Jacob Sweetman - Nine Years
When looked at through numbers as cold and dull as hammered steel, it doesn't seem like much of anything happened to 1.FC Union since they were promoted to the 2.Liga in 2008. Or since they finished re-building their own stadium the same year.
Just a mundane story about a football club from the unfashionable end of an often, though not aways, fashionable city, in an unchanging position in a secondary league a thousand and more miles away from the glamour and romance of Europe's more garlanded footballing cultures. It's just nine long mid-table seasons with their knees barely scraped by a relegation battle, whilst hardly daring to really dream about promotion either.
But the tectonic plates have been slowly, inexorably shifting under the Alte Försterei. The more things stay the same, the more they change. A club who have rarely been as stable, have also never dared to be so upwardly mobile.
Rarely has the apparently mundane been so utterly compelling.
It now seems implausible to think of the Alte Försterei, this hallowed place, without a roof. Or without a full house. But there are kids pictured in these photographs who would barely have been born at the time when this was reality here. They have hardly been able to buy a ticket off a smiling old woman in a wooden hut at the Union Tanke on the way from the S-Bahn to the stadium. For nowadays there are rarely any tickets left to sell at all.
Yet, as Berlin is a city that seems desperate to escape its past whilst being scared of reinventing itself too drastically at the same time, there are, similarly, people here, Unioner, terrified that their astnishing success, that what they built, will lead to the gentrification of Union. Just as Berlin itself has been gentrified.
For they know that among those that now pack the terraces, there are many who will turn their backs on Union as soon as the next big thing comes along. The next scene, or even the next club. And some of them quietly despise these people who don't know how they’ve struggled to get here, even as they welcome their money and their support when the club will always still need both.
But it will always be a mistake to make definitive statements about the Unioner and what they think. For they are Berliners, and the thing about Berliners, as Kurt Tucholsky very well knew, is there are no intrinsic truths about them. He had to invent a family of alter-egos just to try and get across the breadth of opinions encountered on the streets. They'll agree on almost nothing.
So, as they'll tell you that Uwe Neuhaus deserved longer, because he alone was responsible for all of the good that came since Union had been at their nadir, they'll counter that he had grown so dour by the end, and because his teams were reflecting that, they were just as happy to see him go. As they'll talk at length about how Jens Keller was sacked far too soon, given that he had just led them to fourth in the table, whilst telling you that he was never a good fit for Union. He was always too self-assured, too Swabian, you see.
They'll say that Norbert Düwel, too, was too professorial, and he would never get the respect needed from the players because he'd never played the game. But they'll still concede that he had stood up to Tusche when he needed to. And they still can't work out if that was a good thing or not.
They’ll wax lyrical about their love and respect for Andre Hofschneider, and how much they wanted him to succeed when he was finally given the biggest job of all. But they’ll also say that they knew all along he wouldn't.
And many of them would rather not talk about Sasha Lewandowski at all, even though he was the one who seemed to be the closest fit to them as a club. They really thought he was one of them. Until they realised that he wasn't. Before the terrible scandal that left a man dead, a kid God knows where, and a dreadful, shamed silence whenever his name was mentioned.
Which is also why they love Michael Parensen, the sole player from the side that won the 3.Liga. Parensen is thoughtful and polite. He is sober and sensible. His book-keeping exams long since passed in the close-seasons gone by. He is the nicest guy in every room he appears in.
Parensen, though, also knows what they know. That to succeed here is to work hard, to fight and bleed, if need be, for the cause. He once swore at Neuhaus from the pitch when he thought his instructions were detrimental to the side. He knows that if that fourth place in the table was a disappointment (which it was), then the eighth was to be celebrated (which it also was).
There are few who were there that day who can't still remember the terrible noise that came out of him, a wounded animal cry, when his knee was destroyed the first time, or the tears he shed on being stretchered off the pitch at the Olympiastadion in sheer, blinding agony.
He is somehow they; as they are somehow he. And despite, or possibly because of everything they've been through, they hold together.
They always have.
They see each other every other week in the same spots on the same terraces that many of them built themselves. And though they may not know each others' names, they notice when they aren't there, and ask after their health when they return. They pick each other up if they stumble, as they put their arms around each other and cried together with Damir Kreilach and with Björn Jopek when they said their goodbyes. As they danced in sheer, unfettered joy as Steven Skrzybski bid his farewell with a goal so perfectly timed it was if written by Tucholsky, that great Berliner, himself.
Yeah, nine seasons is a long time for a club like Union. Nine long seasons of perpetual chaos and relative stability. And a thousand and one stories that drift over the stands of the Alte Försterei like particles streaming out from the sun, lighting up the skies above Köpenick like the Aurora Borealis over Greenland, about the people that make this club what it is. For good and ill. In love and pain.