That’s all Volks
Within the mix of trips to places of cultural interest, European football also throws up some more industrial locations, none more so than Wolfsburg. A city in the north of Germany with a population of around 125,000 – just over half the size of Warrington – Wolfsburg is most famous for being the location of the Volkswagen HQ and factory, with the football team originally established for the VW workers; if that wasn’t enough culture it’s also twinned with the town of Luton. United’s only previous trip to Wolfsburg was in 2009, a dead rubber game famous for a Michael Owen hattrick. Unfortunately, due to a number of mediocre performances in the previous 5 group games only a win in Germany would guarantee progress to the knock out rounds.
After previous visits to Gelsenkirchen (Schalke), Leverkusen and Munich this would be my fourth different trip to Germany. However much like our trip to Leverkusen, where more time was spent in nearby Cologne, for Wolfsburg we opted to travel to and stay in Hanover. Given the size of Wolfsburg there were no direct options to travel there anyway; it’s situated between the larger cities of Hanover, 47 miles to the west, and Berlin, 143 miles to the east. Whilst Berlin has a lot of appeal and is somewhere I’m still eager to visit, Hanover was the more logical destination to fly to. The best flights available were with Scandinavian Airlines via Copenhagen, £171 return. This was flying out Monday and back Wednesday with the game taking place on the Tuesday. Whilst the outbound flight on Sunday worked out £40 quid cheaper it meant an extra day in Hanover/Wolfsburg, both of which appeared to have very little in the way of attractions. Either way, 3 days/2 nights is our standard trip and we still manage enough indulgence.
The flight to Copenhagen was just over an hour and a half, with not too much of a turn around in between. Enough time to grab a quick drink, but at 75 Krone (£7.20) for a large beer in the airport we didn’t really want to spend too much time there! The next flight wasn’t much more than an hour but was on a much cosier 80 seater propeller plane, something a little different to the typical flight, though largely full of United fans.
Hanover airport is situated about 10 miles north of the city centre which made it fairly easy to travel from, just a 20 minute train costing €3.30 each way.
After opting for better hotels or apartments in recent trips we were back on the hostel scene in Germany, but at €46 each for 2 nights and a twin room there were no complaints. The luxury sounding Bed’n’Budget hostel was a 10 minute walk from the train station and was actually up there with one of the better hostels I’ve stayed in. Our twin room also had 2 sets of bunks which meant we had a choice and a good size room, avoiding that main hostel gripe of having to share with strangers. There were a few other groups of United fans here too, a popular choice it seemed, though no one stayed in the bar too long given a small beer set you back €3.50.
Speaking with the other United fans who’d travelled over the few days we were in Germany, it seemed as though there was about a 50/50 split in opting for Hanover or Berlin as base for the trip; none however in Wolfsburg itself. As fore-mentioned, Berlin is certainly a city to tick off in the future.
The City of Hanover
Hanover, though 4 times the size of Wolfsburg in terms of population, was relatively small and quiet. I’d already been told that there was little to do but we still aimed to take in as much as possible during our few days there. The timing of the trip was ideal as, like Leverkusen in 2013, the Christmas markets were in town, providing a bit more to do, see and drink. Whilst I do think Manchester’s markets are ok, there’s no denying that the Germans are better – they are after all the originals. It could be that they feel a little more authentic but the quality of the food and drink does outdo the ones at home for me, an added plus point being they’re much cheaper too! A good part of our first night in Hanover was spent at the markets, which spanned from the main train station through the pedestrianised shopping precinct. There were pockets of reds throughout and the street music had an air of United songs to it for most of the night.
With gluewein and bratwurst out of the way we moved indoors to a central bar – a Munich Paulaner beer hall. As you’d expect the beer was good, and actually about the average price for the trip at €3.70 for half a litre. A fair few United fans found the bar which filled up over the rest of the night and as the markets shut; there didn’t seem to be a huge choice of bars in the small city centre but we made the most of the few we found.
On the day of the game we opted to take in a bit more of the city with a walk down to the Hanover 96 ground, about 1km south of the city centre. We couldn’t get too close to the gated up HDI Arena, situated on a street named in tribute to former Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke, but we did manage a quick look around and a drink in the neighbouring ‘Julians’ bar (research has not yet led me to which, if any player, this is named after!) The football ground is situated right next to one of the city’s other main sights, the large Maschsee lake – an artificial lake which is usually home to a range of water sports, though pretty still whilst we were there. Although a fairly pleasant day, 10 degrees and a clear sky, we opted against having a proper look around it, instead looping back past the impressive New Town Hall (Rathaus) building and back to the Christmas markets. Walking through the streets to the city centre we passed a slightly out of place church ruins, set beside a lot of the modern buildings and shops. I later found out this was the Aegidienkirche church; bombed during WW2 and, whilst slightly restored, left in memorial to those who died in the war.
The City of Wolfsburg
After a few more bratwurst and beers we headed for the train to Wolfsburg early afternoon on the day of the game. The journey was just under 50 miles, which took around an hour on the slower local train. A group ticket was pretty reasonable, working out at €8 return each for 5 of us. There was also the option of the ICE trains; whilst twice as quick these more than four times expensive.
It’s never hard to find United fans on any given match day in European cities. The away crowd generally have a very distinct look; short hair, dark jacket, adidas trainers and the odd bobble hat thrown in. So, having picked up our match tickets near Wolfsburg train station we wandered down the main high street and it wasn’t long before we found said crowd at the well named Bar Celona – already adorned with tri colour flags.
The one dominating sight in Wolfsburg is the VW factory. This is pretty much the only attraction in the small city, responsible for 99% of all local income, and an impressive sight set above the surrounding industrial area. If there had been more time I’d have liked to see the factory tour, certainly one on the list for the future. There wasn’t a huge amount else to see in Wolfsburg, much less than in Hanover, other than the Christmas markets which seemed to span as much of the city centre as those we’d just come from. The United fans gathered here were adding to the festive decorations with more flags and songs; after a short while there though the lager did seem to dry up a little and so it’s was back to the much busier bar from earlier.
The Volkswagen arena was a 20 minute walk from the centre of Wolfsburg, the police having tried to encourage everyone to leave the pub and square from about 7pm (KO being 8.45pm). After a long day or twos session everyone was in fine form and voice, the pre match mood seeming fairly confident that we’d get the win.
The walk took us over the railway from where we could see part of the VW factory lit up in red, for United perhaps? The Volkswagen arena on the other hand looked like Oz’s Emerald City, lit up in green and sat on its own in the middle of nothing. As we approached the ground there was a rousing rendition of ‘Every single one of us, loves Alex Ferguson’ from the United fans ahead of us. It took me until the last second to notice Fergie (and David Gill) entering the VIP section – a penny for their thoughts about the teams current performances…
Past the usual intense European searches and ticket checks we were in the ground; United had 1,700 tickets in a corner, as well as a large chunk of the “neutral end” which was to the right of our end. We were in the lower tier, actually on pitch level; typically in Europe we end up with the Gods in the uppermost sections so this was a welcome change. The ground holds around 26,000 (though 30,000 for German league games due to their efficient safe standing rail seats) and the Wolfsburg fans were in good voice for most of the game.
The match itself was an ironic reflection of our season, having had so many 0-0’s and lack of attacking effort we probably created more chances than in any previous game this year. Unfortunately, despite our promising early goal, our defensive game was shocking and we conceded 3 easy goals. It was nice to actually celebrate scoring a few times after some of the recent stalemates (even if one was chalked off for a late offside call) but so frustrating to see cheap goals given away from set pieces. Some of the reds around us were closely following the other group game between Moscow and PSV, which could have played in our favour, but at the end of the day we had the opportunity to control our own fate which we relinquished.
At full time we were thankfully let straight out of the ground, rather than facing a long wait whilst the home crowd dispersed. The local police were obviously aware than nearly all of us had to jump on the last trains back to Hanover or Berlin. The mood on the packed train back merely echoed what many reds have been saying for the past few months, that we’re just not an exciting attacking team right now. A lack of any real positives made it a bit of a long, deflated hour ride.
The return flights followed the same route as on the way over, with a few extra hours in Copenhagen. Thankfully this was eased with entry to the executive lounge and a few free drinks, much better than spending £7 a pint in the main airport bar. A good time to reflect on the enjoyable parts of the trip. Germany is definitely up there with best countries I’ve visited; great beer, friendly people and the transport is just so efficient, as the stereotype deems. Visiting the country at Christmas is also well worth experiencing.
However, that’s the end of United’s Champions League journey this year. There was a huge mixture of frustration, disappointment but also inevitability about the result. Fortunately, for those of us who like to travel, finishing 3rd in the group meant a repeat of the 2011/12 season with a spell in the unfavoured secondary competition, the Europa League. We’ll know in a few days time who our opponents in February will be, time enough to plan the next European trip. It already sounds as though the manager is less interested in progressing in the competition, but you never know, we could draw every game 0-0 and make it to the final in Basel in May.
Total travel costs: £182
Miles travelled: 1,846
Accommodation: £17/night (twin room)
Match ticket: €45 (£33.50)
Average cost of pint: €3.70 (£2.70)
United Allocation: 1,700
Result: Vfl Wolfsburg 3 – United 2
Match played 08/12/15