Sixy Talk – Sunderland (h)

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First, empty seats at Arsenal cause debate and consternation, then empty seats at Bournemouth lead to derision, but no matter which way you want to look at it empty seats, and ticket prices have been the talk if the town this week and whenever they come into debate people always point in the direction of Germany as the example that we need to follow on these things.  So, for this week’s Sixy Talk, we’re following all those fingers and talking to, Sunderland fan, Mark Wilson.

 

After being brought up in the North East and spending time in both Nottigham and London, Mark has washed up in Berlin and what’s a washed up Mackem (sorry for the terrible joke) to do in Berlin?  That’s right, find a team to help distract him from missing Sunderland.  Mark’s taken in one step further, writing about his new team’s fortunes at his blog I’m an FC Union Berlin Man.

That’s enough spoilers for now, on with the questions.

Wigan Athletic, what do you really think of us?
I think most people in the north-east see Wigan as a rugby town with a football team that’s punching above its weight. I doubt everyone knows that Wigan is a relatively young league club. At this juncture, there are then predominantly two schools of thought. The one I subscribe to is that we should respect Wigan fans for turning up, week in, week out, in a half empty stadium. Sunderland are well supported away from home. I was a member of our London branch of supporters and we regularly took 50 people up to the north east on the train for home games. I did that at least 10 times a season. However, would I have been as keen to go and watch Sunderland if it had not been for the fanatical support.

I can’t honestly answer that one. The other school of thought is that your fan base should preclude you from being in the top flight. It sounds daft but some fans have a chip on their shoulder about the empty seats – I’d ask the question, does Wigan do enough at grass roots level and what are ticket prices like?  

Just to give you my view on that Mark, we’re out and about with schools and wherehaveyou all the time and have offers where accompanied youth groups can access free tickets.  Apart from that U11s cost £5 for any game and U16 a tenner.  It’s hard to see how much more we could do on that front, but that’s ok, because it’s working, Latics have one of the largest proportions of young season ticket holders in the Premier League

We struggle more with getting grown-ups through the door, and you just need to watch Match of the Day on a Saturday to know we’re not on our own there.  But, despite all that, our average attendance runs at about 20-25% of the town’s population.  Not many clubs can match that.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, it’s back to the questions.

As a Sunderland Fan, you’re probably dying to bring up the night in 2005 when about 35,000 Mackems came to the (then) JJB Stadium, embarrassed the 100 Latics fans that bothered to turn up to watch Sunderland steal away our promotion momentum.  What are your memories of those couple seasons where our clubs were head to head in the Championship?  How far do you think both clubs have progressed since then?
I have always enjoyed Wigan away. The advantage for Sunderland fans is that it is not a huge distance, it’s relatively affordable and we always get a good allocation. I remember when we won 1-0 in April 2005 – I was working in the north-west at the time. The reality was that I fixed some meetings nearby so I could attend the match as I lived in London. I’d spent the previous evening in a hotel in Liverpool. The cleaners started hoovering at 3am to wake up Del Piero et al as Juventus were playing Liverpool the next day – probably why Liverpool went through.  The atmosphere was superb as there were almost 8,000 of us. Next time a Sunderland fans has a go about the Wigan support perhaps they should remember that flip-side – a huge away allocation. How many times do you go away from home and you take an entire side of a ground?!

The Championship seasons under McCarthy were a good time to be a Sunderland fan. We’d won seven on the bounce when we arrived at your place, and after going a goal up very early, the result never looked in doubt. That was surprising as I think every mackem feared Nathan Ellington as he was on top of his game. ‘The Duke’ was the type of centre forward I expected would cause us problems that day. I think it’s a massive achievement for a club such as Wigan to have stayed in the Premiership since then. To climb from the old fourth division to the top tier in a decade is astounding. Most people scoffed at Whelan’s notion that it was possible.    

You write about Union Berlin, who are the smaller of two clubs in the city, and are in the equivalent of the Championship.  How does the standard compare with the English second tier, is there as much of a gap between that and the top flight and does football outside of the Bundesliga get ignored just as much, in the media and general society, as it does over here?
After witnessing a Championship winning team on more than one occasion I certainly feel justified in being able to offer an honest opinion on the quality. I think the current top two in the Bundesliga 2. would struggle to be as dominant in the Championship. Hertha, Union’s rivals from West Berlin are probably akin to a play-off chasing Championship side. Union would be mid-table.

The main difference in supporting Union is the atmosphere. Most clubs in the league do not have the fanatical fans that FC Union possess. Also, the majority of the Stadion An der Alten Försterei is standing. Only 3,600 seats and the rest of the 21k plus fans are stood up. It reminds me of Roker Park in many ways although the Unioner chant for 90 minutes irrespective of the score. That’s rare for home fans.

In terms of coverage it’s difficult to say as I don’t read much of the German football press. I gobble up Union info and translate it for our fan club – ‘Union in Englisch.’ I do buy kicker occasionally but the coverage is probably similar to that in the UK where the top flight gets the majority of column inches. The beauty of the modern day is that there are loads of blogs. I started out blogging and that’s how the fan club came about.

Attendances and ticket prices have been big news over here over the last couple of weeks, that and the on-going campaign for safe standing has left a lot of fans pointing to German football as the beacon for us all to follow.  Is everything as great for the fans over there as it seems?  Football supporters are never going to be completely happy with their lot, what’s the typical gripe of the match going fans over there?
The 2012/13 season has been an interesting season to get my first season ticket at Union – it was 120 quid if you’re wondering! Due to political pressure the German FA attempted to bring in stricter controls and made the error of not consulting fan groups (which are much bigger over here and carry more sway than in the UK) and there were pr

otests during November and December. Union were actually the only club in the top two tiers to refuse to sign the agreement. They then unleashed a 6,000 document and ripped apart the proposals. Union are a different type of club and genuinely listened to their fans on the issue. The fans actually built the stadium, gave blood and donated the money to the association so the bond is perhaps stronger than at most clubs. One of the Union songs that is also printed on the roof of the terrace is ‘Our love, our team, our pride, our club’ and it’s genuine. A real local club.

In terms of ticket pieces, the German model is quite rightly much-vaunted. Tellingly, they also understand that away fans help provide a good atmosphere. I travelled to Braunschwieg recently and my ticket was five pounds less than an adult at Gateshead (who are non-league) which speaks volumes.  

Union seem to be doing reasonably well in the league, what are your hopes for the season?  Who’ve they got this weekend and will your eyes be more there than on the DW Stadium?  How do you see the games panning out?
Due to the winter break in Germany I actually have a blank Saturday. Of course, I could make the journey to Chemnitz and watch Union play a friendly. However, I’ll take the opportunity to have a weekend off as I’ll be at Union on Tuesday night as we entertain a Swiss side in our only friendly at home; the penultimate friendly before we resume league fixtures on Friday 1st February.

Union are currently 7th and will do very well to sneak into a play-off spot (3rd place) but you never know. The league is about momentum, hard work and team spirit – anything is possible. Of course the aim is to better last terms finish of 7th place. However, Union are a club, who like the Latics, have risen through the pyramid. The Unioner knows that they have done well to get this far and become an established second division side.

I watch Sunderland regularly as I can usually plan a Saturday and be back for 4pm if Union are not playing. Sunderland have been inconsistent and poor on the road. Some things in life never change. However, we seem to have a good record at Wigan and we’ll be backed by 5,000 fans so I’d like to think we can take at least a point. If we’re to progress it’s a game we need to be taking maximum points from.

Martin O’Neill is clearly a good manager so let’s get that one out of the way. Any Sunderland fan who thinks otherwise probably never saw us play under the likes of Mick Buxton and Terry Butcher. Let’s take Butcher as an example. A fantastic leader of men; you’d want him with you when you in the trenches but at Sunderland he seemingly did not understand what made players tick – or tactics. He assumed everyone was like him. Shout loudly and go into battle and we’ll be alright. O’Neill knows that nobody is like him. 

He’s an outsider, a loner – but he understands people. He seemingly knows which strategy to use with which players – he knew Adam Johnson would come good for example. On the coaching side he admittedly plays a dangerous game. Sunderland are set up not to get beat. If we score the first goal at home we’ll invariably win the game. If we conceded we can look vulnerable. Some people argue he has no plan B and has not utilised players such as Whickham and Vaughan enough this term. I trust he knows what he sees on the training pitch. I’ll go 1-0 Sunderland. Probably a 20 yard screamer.

Now this is the point where I usually ask a convoluted question about pies, but what I really want to know about is the St Pauli sausage train.  How different is stadium catering in Germany, what’s your preferred (food) poison, and how do you eat it?
Catering sure is different. The first time I walked through the forest to Union’s ground I could smell the BBQ that was cooking away. Tasty sausages and pork steaks are the order of the day. I have been known to have one of each. A far cry from the Stadium of Light, where I have had friends and family, regale me with horror stories about the food! In winter we get mulled wine on the terraces and during the rest of the year you can enjoy a relaxed beer. I’ve only once got carried away with the drink but that was my birthday. The rest of the time it’s a leisurely couple of pints. Standing, a pint and a ‘wurst’ – that’s the model to follow!!

 

And a tasty sounding one at that. 

I’m sure you’ll all join me in thanking Mark for taking time to answer our questions, you can keep in touch with his, and Union Berlin’s fortunes on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/UnioninEnglisch and Twitter @unioninenglisch as well as through the I’m an FC Union Berlin Man blog.

Have fun.

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