In an astonishing finish, that is almost the perfect encapsulation of everything this side stand for, of the spirit they possess, 1.FC Union beat Borussia Mönchengladbach 2-1, with Danilho Doekhi's winner coming with the last touch of the match. It puts them back on top of the league. God knows, however, who’ll put the roof back on the Alte Försterei.
1.FC Union Berlin: Frederik Rönnow – Tymoteusz Puchacz, Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche, Danilho Doekhi, Julian Ryerson – Janik Haberer (Jamie Leweling), Rani Khedira, Andras Schäfer (Genki Haraguchi) – Jordan Siebatcheu, Sheraldo Becker
Borussia Mönchengladbach: Tobias Sippel – Ramy Bensebaini (Tony Jantschke), Nico Elvedi, Marvin Friedrich, Joe Scally – Christoph Kramer, Julian Weigl – Alassane Plea, Lars Stindl (Yvandro Borges Sanchez), Nathan N’Goumou (Patrick Herrmann) – Marcus Thuram
Goals: 0-1, Nico Elvedi (33’). 1-1 Kevin Behrens (79’). 2-1 Danilho Doekhi (97’)
Attendance: 22,012 (sold out)
For a club as grounded in their own mythologies and legends as Union, there are few names that are as redolent with the past as Borussia Mönchengladbach. Of course it was they who were beaten at the Alte Försterei over 20 years ago in the semi-final of the DFB Pokal; a night where the floodlights were still pretty new, the pitch had been swept clear of snow during the day by the fans (but whose freezing muddy mess was still barely playable), and that ended with the sight of Treptow born Ronnie Nikol haring away having scored the winning penalty.
Oh, how they celebrated that night, but many things have changed since then, but Union can still look back on their games against Gladbach here with a certain sense of joy. Union had still never lost a game at home to the storied Foals.
But this time Union were going into this as, if not favourites, then at least making a good impression of being them. A win would take them back to the top of the table, having been superceded by Bayern’s win against Mainz on Saturday.
Urs Fischer had made just two changes from the side that had beaten Braga on Thursday, Tymoteusz Puchacz coming in on the left and Julian Ryerson swapping sides to take over from Christopher Trimmel on the right.
Tiredness? What tiredness, he said.
The game pretty even, Union denied by VAR, Gladbach take the lead.
Union attacked down the left straight away, still basking in the glorious sunlight from around the main stand blocking it out from the rest of the pitch. Diogo Leite launched a ball into the inside left channel for Sheraldo Becker to run onto. His cross hit the side netting, but then it was Jordan who robbed Julian Weigl, bouncing him around, and setting Puchacz off. The Polish fullback’s cross was fine, and deep, but too high for Andras Schäfer coming in at the back post. And when Gladbach threatened a counter, Leite was back in position to rob Marcus Thuram. Then it was Janik haberer, scampering down that same flank, who hit well at goal, deflected out for a corner. Puchacz dragged it back for Haberer again to volley from 30 yards, but straight at Tobias Sippel in the Gladbach goal.
After ten minutes Christoph Kramer, Julian Weigl and Rami Bensebaini tried to trick their way through the solid and intransigent Union back five, but Julian Ryerson snuffed out the threat. Ryerson was always there, he turned Bensebaini inside out with a flick of his heel before spreading the play to the left. He popped up again, further up, when Khedira found him with a clever switch in play. Bensebaini was reduced to pulling him back, a fist full of trikot, on 20 minutes. He has grown into a superb all round footballer, happy on both flanks, covering in the middle as he did when he tackled Plea with the minimum of fuss before getting back into position for the next action, the next job to be done.
Union were creating openings, if not solid gold chances. But then so did Gladbach.
Rönnow tipped an Alessane Plea freekick over, diving to his left, a superb , acrobatic stop when the ball seemed destined to end up nestled in the top corner. He was there to claim the resulting corner with authority.
Then after 28 minutes Union thought they had the lead. Another clever passage of play lead to Haberer laying the ball off for Khedira. His shot was hard and true and hit into the box from central, but it took a deflection off Becker, wrong-footing poor Sippel, but after a long wait the referee, Harm Osmers, decided that it had flicked off his hand.
Within seconds Gladbach had then, themselves, actually scored. Nico Elvedi, the centre back, only had to head the ball over the line from a corner. The Union defence were suddenly all at sea. There was a moment’s silence, a shocked calm,before the noise of the Unioner started up again. It had come, seemingly, from nowhere. Immediately after they almost had a second when Rönnow found himself out of position and Thuram headed just over an empty net.
The game swung wildly, back and forth, up and down. Becker almost found Schäfer at the back post, Haberer was brought down by Joe Scally, Schäfer blazed over from outside the box. Thuram then headed over from a corner at the death.
A raucous second half, an implausible winner.
As they waited for the second half to kick off Becker motioned to Leite, he needed to keep going, to keep the ball circulating, to keep hitting those balls in. Leite nodded. He knew, he said, and he would, ultimately with glorious success.
But first they needed to fight. Rani Khedira muscled Plea off the ball early on. They cried in desperation for a free kick when Sippel seemed to bring the ball just out of his box while still in his hands. Khedira impored the referee, but to no avail.
But it was Gladbach who had started the second half the sharper, the ball moving quickly from the flanks to the middle and back again. Union needed to drag themselves back into the game. It was through Ryerson that they would start to flicker again, the wind of the stadium blowing all around them. He crossed flat across the box, evading the returning Marvin Friedrich, who’d received a hero’s welcome, with ease.
Gladbach won a free kick on 56 minutes when Khedira seemingly brought down Weigl. He pounded the pitch below in frustration. But Union now poured it on, and the Gladbach players knew it, they drew every foul, they frustrated the Union players. Thuram rolled on the floor claiming a stray elbow from Knoche, but it was nothing. The catcalls he received were deafening.
Fischer reacted, making a triple change only ten minutes into the half, with Genki Haraguchi, Sven Michel and Christopher Trimmel coming in for Puchacz, Jordan and Schäfer.
Ryerson had a header cleared off the line by a despairing Sippel after a scramble in the box, started by Trimmel’s ball over the top to Becker, that found Khedira, who found the skipper in turn on the outside this time, with a clever ball out wide.
And the atmosphere boiled and bubbled and crashed like the waves of the sea in a storm, as the sun went down turning the sky a black-eye orange. N’Goumu got a yellow in the melee, and was lucky not to get a second a minute or two later when he brought down Haberer.
Fischer made two further changes, Jamie Leweling and Kevin Behrens coming on for Becker and Haberer. Behrens immediately setting Michel through into a gap, his pull-back hit out for a corner. There were still fifteen minutes to play and by now it was all going one way. Michel showed his technical ability on the inside left, Haraguchi his indefatiguability in the middle.
It finally all paid off as Leite launched a superb ball into the box – just as Sheraldo had said - where Kevin Behrens lept to place a thumping header past Sippel. It was superb ball from the Portuguese defender, who has quietly become one of the stars of the season, the bedrock upon which Union are built, but the header was that of a classical centre forward, a vision of Nat Lofthouse in red and white.
And Union kept coming now, the smell of victory in their noses, the crowd behind them, around them, on top of them. They hit ball after ball into the box, the Gladbach defence a ragged, bloody mess by now. Julian Ryerson tried one more time with only five minutes to go. His cross was long and looping and Christopher Trimmel ghosted onto it and flicked it inside the near post. The noise was incalculable, but it would get dampened. They were done celebrating, done cheering, but it had been offside.
So Union went again. With just a couple of minutes left to play. Trimmel had a shot clawed away, then Lewelling put a ball through for Michel. There were only four minutes added time to play. Rani tussled with Weigl, Haraguchi with Patrick Herrmann. Trimmel got booked for an elbow on Kramer who reacted as if he’d been shot. The crowd bellowed in disdain for the German international. Leweling won a corner, the tension almost unvbearable now.
And with the last kick of the game, the last attempt, Jamie Lewelling hit a final ball of the kind that Julian Ryerson had been launching in all day. It was flawless; deep and curling, and it zeroed in on the head of Danilho Doekhi like it was pre-destined, somehow. The Dutchman finished, and there are few words that could conjour up the noise his header created in the Alte Försterei as it hit the back of the net. There were so few ways of describing the madness and the love it inspired in the stands.
This was a shot heard, if not around the world, then at least for several miles around Köpenick.
Union were top again. And they’d done it in the most implausible, glorious fashion.