Fresh from her trip west over the Irish Sea, our roving reporter Ffion Thomas headed south east to the Land von Kohle und Stahl for a German pre-season adventure.
With, regrettably, qualification to the Europa League or Champions League not having been on the cards in recent years, it’s only in pre-season that we are afforded the chance to watch City on the continent. The last three summers have seen the squad visit distant and precipitous regions of Austria and Italy for training camps and fixtures in the high-altitude shadow of Alpine mountains, competing against top clubs from across Europe and, more memorably, a ragtag bunch of local amateurs convened at short notice. Red faces all round, but you can’t argue with a 13-0 win, pages of worldwide news coverage, and massively offending a legitimate fourth division Italian football club in the process.
But with Carrow Road only a Currywurst stall off having gone Full German in the space of just a few months this summer, it seemed only right that the squad and coaching staff should shake things up a little and pay a visit to Daniel Farke’s neck of the woods. Their chosen hotel base in Marienfield is only around 60km from his hometown of Büren, and closer still to Lippstadt, with whose football club he spent the majority of his career so far as both a player and manager.
The state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which encompasses these towns and the others visited on this tour, is the most populous in Germany. The wide trade waterway of the Rhine snakes down the west of the region, linking cities such as Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Bonn with Europe and the world via the vast container port at Rotterdam. This is – or was – the Land von Kohle und Stahl, at the core of Europe’s coal mining and steel industries, and an area whose blue-collar identity has been damaged by its economic decline. But there’s always football, and in mining cities such as Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen, the prominence and achievements of Borussia and Schalke 04 on the global stage have contributed hugely to the restoration of a strong local identity.
This is a region that, although keen to celebrate its industrial heritage, is increasingly renowned for its plethora of football clubs all in close proximity. As well as those two Revierderby rivals, there’s Bayer Leverkusen, FC Köln and Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga alone, with too many to mention further down the tiers of German football. Daniel Farke, then, probably has a Filofax packed full of local contacts for potential opposition, and so two valuable first team fixtures against tough 2. Bundesliga opposition in MSV Duisburg and DSC Arminia Bielefeld were scheduled. And best of all, unlike those Alpine tours, the cheap Ryanair flights to Dortmund (if they’re good enough for the Norwich squad, they’re good enough for me) and the inevitably efficient local public transport made a trip out there easy enough to pull off, even at short notice.
Not that it felt like it on the way to the first game. Held 40km east of Dortmund at the home of amateur side SV Hilbeck, getting there from the local station involved an hour’s walk along an exposed main road. What started off sunny and warm rapidly became wet and blowing a gale, with thunder and flashes increasingly frequent, loud and close. Having reached the edge of town, I was grateful to encounter a friendly Norwich fan attempting the same intrepid mission, and we made the executive decision that, at risk of being struck by lightning, it would be wiser to wait for the bus. With the rain having increased in intensity by our arrival it certainly was €2 well spent, but now the concern was whether the game would actually go ahead. The venue was reminiscent of those in the Anglian Combination, with an appropriate lack of spectator cover, and the storm showed few signs of abating. Most fans were sheltering in an inside corridor by the dressing rooms – we knew the teams had arrived, at least.
But eventually the rain did ease off, and the interested locals, all well prepared with umbrellas, and fans in both Duisburg and Norwich shirts were able to line the perimeter of this small but perfectly adequate venue and get up close to the action. A solid 2-0 win was witnessed, albeit one with more than a hint of fortuity about it, from the unnecessary first half red card to the comedic second half own goal. There was a chilled-out village atmosphere to the whole affair – apart from, in contrast to his relaxed media persona, from the touchline when Daniel Farke wasn’t happy with something – and Darren Huckerby and his fellow tracksuited U23 coaching staff were happily queuing with everyone else to get a Bratwurst, which were very nice by the way.
After a day visiting the (highly recommended) museums of both Borussia Dortmund and the German Football Association, it was time to head 115km further east, to the city of Bielefeld. With a capacity not far off that of Carrow Road, Arminia’s Alm Stadium has an entirely modern appearance following a series of renovations, but was originally constructed in 1926. It includes a standing terrace at one end which, a week ahead of their league opener, was decently populated with home fans. On a thankfully storm-free evening we saw an entertaining game, in which despite conceding a sloppy equaliser we were well deserved winners, capped with a fantastic solo run and finish from Oliveira.
Much to celebrate, then – and conveniently, Arminia had promised a ‘frei bier’ party in the bar under the home terrace post-match, having had 1,893 – the year of VfB Stuttgart’s formation – litres of beer donated to them by VfB’s president as a slightly convoluted thanks for Bielefeld beating promotion contenders Braunschweig 6-0 in May, an unlikely result which had gone a long way to securing Stuttgart’s eventual 2. Bundesliga title. Although the police and stewards were reticent to let the initially large group of Norwich fans in, a nip around the block and the hiding of colours secured entry and the promised free beers, which could be enjoyed while stood on the home terrace looking out over the empty stadium. As I always do when visiting Germany for football, I reflected on how good it was to see the diversity of fans young and old, male and female, all able to watch football at affordable prices and create a great atmosphere, and how civilised it all was. And then I left, and saw a man throwing up in a hedge.
With lots of cause for optimism on the pitch and the chance to watch games in two very different but enjoyable venues, this was a great way to gear up for the season. With positive noises from players and staff about the standard of the hotel and training facilities, fingers crossed we might return next year to take on some more of the region’s many teams.