DORTMUND holds a special place in my heart, as I’m sure it does for many others around my age. My first European final in 2001, the club’s first since 1985, and a crazy day and night where it lashed down and there were an improbable number of goals scored by a confident Liverpool and an opposition in Alaves who didn’t know when they were beat.
Since that night at the Westfalenstadion 15 years ago, we have seen Borussia Dortmund and their supporters grow in reputation across Europe. An impressive stadium in 2001 has grown even further and the style of the football team, combined with the visual wonder of the Yellow Wall, has made it an away trip in-demand. So when the draw was made, everyone I knew wanted to go.
At The Anfield Wrap we quickly realised we wanted to go, too. That there were many interesting things about Borussia Dortmund we felt we could learn by being over there. How had their supporter base — nothing to write home about on our last trip in 2002 — become the envy of the world? How had the team managed to recover from the loss of their passionate leader and actually looked to improve, to become what some Dortmund fans thought might be their best side ever? And could we get Mad Erik Meijer back to the square?
As young, inquisitive broadcasters who love German lager it was too good to miss. So flights were scoured, trains were sought and eventually a trip via Amsterdam with a hotel right by the ground was secured for a price we could afford. It involved early starts there and back, but you can sleep when you get home, can’t you?
We were lucky enough to arrange lots of stuff before we went. We got access to the press conference just by ringing up the club and asking them and ensuring them we had a press pass (Robbo still has one from his old work). This is a marked difference to what we have experienced in England, showing Germany are way ahead in terms of respecting, and indeed valuing, the place of fan-run sites in modern media. It must be said that a small minority of English journalists aren’t too happy when we rock up to these things either. Soz abar us, lads.
We also arranged many interviews to try to get under the fingernails of what makes the club tick. On the first night, Neil went out for dinner with Markus Langer, Head of Corporate Marketing and Public Relations at main sponsor and part-owner of Borussia Dortmund, Evonik. The way he talked about how they, as a company, try to put supporters and fan culture at the heart of their messages, rather than using the players themselves, was fascinating in a world of celebrity endorsements. We will be putting that conversation out this week.
Later that night we also managed to grab Tony Barrett of The Times and Dave Rawcliffe from Propaganda Photo to talk about our own memories as fans of that final in 2001. Over a few beers, and around plenty more, we all shared our own stories of what that trip meant to us, and what we managed to get up to on the way, in a period when podcasts weren’t invented and you were scared to use your mobile phone abroad.
The next day morning, with a few sore heads, we linked up with an old friend Stefan Buczko from the English-speaking Borussia Dortmund podcast Yellow Wall. Stefan recorded a pre-match show with us and, like most of the fans we spoke to before the game, was full of confidence about his side’s chances of progression.
In another example of Borussia Dortmund’s help and generosity, they put us in touch with Björn Hegemann, Supporters Liaison Officer at the club. Björn met Gareth and Neil at the Westfalenstadion to talk about how the club try to interact with fans. Bjorn also arranged for us to meet Jan-Henrik Gruszecki, one of the most famous Dortmund ultras, to talk about how The Yellow Wall had grown into one of the most famous stands in world football. Björn himself gave the lads a tour of the ground just hours before kick off and again shortly before the match while he told the story of the club and the relationship with supporters — again, something you couldn’t imagine in England.
Both interviews will also be out this week to TAW Player subscribers, and are well worthy of your time.
And then there was Erik. I would love to say getting a meeting and an interview with Erik Meijer was difficult, but all it took was a tweet and the promise of a ticket and he was racing down the Autobahn faster than you could sing “He’s big, he’s red, he’s off his fucking head.”
Erik came to our hotel and we chatted for ages about football while we finished our work, distracting us with his impressions of players he played with and his impressive Scouse accent. As you will hear in the interview his love of LFC and football in general is still as strong as ever.
Erik was keen to get back to the square he had made his own 15 years ago by singing on stage, and we never need much encouragement to get on the beer either. So by mid-afternoon we packed up our gear and headed down to where all the Liverpool fans had congregated, just like in 2001.
Going on the beer with Erik is everything you would imagine and more. Everyone he meets his quickly his new best friend. The only time he disappears is to return with as many pints of lager he can fit on a tray. He poses for each photograph with a wider smile than the last. He complains we’re not singing enough and starts songs on his own. His joy is infectious. All my mates are still talking about him.
I didn’t realise how famous he was in Germany, he is a tactical analyst on Sky over there. Kind of like their Gary Neville. The Dortmund fans were as pleased to see him as the Liverpool fans were keen to talk about 2001. Every Liverpool fan wanted to tell him their story of 2001, how they had a beer with him. Where they were stood when he got up on stage. Erik could have got bored, but lapped it up.
The walk up to the ground is great. Any stadium that you can walk to from the city centre is a winner. Around the ground is full of outdoor bars and sausage stalls. They make you want to head there early and take it all in. Liverpool obviously have issues with space and outdoor drinking laws, but it was a clear demonstration about how much better it could be done. I bought a programme for just €1. Which is a good job as I inevitably lost it.
You’ve seen the game. You’ve seen the ground. You’ll Never Walk Alone was brilliant. Three Little Birds by Bob Marley at half time was wonderful, spontaneous and especially poignant for those who lost their friend and brother in 2012 the night before the League Cup final, for whom the song has become their anthem. It should become ours, too.
— Joe Connolly (@JoeMConnolly) February 26, 2015
After the game it was back to the hotel to do The Pink, a few too many beers after and then three hours’ sleep before getting up for an early train back to Amsterdam. On our return we drove to Liverpool, where Neil had me doing two other shows. Because he’s nice like that, and the shows never stop. They never bloody stop.
So what of the experience? Dortmund as a city isn’t much to look at, it was badly damaged during the war, but people make cities anyway and every local we met, bar the mad fella we met late at night who wanted to tell us he loved Maggie Thatcher, was friendly and proud of their club and city.
It was interesting to learn about the atmosphere, how they too struggle to get up for certain games, especially early on a Sunday, but how cheaper tickets and continuous dialogue between supporters and club mean a spirit of togetherness that has drifted away in the Premier League.
It’s wrong to point at everything being perfect in German football. Spurs had lots of issues getting into the ground in the last round and it took us ages to get out. Their fans also went pretty quiet when they went 1-0 down. As all fans do, because they are human.
But so much of how they ‘consume’ football seems enviable. Not just the cost, but also the experience, how you are treated, and how you feel people look at you, from police, to sponsors, to club officials. As a vital part of what makes football great, rather than a group of people who should be lucky to have paid, heavily, for the experience.
It would be great to go back there next year, hopefully in the Champions League. Although there are many other cities on our list, too. Reckon we could get Paddy Berger in Prague?