FC St Pauli’s end-of-term report, May 2024

The latest article from Penny Post’s Hamburg correspondent, Owen Jones…

I’ve been supporting St Pauli since shortly after I moved to Hamburg in 1987. I started attending home matches regularly in the mid ‘90s, and I’ve been a season ticket holder for the last 20 years. So if you’re looking for a neutral, objective report on the club’s fortunes this last season, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Before I came to Germany my interest in football was fairly peripheral. At primary school, where it seemed to be more or less obligatory to pick a team to support, I decided to pin my colours to the Arsenal mast. I’m ashamed to say, I suspect it was the little canons on the shirts that swung it for me. Still, the die was cast and I’ve been a gooner ever since. The “Invincibles” season notwithstanding, my most memorable moment as a gunners fan was seeing George Best in action for Manchester United at Highbury, as a ten-year-old. Poetry in motion. The result was Arsenal 2, Man U 2. Best scored both United’s goals.

But my enthusiasm for Arsenal is not in the same league (so to speak) as the passion I feel for “The Boys In Brown”.

I’m not ashamed to say that the initial attraction had less to do with the sporting side of things than with the fan culture. In the early 80s, the club became closely associated with Hafenstrasse – a large-scale squat of a number of derelict apartment blocks overlooking the harbour and the anti-establishment social and political values that it represented. Within a couple of years, the vast majority of fans had ditched the club’s official flag (a reference to the Hamburg coat-of-arms) and replaced it with the skull and crossbones. St Pauli became known affectionately as the “Freibeuter der Liga“ (the buccaneers of the league).

Years before the “Kick racism out of football” movement started to gather any momentum elsewhere in Europe, it was already a central tenet of our fan culture. The attitude to any hint of racism – or homophobia and sexism – on the terraces was, and is, absolute zero tolerance. Inevitably, over the years this has led to some serious – and at times very ugly – confrontation with clubs such as Rostock or Dresden, which have disturbingly high neo-nazi elements amongst the ranks of their supporters.

The atmosphere in the ground is like nowhere else. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But so do all the (many) British friends who’ve accompanied me to games over the years.

It really is football for all the family. There are hordes of kids running around and everyone keeps an eye out for them; there are many oldies (amongst whom I count myself, these days); and I wouldn’t mind betting that the male/female split is a lot closer than in any other major club.

And then there’s the singing. Okay, I’ve heard more tuneful massed voices in the Cardiff Arms Park, but not even they could match Paulianer for sheer volume per spectator. There are a lot of witty and original chants. My personal favourite is sung to the tune of Bonnie Tyler’s It’s A Heartache and a rough English version of the lyrics goes thus: “We are parasites / Anti-social parasites / We sleep under bridges / Or in the homeless centre at the station”. Hmm – perhaps it loses something in translation…

So that’s what I discovered upon arrival in my newly adopted home city back in the ‘80s: a community-based, family-friendly, politically correct, socially tolerant football club just down the road from where I lived. It ticked all my boxes. There was just one minor detail that marred the picture ever so slightly: they weren’t actually much good at football. Well, you can’t have everything.

Ah, but now things have changed.

The stats may tell a different story (I can’t be bothered to look them up) but my impression is that, in the 37 years that I’ve been following them, St Pauli have rarely ended the season in a safe, boring mid-table position. Stalwarts of the second division, we seem to be constantly fighting for a promotion place (more often than not unsuccessfully) or struggling in the relegation zone. We did drop briefly into the third division once in that time, and we’ve also gone up to the first four times – each occasion being followed immediately by relegation the following year.

Yet all of those promotions came from ending second or third in the table. We had never actually won any silverware – until last Sunday.

The turnaround started in December 2022, when St Pauli sacked trainer Timo Schultz. Schulz was a popular and likeable figure who’d spent most of his career – both playing and coaching –  at the club. He was a great motivator but a less talented tactician. He’d taken over when we were down in the relegation doldrums and guided us out of them impressively. But the first half of the following season saw us plummeting into freefall once again. We were back in the danger zone and something needed to be done. His 28-year old assistant Fabian Hurzeler was appointed as his successor. 28? Eyebrows were raised.

We won all of the first ten games under Hurzeler, a record for the division. Eyebrows were lowered again – or at least raised in a different way. The kid was a tactical genius. We shot up through the table, only missing a promotion place by a couple of points.

Another crucial factor in the current success story is Andreas Bornemann, who was appointed sports director in 2019. Working in close conjunction with Hurzeler, Bornemann and his excellent scouting team set about seeking out players, largely from lower divisions (the financial resources were limited) with the potential to fulfil Hurzeler’s tactical masterplan. Thus a number of youngsters who were languishing in lower-league obscurity have blossomed into players fit for the first division.

One example is the English winger Oladapo Afolayan. Two years ago he was playing in League Division Two for Bolton Wanderers. Ten days ago he scored the two goals that ensured St Pauli’s promotion to the Bundesliga. On the opposite wing to “Dapo” is Elias Saad. In 2020 he was playing fifth division regional football in the suburbs of Hamburg. Now he plays internationally for Tunisia. And there are a number of other rags-to-riches stories in our ranks.

In addition to Hurzeler and Bornemann, there’s one more essential figure in our axis of good fortune. He goes by the name of Jackson Irvine.

A journeyman Australian with Scottish roots who’d played for a number of clubs in England and Scotland over the previous decade, Jackson arrived at St Pauli from Hibernian in the summer of 2021. I remember the first interview I saw then. He had (and still has) long hippie hair, sometimes dyed pink, black nail polish and one of those daft little moustaches so favoured by many Antipodean sportsmen. He’s actively and passionately involved with a number of human rights organisations. He plays guitar and favours indie music. He eschews the company car on offer, preferring to scoot around town on his bicycle.

When I learnt all that, I basically fell in love with the guy – and yet, as we were off season at the time, there was a nagging voice in my head saying “Yeah, but I bet he’s no good at football“.

Oh ye of little faith! Jackson stamped his mark on our game from early on. He may not be the fastest man on the field but he more than makes up for it with his physical strength, his accuracy, his positional sense, his eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head overview and that special gift for making the right split-second decision. He’s strong in the air and frequently scores with his head from set pieces. He’s also flexible and can play on the wing or as a centre half (his position in the Socceroos), though he’s at his strongest in midfield.

Plus, he’s a natural and popular leader, of the “by example” ilk. By always giving 100%, he draws the same level of commitment from his band of merry men. Within a year of his arrival he’d been made captain, to no-one’s surprise. Watching him lift the trophy – dressed in a St Pauli shirt and a rainbow sarong – in front of tens of thousands of ecstatic fans on the Reeperbahn last weekend was a joyous occasion for which I’ve been waiting for a long, long time.

In a TV interview after the penultimate game of the season (which had ensured our promotion, though not the trophy), Irvine  said: “It’s the happiest day of my life…well, until next Tuesday, when I’m getting married.“

On the Tuesday evening his fiancée Jamilla posted that, having set off for Denmark (where quick, no-frills weddings are easily done) they’d been sent back: having spent the previous 48 hours partying, they’d both forgotten to take their passports.

Happily, they did manage to tie the knot the following day and Jackson and his gang just about sobered up enough to clinch the title three days later – though not without the typical St Pauli nail-biting finish: they had to come back from one nil down to grab the essential win in the last ten minutes. This is no club for the faint-hearted.

One last cream-on-the-cake footnote to this splendid season…there’s another football club in Hamburg. It’s called Hamburg SV and it’s much bigger than St Pauli and (up until now, anyway) much richer. It’s fair to say there’s not a lot of love lost between the two clubs. Having been a permanent part of the Bundesliga for over half a century and European champions in the early ‘80s, HSV were relegated to the second division seven years ago. Frustratingly, they’d always ended above us in the table for the last six seasons. In fact, we haven’t been placed above them, in any division, for over 70 years – until now.

This year, Hamburg SV ended fourth, once place outside the promotion zone. In case I haven’t mentioned it, we ended up in first place. We are going up. They are not. Ah – there’s no Freude like Schadenfreude

Owen Jones

The image at the top of the page is taken from the St Pauli website.

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