RR: First of all – please tell us a bit about yourself. What is your name, how old are you, and where do you come from?
My name is Hendrik Alfsmann, I’m 21 years old and I’m originally, to put it exactly, from a village near Coburg, Upper Franconia, Bavaria, Germany. But right now, I’m living in Würzburg, hometown of German sports legend Dirk Nowitzki, where I am a law student at the local university.
RR: So... why Sunderland then? Of all the clubs out there, why would you choose to support us?!
Well, I think, it all began very similar to a lot of supporters from abroad who are my age: Either with Netflix or by playing video games! In my case it was FIFA 12 where I made my first contact with the Mackems. That game came out in 2011, crazily, so I’m coming up on 10 years as a Sunderland supporter later this year! Looking back, it was quite a significant game for me because the song “Verstrahlt” from the soundtrack got me into hip-hop-music as well which is still my favourite music genre up until now.
Back to Sunderland though, I remember getting a bit bored with my career mode save so I started hopping from job offer to job offer every few months. After a while a club from the north-east of England came up - Newcastle United! That’s right! I won’t lie I had at least some fun playing with Hatem Ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse who I knew from him banging in the goals for Freiburg in the Bundesliga. But still the Toon never really clicked with me, so I left again looking for greener pastures. Next up then, finally, Sunderland. I really doubt that career path would be possible in reality, though.
And I don’t know why but Sunderland reinvigorated my interest in the game. I quickly fell in love, only with their virtual likenesses at first, with players like Seb Larsson, Stephane Sessegnon or Craig Gardner. But I also remember slotting in the likes of Titus Bramble or Matthew Kilgallon at the back for the odd game here or there.
From then on, I played the career-mode as Sunderland manager on every FIFA-edition I bought, winning some trophies and getting us at least to the CL-knockout-rounds. With social media getting really big around that time, especially Facebook in my age group, I also started following the club there, watching the highlights, checking the scores, all that a fan does. I’ve tried to read up on the history, too, from the early beginnings to league titles, the alleged ties with Athletic Bilbao, Charlie Hurley, 1973, “Super Kev” and so on.
I remember the league cup final run, Catts screamer on the opening day versus West Brom, the numerous great escapes, particularly the one where Connor Wickham suddenly seemingly scored for fun. And last but definitely not least the derbies. When I got to Sunderland on FIFA I didn’t even know about the rivalry.
But that quickly changed and every Tyne-Wear-derby-day I was searching up some dodgy stream who would stop every 20 minutes because of my poor internet connection and watched the game screaming at my laptop, like a mini-Gus Poyet, during the 6-in-a-row-streak, much to the irritation of my parents.
RR: Do people ever ask why you are a Sunderland fan?
I do get funny looks when I tell people I support Sunderland. I also often have to explain how big the club actually is, with 30,000 people coming to 3rd division games, comparing it to clubs like Kaiserslautern, the HSV or Werder Bremen, so german clubs who have big fanbases and past trophies but have fallen from grace in the past decades.
RR: Who is your favourite local team? Do they relate in any way to Sunderland?!
My first love is Bayern Munich. I feel like where I’m from, the north of Bavaria and Franconia, you’re either a Bayern fan or a 1. FC Nuremberg fan (only referred to as Club [“Glubb” in Franconian dialect] here). Sorry to the odd supporter of different clubs, especially the Greuther Fürth fans, who are Nuremberg’s rival team. But Bayern always was my team even though my dad, an avid BVB fan who was born in the “Ruhrpott”, tried to convince me otherwise.
One little story of being emotionally invested in two football clubs at the same time...
In Germany, there is no additional league for the U-23s, they are integrated into the men’s pyramid. You can argue for and against that but it has the consequence that you are significantly more invested into the games of, in my case, FC Bayern II, also called the FC Bayern Amateurs. When there is a derby game against the city rival, TSV 1860, more than 10,000 people are in the stands. The U23s can get promoted to as high as the 3rd division. But to get promoted to the “3. Liga” is very tough: To get there you have to be the champion in one of the 5 divisions the 4th tier of german football is split into. On top of that, you then square off in a home/away-tie against a champion of one of the other divisions.
All that brings me to the fateful day in May, 2019. 4pm in Germany was the kick-off-time for the return leg of Bayern II against Wolfsburg II for the promotion to “Liga 3” and for SAFC against Charlton at Wembley, the play-off-final. Bayern II had lost the first leg 3-1 at Wolfsburg and had missed promotion in the play-off a few years earlier due to a last-minute goalie howler. A certain Alphonso Davies was starting the game and half the Bayern first team, the likes of Leon Goretzka and David Alaba for example, were in the crowd.
I was watching both games on two screens and it really was the definition of an emotional rollercoaster: As you know Sunderland went in front very early but just minutes later Bayern conceded. Then a small miracle unfolded at the “Grünwalder Stadion”. Bayern II scored four goals until the 65th minute which was enough to win promotion. I was euphoric and turned my attention more to Wembley where Charlton had equalised. The game was very close and I thought we would at least get to extra time. But then my fellow german Patrick Bauer happened and we all know the end of that. I remember laying on the ground in agony after being abruptly brought down from my FC-Bayern-high by Sunderland which, frankly, happens quite often on the weekends although not as cruel as here.
Moving to Würzburg also meant adopting the local team there, the Würzburger Kickers, who just got promoted to the 2. Bundesliga last season. Tickets are really cheap and the atmosphere in the “Dallenbergstadion” is pretty good for a relatively small arena. It really sucks that I couldn’t watch them going up against the likes of HSV, Hannover 96 or the aforementioned Nuremberg in person because of Covid, but you all know that story.
The only connection I can think of between these clubs is that they all don Red-and-White, so maybe that colour scheme just really appeals to me.
RR: Were you proud to tell family and friends about the Netflix series? If so, what did they make of it and the club you support? I imagine they were asking.... “why?”
I have to say I personally never really talked to others about the documentary, it just didn’t come up until now. But looking at social media I think there really were a lot of people here who have grown very fond of the club and its fate of the last years.
Furthermore, one of the big german football magazines, 11 Freunde, made a short documentary about Roker Park and Sunderland fans which also contributed to the growing popularity of the club (I do really recommend it).
RR: Have you ever visited the Stadium of Light for a game?
I had actually made loose plans for it pre covid, maaaybe connecting it with the Great North run, but, well, that’s on the shelf for the time being, sadly. If I would make a “Bucket list” going to the SOL would certainly be near the very top. Singing along with “Wise men say…” in reality and not just grainy YouTube videos would be incredible.
RR: Is it difficult trying to feel part of what’s going on from so far away?
Hmm… it is definitely not the same because things like visiting the stadium or even watching full games live are just not that readily accessible. But you guys and social media 100% help bridge that gap, and reading and listening to the work of Roker Report and other fan magazines/newspapers as well helps to give me a sense of what is going on at the club.
The streaming service I’m subscribed to shows selected SAFC games, with none other than the man Jan Kirchhoff as pundit. He was on the call at the cup final and had some great comments about the club. He spoke in glowing terms about the fans, the culture and the facilities (and shat on David Moyes at every moment possible - he did that as well during a West Ham FA-Cup broadcast earlier in the year... he’s not a fan apparently!).
RR: Are you a member of any branches out there?
Right now, no, but there actually is a Bayern/SAFC supporters branch called “FC Bayern Mackems”, so maybe I’ll get involved there. And, the “German Black Cats” exist as well which I follow on Twitter, and would like to shout them out here.
RR: Do you own any interesting memorabilia?
I don’t own a kit - I originally wanted to buy one in Sunderland, but since that is off the table for now, I’m scouring second-hand websites at the moment for some jerseys from the time I became a fan. Annoyingly, I just missed oout on one of those Invest in Africa kits, so I’ve got to keep looking. I can still picture my man Stephane Sessegnon in that shirt.
Besides that, I at least got a Sunderland scarf which I bought on a school trip to London in 9th grade. I had been searching for one the whole week we were there but only on the last day when we had some free time in a shopping mall - I found a sports store selling SAFC scarfs and I immediately pounced.
I still wear it nearly every matchday, especially on derby days.
RR: If you could wish for one thing for the club, realistic of course, what would it be?
That we don’t get disappointed again by the new ownership, because it really looks like they’re doing all the right things to be successful in the modern game.
That should hopefully lead to on-pitch success, meaning us getting back to the first division of English football, because that is where our rightful place is.
A nice cup run along the way, to get a taste of playing against top opposition, would be great as well, if I’m not being too greedy here.
Thanks for having me! (And hey, Kyril, if you’re reading this and have an opening in the academy, I’m a youth coach here in Germany, so I would always be happy to come over!)