Jean-Paul Sartre said hell was being locked forever in a room with your friends. Of course if they snore then hell can be reached must faster. A friend of mine, who I’ve roomed with on a few weekend trips out of cheapness, can do such a fantastic impression of an outboard motor with his nasal passages that I’d applaud if not trying to sleep. I’m not even sure how long I’ve known him. Certainly over 20 years, but the first time I can recall meeting him was when we both made a dash past the police cordon after a match at Wolverhampton to catch a soon-to-depart train on the opening day of the 1987/8 season. I’d not travelled up with him, nor stood near him at the match, nor did I even know his name (just as it was with 95% of the people I knew from away games) but I’d chatter to him a number of times before and from the next match we met up, and along with another guy, travelled home and away every Saturday for the best part of the next 10 years. I still sit with them both, and indeed, the three of us were the first people ever to buy tickets for the Madejski Stadium’s North Stand, which is our crap claim to fame. So we got on pretty well, but it was to be a good dozen years, before our first ever trip abroad for a proper match, to see Ajax in Amsterdam, before that friendship was severely tested by his deathly rasp. At least the hotel had been able to provide at short notice an extra bed after telling us that only “doubles” were left. I suspect Amsterdam hoteliers had heard of my previous trip to the city, where I’d booked into a hotel through a tour operator without realising it was listed in the Rough Guide’s “gay hotels” section. Having descended several levels into Dante’s inferno with other sleep-deprived football trips, not least when his equally sonorous brother joined one trip, it was a great relief to book a trip to Hamburg with separate rooms. It wasn’t just about his snoring. There was another reason – he was bringing his girlfriend. Now I’ve no idea if she snored or not, but as interesting as the extra company was on the trip, they should have got the gravel-voiced voice-over guy from the start of Hart-to-Hart to introduce them, as when they got together, “it was moiyder”. To explain, he’s no shrinking violet. He’s the kind of guy who calls a spade a spade, or to quote the joke about the nuns and the workmen, he calls it a f***ing shovel. And she is as equally delicate having been in the army. She’d apparently been on at him for a while to take her away. I’m sure the imaged Paris, Rome, Venice. A football match in Hamburg probably wasn’t quite what he had in mind, although compared to going to a football match in Glasgow on her birthday, which also happened, it was practically Mills & Boone. Somehow he persuaded her, despite her total lack of interest in football, that both trips would be worthwhile, and as we took the bus into Hamburg past the pleasant Binnenalster lake, all looked good. True, her efforts at getting romantic were rebuffed like a 10 year old trying to avoid being kissed by his granny at Christmas, but the £40 return flights I’d found were rather early in the morning and I’m not sure I’d have been totally in the mood either. The plan was simple enough – to have a quick walk round the centre, pop into a bar for a meal, then dash off to the match at about 2pm – 1.5 hours before kick off. Hamburg isn’t perhaps the ideal city for sightseeing. Sure, the town hall is big, picturesque and impressive, and almost certainly the most photographed building in Hamburg, but that’s mainly because much of the rest of the city centre suffered from looking like it had been built (after total WWII annihilation) by English architects, giving it that same romantic charm and character that makes English cities such unique and joyful places to visit. As such, photographic opportunities, in the centre at least, were at a premium. As we were making our way to the stadium from the neighbouring U-bahn stop, the lack of distraction wasn’t too much of a problem. We had an hour and 20 minutes to get there. No problem. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. A route map in the station, which was being rebuilt and was worryingly full of smoke, implied a direct service, an S21, went direct to the stadium from this stop. We waited about 10 minutes and one which would have involved changing came in, so we decided to wait for the next one, as did some Hamburg fans. They must know what they are doing we thought. The next train was going the wrong way. The one after was like the first – going the right way, but not direct. The Hamburg fans asked a station worker something, presumably about trains rather than asking him if it was true that if he worked there he got the uniform to take home at weekends, and didn’t get on this one either, so nor did we. The next train was again in the wrong direction. Now this wasn’t good, what had looked a quite reasonable hour and twenty had shrunk to about 40 minutes, with the next train nearly 10 minutes away. It required a change, but even a direct one might not have got us there if it took another 15-20 minutes to arrive. It took about that long to get to the station to change. Piling out, we saw two trains. The clueless Hamburg fans we’d trusted earlier got on one, so we looked towards the other. The train said it was going to the stadium. Both trains were about to depart. The platform sign said something else though. We took the risk that the train’s info was probably right and the sign wrong and jumped aboard knowing we had no option of waiting, and seconds after boarding the doors slammed shut like a portcullis, pulling up the drawbridge on those outside still wanting to get to the match. It was the right train, god knows where those Hamburg fans on the other one ended up, and we arrived at the stadium stop with just over 10 minutes to spare. Joyfully, free buses had been laid on, for even by German standards, Hamburg’s stadium stop was stretching the word ‘near’ to its limits, and was one that would require walking at Olympic pace to cover in 10 minutes. If only they’d had bus lanes near the stadium, as we hit traffic at a distance just too far to tempt you to get out and run for it instead. As it was we arrived right outside the stadium 5 minutes after kick off. I could live with that. Missing 5 minutes is hardly the end of the world. I wasn’t fussed, and I remained not being fussed right up until the moment a few seconds later when the bus shook from the roar of 55,000 people greeting a goal just dozen of metres, and few feet of obstinately and inconsiderately opaque concrete, to my left. Now it’s one of the paradoxes of football. A goal is a great thing. It makes you cheer. It’s the thing you crave. There’s nothing you want more than for your team to score. Unless that is, you hear the goal rather than see it. Missing a goal is like receiving a “we called while you were out” message from the ex-catholic high-school girls nymphomaniac society. The misery was etched into the fans faces, and I’m not sure if us being neutral made it any better. Hamburg’s AOL Arena is about as good as new grounds get. Somehow feeling much taller than it looks in pictures, it has that real feel of enclosure that the best grounds have, with the crowd looming over the players, part of the action rather than just a backdrop. Better still was a large terrace at one end, packed full and making a heck of a racket. We took our seats opposite, on the vertigo-inducingly steep seats of the middle tier, and joked about how “funny” it would be if the goal we’d heard turned out to be the only goal of the game. Hamburg were near the top at the time, but it became clear pretty quickly this was not a slick table-topping display. In fact it was clear on this day, first five minutes apart, Hamburg’s forwards had no idea what to do with the ball. And this despite the goal nets sporting the Hamburg club badge like a target, right in the middle. The suspicion that we would not only not see a goal all afternoon (the Mainz forwards didn’t even look like they were trying to score, having all the ambition of a 38 year old Burger King employee), but be taunted by hearing one, grew by the minute. Not that it wasn’t an enjoyable game. If nothing else the atmosphere was great, prodded along at regular intervals by live score updates from other games in the Bundesliga on the scoreboard. News that rivals Werder Bremen were losing really fired up the crowd. Of course it did also have the impact, on those who had missed the only goal, of hammering home how unlucky they were when goals were flying in everywhere else. When planning the weekend, the other main option for a match had been Schalke v Bayer Leverkusen. Had we gone to that one, and been slightly later, we’d have also missed an early goal. There however, as we were reminded at regularly painful intervals by the scoreboard, things might have been slightly more dramatic, where the home side edged home in a clearly tight defensive encounter by seven goals to four. With about 15 minutes left our patience was rewarded. Mainz’s keeper dropped a cross and predatory Hamburg forward pounced, lashing it the loose ball. The crowd rose. The cheer pierced the air, then ceased prematurely. The goal was ruled out. There was nothing wrong with it, even when watched on tv replays later, but this is continental Europe, where just looking at a keeper in a funny way is enough to merit a foul. There didn’t seem to be any contact at any stage, and my only conclusion is that German referees are all members of a strange cult that worships Jens Lehmann and follow his commandments to the letter, or it was just a crap decision. From then I knew there’d be no goals, and I was right. Once I accepted that I calmed immeasurably, only getting annoyed again when squashed onto the public transport. Now I’ve travelled on the world’s busiest metro in Tokyo, at its busiest station, Shinjuku, at the height of the rush hour. It just about compares to German football trains. I swear if you were to see one from the outside, you’d see the walls of the carriages curving outwards. It doesn’t help when you have a Mainz fan singing and swaying about a few yards away. I’m sure somebody would have hit him, if only they’d been able to raise their arms. It also doesn’t help if your mate’s girlfriend is a bit claustrophobic. Not a football fan, she wasn’t overly enthused about the game, and she hated being crushed, and it sort of set the tone for the evening. She wasn’t happy, and he wasn’t happy about her not being happy, albeit it a “pissed off” rather than concerned way. It made the rest of the weekend fraught. Just choosing somewhere to have a meal in the evening became an exercise in compromise and appeasement which made the Arab-Israeli problems look simple in comparison. About two hours of hopeless wandering around the city ended with us going into a pizza place about 50 yards from our hotel, directly opposite the Hamburg Opera house. We could have gone there for an evening of culture, but were slightly underdressed. In fact the floor to ceiling windows of the place showed that anyone merely turning up in “black tie” attire would have been thrown out by security. You really felt like holding up large placards outside saying “yes, you really do look a complete tit” for the benefit of those inside who were unsure. The following day’s meander was equally tense, popping around a variety of the usual sights of Hamburg, as well as nipping into the ground of St Pauli as a way of making up for turning my mate into quivering jelly by activating his fear of heights up a church spire a few hundred metres away. St Pauli couldn’t be more different to the AOL Arena. A traditional small terraced ground which at face value really wasn’t very good, but one which clearly gained its identity from the people who fill it every other week, rather than any imposing architecture. Whereas HSV had a corporate identity, St Pauli’s ground, located on the corner of the Reeperbahn, was marked by a seemingly officially sanctioned wall of urban graffiti. And rather than being flashy, the team play in brown. Knowing how much she hated the packed train, my mate promising to bring his girlfriend back to Germany to stand on the packed St Pauli terraces didn’t go down to well. We can’t have been the only English to have had that idea though, as a Twyford to Reading train ticket from the previous week lay forlornly on the terrace. The barely contained niggling from the two lovebirds came to a head at the airport, where a refusal to buy a £50 bottle of perfume bought tantrums & tears, and kind of summed up a not exactly too successful weekend. On the other hand their odd relationship seemed to thrive on that sort of thing, and just an hour or so later she was ringing her mum and saying what a great time she’d had. Overall I’d enjoyed it too. It had been “different” to say the least, but entertaining. The squabbling may have not been ideal, but I’d still choose that over snoring any day. Outside the stadium. Not the best place to be when goals are being scored. Hamburg’s AOL Arena. Targets clearly at the back of each goal. A very different “brand” welcomes you to the hell of St Pauli.