Union Berlin are shaking up the Bundesliga, sitting top ahead of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund

Union Berlin fans would be forgiven for thinking they are in a pleasant dream.

Their team have reached the first international break of the campaign and, against all expectations, sit at the top of the Bundesliga table.

The only team in Germany’s top flight still unbeaten is two points ahead of Borussia Dortmund.

As for Bayern Munich, German champions every year for the last decade? Phew, they’re only fifth.

Union Berlin have defied all odds and expectations to top the Bundesliga table in the early season

These are certainly heady days for fans of a club historically unaccustomed to success

Heavyweights Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich are after the early season pacesetters

Who knows if it will last, but the faithful of Die Eisernen (‘The Iron Ones’), who have followed the team through thinner and thinner years, are determined to enjoy the moment.

They went top of the Bundesliga for the first time in their history when they won 1-0 in Cologne on 11 September. That leadership position was duly cemented with a 2-0 home win over Wolfsburg last weekend.

Other wins have come against city rivals Hertha Berlin, 3-1 on the opening weekend, RB Leipzig and Schalke, who were beaten 6-1 on their own patch at the end of August.

A few days later, Union once again showed their mettle by holding Bayern to a 1-1 draw. Everything seems to be going right for Urs Fischer and his players, who are proving to be a real thorn in the side of German football’s establishment.

And in so many ways, it suits an upstart, anti-establishment club like Union down to a tee.

Union striker Sheraldo Becker drives away in celebration after scoring against Wolfsburg

The Union players celebrate their 2-0 win over Wolfsburg on Sunday, cementing top spot

The union’s good start

Only the Bundesliga

August 6 Hertha Berlin (H) W 3-1

14 August Mainz (A) D 0-0

August 20 RB Leipzig (H) W 2-1

August 27 Schalke 04 (A) W 6-1

September 3 Bayern Munich (H) D 1-1

September 11 Cologne (A) W 1-0

September 18 Wolfsburg (H) W 2-0

They never conformed, and the stories of fans shouting dissent against the Stasi from the terraces in the days before reunification, where their idiosyncratic Stadion An der Alten Forsterei was behind the Iron Curtain, are well known now.

Likewise, there are tales of Union fans literally bleeding to save their impoverished club by donating blood and turning up with their toolkits to repair the ground in another of these semi-regular brushes with extinction.

Union were playing fourth-tier football as recently as 2006, and it took a decade in the 2. Bundesliga to crack promotion to the top division for the first time.

Then the loyal supporters missed much of their first two Bundesliga campaigns due to Covid-19, but the progress on the pitch has been unmistakable.

They defied relegation predictions to finish 11th in 2019–20 and subsequently finished 7th and 5th, playing in the Europa Conference League and then the Europa League.

If they continue like this, Union will be enjoying their first taste of Champions League football next season and that would be ridiculous indeed.

It is nosebleed territory for a club that were perennial no-hopers for decades, and the pace of change must be staggering to those who have seen it all first-hand.

But a major concern is the effective ‘gentrification’ of the club – at what point does this unexpected success take them too far into football’s mainstream and erode the rebellious streak that is their main appeal?

Urs Fischer, the coach who arrived at Union in 2018, has taken them to unprecedented heights

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The most eye-catching result of the season so far came in their 6-1 thrashing of Schalke

The Union players dance in front of their jubilant fans after hitting Schalke for six

This theme is explored in detail in recently published book ‘Scheisse! [S***] We’re going up!’ by German-based journalist Kit Holden, which is the first English-language work on the Union, their history and culture.

Holden’s fascinating book draws parallels between Berlin’s changing face as a city after reunification with current developments in the Union.

Large parts of Berlin have received massive investment over the past 30 years, with shiny apartments and office blocks springing up everywhere, but with the consequence that locals are being driven out of beloved neighborhoods by rising house prices.

Likewise at Union, where their ‘hipster club’ reputation has seen hardcore, who have stood on the crumbling terraces for decades, increasingly accompanied by day trippers and tourists.

The book points out that in 2010, as a newly promoted second division club, Union had 6,500 members, but that has grown exponentially to nearly 40,000 today. The stadium also holds a good 22,000 fans.

Three sides of Unionens Stadion An der Alten Forsterei are terraced in a real throwback

The stadium only holds 22,000 spectators, but the club’s membership and appeal is growing

And with that comes the temptation to expand commercially and chase greater brand exposure overseas at the risk of selling a bit of your soul.

Their current form will only add to that anxiety, but Union should also enjoy the moment. These days may never be seen again.

Swiss coach Fischer, 56, has lifted the Union to unprecedented heights since arriving in 2018 and his tactics make them incredibly difficult to play against.

His preferred 3-5-2 formation allows them to play directly as opposed to emphasizing possession. They usually only see about 40 percent of the ball, but they are ruthless with it.

One of the big tasks over the summer was to replace the 15 league goals that Taiwo Awoniyi scored last season after the Nigerian moved to Nottingham Forest for £17.5m.

A photograph of Union Berlin fans at a match in the old East German league in 1985 – the stadium became a place where opponents of the regime and the Stasi could gather

Thousands of jubilant Union Berlin fans show their colors after they secured promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history with a play-off win over Stuttgart

Fischer signed 6ft 3in USA international Jordan Pefok from Swiss club Young Boys to maintain a physical advantage and he has three Bundesliga goals in six games so far.

The American also forms a strong chemistry in attack with Dutch-born Suriname international Sheraldo Becker, who has six in seven.

Both are willing to run into the channels to chase the long balls played from deep in their direction, the idea being that any opposition press will be bypassed. It has worked a treat so far.

To counter so effectively, it naturally requires players who can choose a precise pass. Robin Knoche, one of the three in defence, is adept at seeking out advanced wing-backs Christopher Trimmel and Julian Ryerson.

American national team player Jordan Pefok has had an excellent start to the season

Defender Timo Baumgartl has returned to action after beating testicular cancer this year

The Union’s faith welcomes Baumgartl back ahead of the game against Wolfsburg

Union fans make their presence felt by lighting red flares ahead of their match in Braga

There has also been the heartwarming return of defender Timo Baumgartl, 26, who has beaten testicular cancer after surgery to remove a tumor and a course of chemotherapy over the summer.

Kit Holden’s book ‘Scheisse! We’re going up!’ is out now through Duckworth Books

“It’s an overwhelming feeling to say you’re going from the hospital to the football field,” Baumgartl said after he returned to the starting line-up against Wolfsburg and helped his team to a clean sheet.

While Union are thriving in the Bundesliga, they have lost their first two Europa League group games – both 1-0, to Union Saint-Gilloise and Braga – but if they exit early, they look set to be back in Europe soon.

The European away days are simply a nice bonus for the fans, who made their presence felt with a huge pyro show in Portugal last week.

Where all this newfound success leads remains to be seen. It must be a strange sensation for those who have been indoctrinated in the Union for many years and decades, but they will not fully wake up yet.

Merry

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