Being a Lewes and a West Ham fan doesn’t really give me many opportunities to watch my team play overseas. Going continental means crossing the respective bridges for our league games in Canvey Island and Swansea City. One of the great things about the “bigger teams” not taking the domestic cups seriously has been the opportunities presented to sides who may not have had a look in a a decade ago. Hull City, Swansea City, Wigan Athletic – heck, even Arsenal, have benefited in the past few years, qualifying for Europe thanks to their cup exploits. Am I jealous? Absolutely. Who doesn’t want to go on a European tour watching their team?
The last “proper” trip for West Ham fans was a short-lived UEFA Cup run back in 2006. And when I say “run” I actually mean was a two-legged game against USC Palermo which will be remembered more for events off the field than anything that took place across the three hours of football. Like many others, I paid £400 for a day trip to Sicily through West Ham’s official channels in order to get an official away ticket to watch a limp Pardew-inspired performance whilst the main talking point was the huge fight in the city centre the previous evening between locals and some of the more “old school” West Ham fans who had come out of retirement for the trip.
Changes in the way that pre-season preparation are run has meant that English clubs tend to disappear to all four corners of the world in mid-July, returning just before the start of the season to play one “prestigous” friendly. This used to be a slot reserved for a testimonial, but few players in the top leagues last five years at a club these days, let alone ten. In fact, the last West Ham player honoured in such a way was Steve Potts back in 1997. Current first team squad player, Dan Potts, son of Steve was one of the mascots that day, aged three years old. That is how rare these games are.
This year West Ham took in Australia, New Zealand, Stevenage and Germany for their warm up games before returning to play in the inaugural Marathon Bet Cup Final (formerly known as the Display Systems Trophy, the Bobby Moore Invitation and the “if you have the cash then you can sponsor it” Shield) against Sampdoria. Germany though, eh. A four team tournament hosted by Schalke 04 at their impressive Veltins Arena. Far too tempting to miss that one.
So that is why I was sitting in a Wetherspoon’s pub at London Stansted at 8am along with ten other football fans. I blame my brother 100% for this. Sitting alongside Stag Do’s, Hen Do’s, Grannies on a “sex tour of Shagaluf” (their words, not mine) and other football fans including Chelsea fans heading for Bremen and Newcastle fans also heading to Gelsenkirchen gives you an interesting slice of life. My brother recently took redundancy from a job he had done for twenty five years. His reward, a life of leisure hoping around the world, finding the most bizarre things to do, and arranging trips like this.
It didn’t take him long asking around his local pub to find seven other West Ham fans, plus Malcolm the Newcastle fan. It took even longer to convince one of them, Nick, to splash out on a box for the day in the Veltins Arena. All the beer and bratwurst we could consume, hence why we were taking it easy so early in the morning by only drinking Carling. One short fifty five minute flight later and we were disembarking into the sunshine of Dortmund (officially hotter than Greece at that moment), ready for the day, and night ahead.
Schalke 0 West Ham United 0 – Saturday 2nd August 2014 – The Veltins Arena
You can dress up the fact that West Ham won this game on penalties all you like but in truth it was a terrible exhibition of football. You would have hoped that with a bit of silverware on offer, West Ham would have at least tried to get the ball out of their half. Having seen a picture of the Veltins Cup, it would have at least been more impressive to have in the trophy cabinet than the thumbnail-sized Intertoto Cup that we won back in 1999. It was a good job that penalties were used to decide after ninety minutes rather than extra time, to stop the majority of fans falling asleep. Yes, it was only a pre-season friendly, but surely this should be the time when the manager is being brave, trying out things that could work. So far this season we have seen very little of that in the draws against Stevenage and Ipswich Town and the defeats against Sydney FC and Wellington in New Zealand. With just two weeks ago before the Premier League starts, the club are still desperately trying to bring in some more firepower.
We arrived at the stadium just in time to see Newcastle fall behind to Malaga in the first game. I’d been to the Veltins Arena a few times before – yet never seen the home side play. Tickets are incredibly difficult to come by so I had been forced to experience one of the best new build stadiums in Europe during the Champions League Final in 2004 and then in the 2006 World Cup Finals. However, it seems that the locals weren’t particularly interested in the Veltins Cup either. A handful of Malaga fans, a smattering of Schalke fans on the huge terrace and in the far upper corner, around 500 Newcastle fans who were already realising in the same way the West Ham fans had, that this Premier League season may be “problematic”.
After the third Malaga goal went in just before half-time (The Daily Mail summed it up by saying that “even” ex-Man Utd flop Obertan got on the score sheet) a few of us headed out of the stadium to where a few hundred West Ham fans were drinking. Few seemed particularly interested in the game, here for a weekend away and experiencing a more “grown up” footballing experience (terracing, beer, sausages and no heavy-handed policing or stewards).
West Ham lined up with three up front, although you can hardly ever call Stewart Downing, with four goals to his name in the last four seasons. Carlton Cole, maligned by many outside of the club (and some inside it), was also in the starting XI. You know where you stand with Carlton and if we had players with the same work ethic we would have a lot less to worry about. But it mattered very little. The game was tame, with Schalke coming the closest to breaking the deadlock when they hit the post twice. The five hundred or so West Ham fans spread out across SudTribune tried to rally the Hammers but it seemed penalties were inevitable.
Fortunately, 39 year old Jaaskerlainen was still awake and made two excellent saves in the shoot-out, the final one from Borgmann in sudden death to win the game for West Ham, meaning the game 24 hours later against Malaga would determine the first ever winners of the Veltins Cups.
The night was young for us. We were one of the last groups to leave the stadium, getting our full money’s worth of Veltins beer before heading to the bright lights of Dortmund. It was only a pre-season friendly, but it did give us a taste of how the other half, well top seven Premier League clubs, live. It’s only August. Who knows, this year could be our year….please?