The Search for the Next Game

In the first and third week of my tour, I had mid-week fixture lists to enjoy, giving me a choice of fixtures, even if in many cases they were only second division matches in the country’s concerned. The middle week was different, though – the appearance of a bank holiday on the Monday concentrated the fixtures onto that date. This left me with the choice of either missing out on my hope to see a match on every day for the validity of my 22 day rail pass, (which would have allowed me to head further afield, for a single game), or to pick up those matches I could find from the re-arrangements after postponements. For example, if I had chosen to miss Tuesday and Thursday, my Wednesday match could have been in Belgrade.

Having rejected this plan, I dropped my levels, seeing a match in the Swiss 2.Liga Inter-regional (4th level) on the Tuesday, and a Landesliga (5th level) game in Germany on the Wednesday. Now the fifth level of the English pyramid is the Football Conference – with highly developed minimum ground standards and average crowds well above the thousand mark. But England is not like the rest of Europe (or the world). We have more professional clubs, and more clubs with regular crowds over 1000 than anywhere else. Only the Italians come close. Germany has two regional divisions at its third level, nine oberliga at level 4, and no less than 27 (called either Verbandsliga or Landesliga) at level 5. This means that far from being an equivalent to the Conference, the teams are more in line with lower division Southern League, or even Hellenic League football.

My fixture was in a place called Grebenstein, which research had shown to be deep in the very centre of Germany. In fact, quite easy to get to from Basel – the fast and comfortale ICE train speeds me as far as Kassel, and then a local regional tram deals with the last 18 km. The regional tram was a new one on me – it turned out to work as a normal tram around the streets of Kassel, and then transfer to the railway tracks for the longer out of town journeys. I tried to walk around the town in Kassel for a while before transferring out – this proved impossible after a week or more of good weather, the temperatures in this part of Germany had risen to 32°C in the middle of the afternoon. So melting after just a short walk, I bought an ice-cream and found the tram. As it was, I think I should have made the transfer earlier, as Grebenstein did not turn out to be a dead residential suburb, but a small village full of half-timbered houses; more rewarding to the eye than Kassel’s modern but dull centre.
As is often the case, the railway station and football ground are both on the edges of the village – one at each end, but this is a small place, fifteen minutes comfortably takes me from one to the other. The Sauertalstadion has been built (or more accurately dug) from a hillside on the edge of the town. It is a standard bowl shaped ground, but with grassed sides too steep to be used as terraces. A path, about 2 metres wide has been cut all around the ground, at a level height apart from at the bottom end of the ground, where it follows the natural slope down to pitch level. The entrance level is a little higher again, and at this point too there has been levelling out to provide the essential buildings, dressing rooms and bar. A flight of steps take the players and officials down to the pitch. On a warm spring evening, with the shadows lengthening over the pitch, there can be few more pleasant locations to sit, enjoy a beer and watch a game. The game itself is nothing special, both teams are away from the action zones of the league table. For the record, the match in the Landesliga Hessen Nord, and the away team VfL Eiterfeld beat the home, TuSpo Grebenstein by two goals to nil.

After the game, the regional tram takes me back into Kassel, another local train to Gottingen, and then an overnight one through to Vienna. Sometime in the middle of the night, Paul and Kevin who I had last seen a week ago in Switzerland (Gossau) boarded the train on their travels away from an East German game. We only meet as we get off the train, and transfer to the local trains taking us south of the Austrian capital to Mattersburg.

If we had wanted to go to the main football stadium in Mattersburg, then none would be easier to find. Mattersburg has two railway stations, Mattersburg Nord and Mattersburg, and the ground is settled below the viaduct that holds the tracks between the two stations. Of course, life is never quite this simple, but I will get to that later.

In fact, the first priority on arriving at the town is to find somewhere to stay. Arriving at the station around 10 in the morning without a plan – or even a map to find the town. Finding the town is the easy bit – one picks on the only landmark (except the football ground floodlights) and heads in the direction of the church spire. To find out if there is a hotel once we arrive is more difficult. With nothing immediately visible and no signs, Kevin takes the novel step of asking a local. He gets some indistinct directions, and we in fact have to ask again before we found the town’s only hotel. As it happened, the Florianihof was a pleasant and reasonable hotel, at a reasonable rate – and providing one service one does not always find even in the best quality of hotels.

As I mentioned, life is never too simple – Mattersburg have reached the top division of Austrian football, and their league season was over before we arrived in the town. Anyway, I had been to the stadium to see them lose 2-1 to Austria Wien in 2005. The plan on this occasion was to see Mattersburg Amateur – the reserve team – playing in the Regionalliga West. The match was not at Mattersburg, but in a village called Hirm, about 8km away. We had confirmed there was a bus to the village although it would have meant arriving two hours before kick-off, but we also knew there was no bus back.

So we wandered off to the stadium, to find the football club offices and see if they could help out three stray Englishmen. Not surprisingly, there was no transport laid on for supporters, but they did say they would try and find someone to help us. Then the lady we were talking to had a brainwave. Are you staying at the Florianihof, she asked? Yes, we replied. Well, then – ask the manager of the hotel, Herr Bandat, as he is a regular supporter and goes to most of the matches.
And so, we returned to the hotel, ready for our lunch, (the Florianihof puts on a very good value buffet lunch), and asked to speak to the manager. Sure enough he was intending to see the game and could give us a lift there. And he would talk to some of his friends and find us a lift back as well. As it happened, he made the return journey with us himself, going out of his way as he could not find anyone else to make the journey. This is certainly service that you tend not to get with the best five star hotel.
Demonstrating an independent spirit, and more energy than us oldies, Paul and myself, Kevin walked out to Hirm, while I was more than happy to accept the lift. With around 300 people watching the match, the Alfred Wiesinger Sportanlage in Hirm was an ideal setting, whereas the big stadium in Mattersburg would have dwarfed the crowd. There is a covered stand along most of one long side, and flat standing in front of the clubhouse behind one goal. On the other two sides, there is no room for spectator accommodation. The visiting team was St. Polten, a team I had seen play at home in the top division of Austrian football nearly 20 years before. They have had a number of years outside the professional levels having fallen bankrupt, but are now on their way back, and led the Regionalliga Ost going into the match. Although Mattersburg scored both first and last in the game, for most of the 90 minutes, St. Polten were just too strong for them. The final score was 4-2 in favour of the visitors.

The next day, Paul and Kevin were up early, and had left the hotel before I started on breakfast – heading for somewhere at the far end of Austria again, (I think). We arranged to meet again on Sunday morning in Budapest! I had elected to make the short journey to Vienna and to see another team that I had seen grace the top division (away) near enough 20 years ago. This club was First Vienna – although the name (in English, never German) could just as easily be First Austria as they claim to be the country’s oldest club. As I left the hotel, I met with Herr Bandat again, and he presented me with a bottle of local wine as a memento of my visit. Thanks again sir – you are a gentleman and a football fan!

In 1990, I had seen First play away in a Vienna derby at Rapid Wien. Rapid and Austria Wien have been the top clubs in the capital and country ever since. First have dropped two divisions, so this was again football in the Regionalliga Ost. Rapid’s amateur side also play in this division, and now hire the ground from First. When both teams are scheduled to play at home, they play a double header with Rapid Amateur starting at 5.30, First Vienna two hours later. A €9 ticket allows one to see two matches, while the small A5 programme covers First’s game only.

The ground at Hohe Warte must be almost as old as the club. Out in a northern suburb of the city, one side of the ground is a vast hillside, now almost completely overgrown, but with just enough sign to show that once it was completely covered with terracing. The nearest equivalent in England would have been the valley, but Hohe Warte is taller. This one side of the ground must have once been able to hold at least 20,000 people. Nowadays, only a small part of the lower terrace is being used, and rather than renovate the old terrace, a new terrace has been build using steel scaffolding and aluminium coverings. Opposite the large slope is a quite modern stand, while the curves behind each goal were hardly used.

In both matches, the Vienna based side were among those in the chasing pack behind St. Polten, although they did not harbour any hope of promotion this season. The visitors Schwechat in the first game, and Zwettl afterwards were both near the bottom of the table. In fact if both were to win their matches, then Mattersburg would be dumped into the relegation zone. I had discussed this the night before at the Mattersburg match. Having not been in the top division for long, they are only just developing their Amateur side. It was a very young team, more youth then reserve, but they were desperate to keep at this level, where they think there is more chance of the players developing that are suitable for the first team.

As it happened both matches were comfortable 2-0 home wins, leaving both the top and bottom ends of the table unchanged. Both the Vienna sides played some good football at times, but neither could manage to dominate the game in the way that St. Polten had the night before. Stan turned up, returning from London, midway through the first game. It had always been his intention to see the second game (i.e the First game) only. Afterwards Stan disappeared in search of an overnight train, while I headed to a hotel, which was to allow me reasonable access to Hungary the next day.