How Union Berlin reached the promised land and just kept going
When 1. FC Union Berlin welcome Feyenoord to the Stadion An der Alten Forsterei in Berlin on Thursday for their Europa Conference League match, the teams will be welcomed onto the pitch by the club’s anthem.
Not many clubs can say that their anthem was recorded by German Punk legend Nina Hagen, nor do many clubs in European capitals require you to walk through a forest on the outskirts of the city to make it to their stadium, but Union Berlin do not care for the mainstream.
The club, based in the East Berlin suburb of Kopenick, had never reached the Bundesliga, instead yo-yoing between Germany’s second and third tiers.
Prior to reunification they had only dipped in and out of East Germany’s top tier and had a solitary East German Cup to their name.
But then in 2019, under the stewardship of Swiss coach Urs Fischer, Die Eisernen reached the promised land of the Bundesliga.
Now in their third successive season in the top tier of German football and already boasting European football, this unique club has not looked back.
Clinching promotion and causing chaos
Fischer arrived in Berlin after a year out of football.
He had led Swiss side Basel to two successive Swiss League Championships in 2015-16 and as part of a domestic double in 2016-17, when he also won the Swiss cup and led them to the Champions League group stages.
“I was both surprised and pleased to hear the enquiry from 1. FC Union Berlin,” Fischer told the Union Berlin website when he signed.
“The conditions at Union are excellent – the club is ambitious.”
That ambition centred around finally making it to the Bundesliga, and it was Fischer’s task to finally help the club get there.
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They had come close the seasons before, finishing in and around the promotion spots for the past few seasons prior to Fischer’s debut 2018-19 campaign, but could never quite break into the automatic promotion spots nor the promotion-relegation playoff spot, up against the 16th placed Bundesliga side.
They were by no means favourites for promotion, with Hamburg and FC Koln having been relegated from the Bundesliga the season before, two big clubs both expected to bounce back up at the first time of asking.
But under Fischer, Union were one of the toughest teams to beat in the league. Across 34 games, Union conceded just 33 times: by some way the fewest in the league.
They drew 15 times over the course of the season, losing just five. Their famous atmosphere made their home ground, which translates to English as ‘The stadium at the old forester’s house’, a fortress in which they just lost once all season.
With 57 points Union finished third, missing out on automatic promotion to FC Paderborn on goal difference alone after drawing their final game of the season.
They then faced VfB Stuttgart in the relegation-promotion playoff, who boasted former Germany international Mario Gomez on their books.
In a thrilling match Union twice came from behind to equalise in the first leg away in Stuttgart, which finished 2-2.
A typically gutsy, defensive display in the second leg meant Union held off Stuttgart’s attacking onslaught back in Berlin and with the away goals rule active, a 0-0 draw earned Union promotion for the first time.
It sparked incredible scenes as the pitch was flooded with Union’s fans who had never demanded success but, now it was here, were sure going to enjoy it.
Drenched in beer, Fischer had done it: the first East Berlin team to be promoted to the Bundesliga, only the fifth East German team to ever play in the top flight and only the sixth to ever win promotion via the play-off since its introduction in 1981-82. Historic.
Premium German scenes as Union Berlin are promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time 🔥pic.twitter.com/I95w2bO6sn
— COPA90 (@Copa90) May 27, 2019
Comfortably favourites for relegation, Union knew they had to adapt quickly to the challenges that would face them in the Bundesliga.
Fischer and club President Dirk Zingler set about bringing in new talent to bolster the first team, including veteran Bundesliga players in ex-Dortmund defender Neven Subotic and Christian Getner.
But the core starting XI remained roughly the same both due to the financial restrictions the small club had and a dressing room togetherness that meant Fischer and the Union players believed they could do the impossible and stay up.
Whatever was to come, Union fans were prepared for a season like no other they had ever experienced: Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund would have to travel to come to Kopenick to play them, they would get to travel to the biggest teams in Germany to follow their club and, most exciting of all, the first-ever Berlin Derby with Hertha in the Bundesliga.
The first East-West Berlin derby in the Bundesliga is underway on @FS1!
Union Berlin's tifo game = STRONG 🔥 pic.twitter.com/QyA2dPD3da
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 2, 2019
Despite the odds being stacked against them, Union had a strong first season.
Fischer’s organised system allowed them to concede few and see out games, when they needed to.
But they were by no means a boring side, as Dortmund found out when they travelled to Berlin on the 31st August 2019 and lost 3-1 to Union, who stunned Germany with their first Bundesliga victory.
With the club’s top goalscorer Sebastian Andersson and club captain Christopher Trimmel leading the way, Union steadily picked up points throughout the season and never looked in dire threat of relegation.
Their results included a 1-0 win against Hertha in that long-awaited first top-flight Berlin derby, and they continued their form post-lockdown to finish 11th, closer in points to European football than relegation.
It was an achievement just as stunning as their promotion.
Not just surviving, but thriving
Keen to avoid second-season syndrome, more transfers were made in the summer of 2020 to boost the Union squad as Andersson and first-choice goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz were lured away to pastures new.
In came Liverpool loanee Taiwo Awoniyi and former German international Max Kruse on a free transfer, to name just two.
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) August 31, 2021
Having signed a new contract and not one to rest of his laurels, Fischer set about making Union tighter defensively and freer on the attack.
In doing so he created a side that was difficult to beat and potent on the counter. Losing just once in their opening nine games, Union set the pace for the season with results like a 4-0 home drubbing of Mainz and a 5-0 victory over Arminia Bielefeld.
Back in German football, Kruse became the creative dynamism at the heart of a Union team that was still full of regulars from the promotion season determined to prove themselves as more than a one-season wonder.
𝟮𝟰 𝘀𝗲𝗰𝗼𝗻𝗱𝘀 pic.twitter.com/GYqW5phzlr
— 1. FC Union Berlin (@fcunion_en) November 2, 2021
They lost just eight times in the 2020-21 season, conceding the third-fewest goals in the league. Thanks to a last minute Kruse winner on the final day against RB Leipzig, Union finished 7th and claimed a place in the inaugural Europa Conference League.
Within three seasons, Union had gone from 2. Bundesliga regulars to playing in Europe with many of the original players still in the squad.
Ten games into the new season, Union are sixth in the table and competing to get out of their tough Conference League group and there is no sign of the increase in fixtures damaging their performances.
The question, of course, is how far can this Union Berlin side go?
By Patrick Ryan