end the home team are attacking.
Waiting for an injury or goal kick, I dashed round to the seats in the upper tier behind the goal. Avoiding the practically empty family block, I took a seat fairly central towards the back, just not too close to the ultras. To their credit, there weren’t many of them, but they made a heck of a racket. Anyone wanting to know how to get good acoustics at a ground could do worse than check this end out. Sadly one of them had a drum. Not the booming bass drum idiot English fans boom-boom-boom pointlessly, but more like a snare drum. Much more effective, but painfully, with me just taken three ibuprofen to try to ward off a headache, made each hit of the drum go right through me as if each drumstick was whacking me on the back of the head. Thankfully the pills (as well as the pils) were kicking in and it didn’t last long. And they had their enthusiasm dented a fair bit too.
It wasn’t quite as one-sided as the score looks, but the visitors were certainly much sharper going forward. They’d already missed one good chance before opening the scoring with a shot from outside the box on the right, beating the keeper at the near post. He’d have been “disappointed with that” as the pundits say.
It was my turn to be disappointed with the second goal. It was a lovely goal. A break down the left was squared perfectly to score past the despairing lunge of the keeper, shortly before half time. I had my camera out at that moment, and was set for a nice pic of the goal. Now I praised my camera for its ability to take pictures in stupidly low light in the Schalke write-up, but now and then it can let itself down. The autofocus worked a treat, and it captured everything at the near end in crystal sharp detail. Sadly the goal was at the far end, so I’ll have to console myself with having seen a very nicely worked goal, as well as record of pin-sharp detail of a anti-missile netting pole in the foreground.
With another effort that went so close the fans and players were already celebrating, the home side were perhaps a bit thankful to only go in at the break two goals down.
They did seem to tighten up after the break, but were guilty of some criminal ball-watching to concede the contest-ending goal just after the hour. With five defenders back, but all of them seeming to have an allergy to defending on the right, Erkenschwick just moved the ball into this side of the box. An Erkenschwick forward just ran into the almost embarrassing amount of space and thumped a shot into the far corner for 3-0.
It looked like I was about to see my third consecutive 3-0, as the game quietened down, right until 10 minutes to go. From a set piece, the ball was headed in unchallenged at the near post by Rot-Weiss Ahlen, and it seemed to catch everyone by surprise. The scorer ran back in familiar “come on lads, we can do this!!” style, but any hopes didn’t last that long. With pretty much Erkenschwick’s next attack, a player was brought down on the edge of the box, and the yellow card led to a 2nd booking, and the home side being down to 10 men.
Erkenschwick didn’t take too much longer to rubber-stamp the victory. Clean through, they ought to have buried one chance, only for the keeper to make a fine save. The ball was only cleared to the edge of the box though. A labouring full-back was easily skinned and the ball taken to the by-line. After his heroics of about 10 seconds earlier, the keeper clearly thought he’d be the hero again. Sadly his charge out became more of a stumble and a slip, and as he lay prostrate on the deck, the ball was simply squared across the six yard box. Again, more ball watching from a defence that looked like its half time refreshment had been accidentally changed from Gatorade to Night-Nurse, allowed the ball to fall into the path of a totally unmarked forward.
With almost too much time to score, he added to the comedy of the goal by also slipping over as he ran in, tucking the ball in while sliding goalward on his backside.
There was nearly a fifth, when even more poor defending allowed another shot, but this one came back off the base of the post, bouncing somehow to safety.
The game ended, and the delighted away team went over to their equally delighted supporters, climbing the fence to take the applause. From the home fans, surprising few grumbles. I guess when you’ve seen your team fall three divisions in two years, and go bankrupt, you’ve known a lot worse.