The HamburgHammer Column
Grave decisions ahead for West Ham - and a memorable visit to the local cemetery
I know, it’s one weird headline this, but bear with me, it’s been a strange week and the sun has also been beating down relentlessly in my hometown.
So maybe that’s what brought me to Hamburg-Ohlsdorf cemetery, more of that later…
First things first: Congratulations to you all as England have indeed made their way into the WC semi-finals which in itself is an amazing achievement already, especially when you consider you have also managed to win your first penalty shootout in WC history along the way.
Enjoy your moment in the sun, cherish it and be proud! But please don’t think the title is in the bag just yet. Anything can still happen!
Germany of course have won numerous penalty shootouts in the past, but that didn’t help us this time around as the Krauts went out as quickly as they possibly could.
To add insult to injury they even managed to finish last in their respective group. Pathetic of course, but the bad vibes were there in the German camp even before a ball had been kicked and if you had asked German fans beforehand most would have shoulder-shruggingly predicted an early exit, although probably not quite this early…
Concordia have started their preseason schedule and I have managed to watch the odd training session as well as a few games of both the first team and the U23s already.
It’s always a great feeling going into a new season as new players arrive and try to gel quickly with the rest of the lads. The opportunities are endless, at least in theory every team can dream to finish top of the table when the first games of the season proper finally kick off.
Concordia are no exception here and I’m buzzing for the new season, but as they have actually finished all their transfer business already I can now focus on the goings on at our beloved West Ham.
The past week has been quiet on the transfer front, if you’re talking about deals concluded. The deal for Felipe Anderson appears to be moving further away from happening.
But there is a good chance that the signing of Jack Wilshere on a three year deal will either have been announced already as you’re reading this or it could well happen sometime later today.
Wilshere would then join up with the first team at their preseason training HQ in the Swiss Alps. I won’t have to tell you too much about Wilshere, he’s a well known commodity in England. His career has been blighted by numerous injuries in the past although it has to be said that he didin’t miss any games due to injury last season.
The pessimists are going to say now that the law of statistics is telling us that his next injury is waiting just around the next bend. The optimists will say that he might finally be over his injury troubles, ready to hit a lengthy purple patch at West Ham.
The biggest points in the pro column are the facts Wilshere is a West Ham fan (or at least used to be one as a kid before joining Arsenal) and that he would come reasonably cheap. There are no free deals anymore in this day and age of course, but saving money by avoiding a transfer fee, with Wilshere lowering his wage demands at the same time, makes this a potentially very decent deal for us, especially with Lanzini out for anything between 6-12 months.
Wilshere surely knows what to do with a football, boasting sublime dribbling and passing skills and I would welcome him at West Ham 100% with wide open arms.
Another player rumoured to be a potential signing for us (who might even have a medical scheduled for as early as today) is Andriy Yarmolenko, a 28-year-old Ukrainian attacking winger/striker, currently playing for Borussia Dortmund.
Yarmolenko would probably be the cheaper alternative to Felipe Anderson. Yarmolenko has featured many times for Dynamo Kiev as well as for the Ukrainian national team.
Two words to describe him: Strength and confidence. And his passing ain’t too shabby either. Plus it’s not exactly easy to get the ball off him within the laws of the game.
He can be inconsistent, drifting in and out of games, but that is an issue affecting most players. He’s had a bit of an off year at Dortmund last season, however, a change of scenery, a new challenge at a club like ours might suit all parties.
An interesting aspect is that Yarmolenko is a similar case as Arnautovic, but the other way round. Arnautovic was converted from winger to striker at West Ham and we all know that has worked a treat for us.
Yarmolenko on the other hand started out as a striker earlier in his career, but has been more effective in the recent past when being used as a winger.
Another positive is the fact that the guy is very much down to earth – he had numerous offers to go to bigger clubs in his career, but up to now he has always decided to pick clubs where he could start games on a regular basis, even at the price of earning less money by staying put.
Yarmolenko would be another decent addition to our squad.
Finally there’s Fabian Balbuena, centre-back and skipper of Brazilian outfit Corinthians. He will be 27 years old next month and is well known for being dominant in the air, very focussed throughout games and more than capable of instigating quick counter attacks by picking a decent pass after intercepting a ball.
As he hasn’t been a permanent fixture for the Paraguay national side there could be an issue with obtaining a work permit, but if the deal was to happen we’d be getting a strong defender here, a natural leader on the pitch and a guy the rest of the league might just learn to hate with a passion before you can even say “clean sheet” three times.
Surely transfer business will now begin to pick up in earnest, not just for West Ham but everyone else too. Only at the end of the window can we even begin to judge if it’s more of the same old same old (razzle dazzle and all that) or the beginning of a new era at West Ham, ushered in by Pellegrini and Husillos. We shall see. Which brings me to my final little episode which is completely unrelated to football or West Ham, but probably you will bear with me anyway and be glad you did once you’ve finished reading. I certainly hope so.
The cemetery in Hamburg-Ohlsdorf is world famous. You don’t often hear that said about something as morbid and dark as a graveyard. But Ohlsdorf is a bit different, it’s the fourth biggest graveyard in the world for starters and the biggest rural cemetery in the world – and even listed as an attractive sight to visit for tourists.
Emanating from a concept of English architect Sir Christopher Wren a rural or garden cemetery is not just your average burial ground but rather a tranquil place that uses landscaping to great effect. It makes burial plots feel much more like a well designed park or forest walk than a gloomy graveyard.
That’s what Ohlsdorf essentially is, a giant park with 12 miles of road for car traffic leading through a vast area which stretches for nearly three miles in length and one mile in width.
You can walk there for hours on end as the different garden pathways within the cemetery confines run for more than 50 miles! Boasting numerous different kinds of flowers, bushes and trees.
You will find numerous graves of famous Hamburg celebrities, singers, actors, politicians – including Hans Albers, Carlo Karges (Nena’s guitarist), the famous composer and local lad Johannes Brahms as well as former Hamburg mayor and German chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
Plus of course many non-celebrity Hamburgers, like my beloved parents. Last week I paid them one of my rare visits.
Rare because I believe that only the ashes of the remains of their weak and old bodies are buried there anyway and I don’t necessarily need to be in that precise spot in order to pay my respects and cherish their memory. Or feel connected to their immortal soul/spirit or whatever you wanna call it.
This time though I’m actually glad I did go there because literally 200 metres away from my parents’ grave I found this, a place I had been loosely aware of before but had never really taken an effort to visit and acknowledge properly, until now…
It’s the Hamburg Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. An utterly beautiful and atmospheric place where I got lost for over an hour, looking at the various limestone gravestones of people who died as young as 18 or 19, from various regiments in all corners of Britain and the Commonwealth.
The grass is maintained in pristine condition, you could easily play tennis or golf on the surface and it doesn’t come as a surprise to see those graveyards/gardens in such a wonderfully kept state as it is indeed being cared for and looked after by the CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission), employing British gardeners, stonemasons etc.
What’s more, as in numerous other cases the world over, our two countries have struck a deal whereby the CWGC essentially have taken over that plot of land within Ohlsdorf cemetery in order to look after their dead as they see fit.
I only found out later when researching for this article that I had basically made a very short trip to Britain when strolling between the rows of limestone. In legal terms this part of Hamburg belongs to the UK.
So this little plot of Britain right in the middle of my hometown does honour more than 2500 soldiers, their wives and children who all died while serving their nation although not all of them necessarily dying in combat, during both WW I and II.
Not all of those buried here died in or near Hamburg, loads were eventually transferred from 120 smaller, provisional war cemeteries from different areas of Northern Germany like Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg, Hannover, Braunschweig or Oldenburg. The majority of them died as prisoners of war.
Others were taken down by flak guns during the various air raids in WW II.
25 unidentified marines are honoured by a plaque whose submarine was sunk in 1916 close to the Helgoland shoreline.
There are also those Commonwealth soldiers who died during the post-war occupation/liberation in Hamburg, it was an unusually harsh winter in 1946/47 which killed numerous Brits and Germans alike due to unsufficient supply of wood and coals to keep the people warm in their war-torn drafty flats and houses.
And there is also a memorial tree planted in memory of the crews who passed on during the Berlin Airlift when their supplies helped to keep thousands of starving German men, women and children alive.
The famous “raisin bombers” became part of Berlin folklore and German history and it is only good and proper that those brave British soldiers are being honoured for their sacrifice in my town as well.
Why am I telling you all this ? Because I felt a weird connection to all those people, despite or maybe even because I am the offspring of their former sworn enemy.
First off I was struck by the sheer coincidence that my parents were buried virtually right next to all those Commonwealth soldiers.
I think I mentioned before about my mom telling me dozens of times over the years about her fondest childhood memory (wearing a big smile on her face as she was walking down memory lane) of being given the most delicious candy bar ever (and the first taste of chocolate in years) when a British soldier provided a little German girl, just 8 or 9 years old, with a Cadbury bar – a girl who was later to become a woman and the mother of a very dedicated local West Ham fan and massive admirer of the British way of life.
I was reading on the gravestones which regiments and battalions those brave servicemen hailed from and me being West Ham I naturally was keeping my eyes peeled on the London Regiment (one battalion of which was based in Bow I understand) and the Essex Regiment (based in Brentwood) and so I figured that one or two of those buried and honoured in Hamburg Cemetery must have been West Ham supporters.
It got my mind wandering as I started thinking about what it’d be like if one of them soldiers did return just for one day or a week from their grave (not in a creepy flesh-eating Zombie kind of way of course) and find himself in 2018 Hamburg, an Englishman still in uniform who died in 1945 having a chat more than 70 years later with a West Ham fan, a Kraut at that who has never been experiencing hiding out in a shelter during air raids in his lifetime, a chinwag between a Brit and a German many decades after the two big wars.
I’m sure it would be a most interesting conversation, covering various topics including the modern way of life, politics, music, new gadgets, the internet, football and West Ham United of course.
Maybe that soldier in question would be surprised at being addressed by a Kraut in reasonably good English.
Maybe he would be flabbergasted to see all them flashy cars rushing past, all those bloody smartphones and massive HD television screens everywhere. Not to mention those strange internet blogs!
Maybe he would be incredulous upon hearing that football teams no longer play with five strikers on the pitch at the same time.
Probably he would ask me after all this mind-boggling new information to take him to a bar for a nice cold beer or some cider in the July sunshine to let it all sink in.
And I would happily oblige and probably just shake his hand quietly at the end of the day, thanking him for his sacrifice and service, helping to create an environment where British and German people nowadays can share the same opinion, or debate different points of view in a civilised manner, enjoy some jolly good banter while sharing a beer, a pie or a bratwurst.
Having a laugh. Or sharing pain and even grief at times.
Or just a trivial thing like sharing the passion for the same football team.
One that plays in claret and blue. Where fans blow bubbles and where dreams all too often seem to fade and die.
Unlike the memory of those Commonwealth soldiers.
Maybe there is a novel in there somewhere…