It is becoming increasingly common for fans all over the world to adopt a German team alongside their own. Alex Howell, a Manchester City fan, is no different. However, instead of opting for the glitz and glamour of a Bundesliga high-flyer like Bayern Munich, Alex looked a little further north of the Bavarian capital to Ingolstadt and their third division side FC Ingolstadt 04. We caught up with Alex to discuss his fascinating journey into German football, its attraction and his beloved Ingolstadt ahead of their clash on Monday with fellow promotion contenders 1860 Munich.
Alex, how did you get into German football and why Ingolstadt in particular?
My interest in German football began when following Manchester City in Europe, and particularly at games against Hamburger SV and Bayern. I was always interested in Germany more widely as a child, but there was something about the atmosphere and environment at German football that really captured my attention. It was through this avenue that I discovered Ingolstadt.
The first Manchester City game that I saw in Munich (the infamous game when Carlos Teves refused to enter the game) also happened to be at the same time as Oktoberfest. That day I fell in love with Bavaria and afterwards, I began to research the state in more detail. I eventually stumbled across Ingolstadt around 2014 and for one reason or another (perhaps my sins!), I started to look out for their results. Being one of the only British people to pay the club any interest, I was inundated with fellow supporters introducing themselves to me and I think it was that real sense of belonging and community that had me hooked with the Schanzer.
What do you think sets German football and its culture apart from what you have experienced in the UK?
In one word, I think it is authenticity. German football clubs have done a remarkable job of safeguarding the ethos of football as a working class game for regular people. Free match day programmes, cheap ticketing, affordable beer and a real, tangible link to the local community; these are all things that I feel have somewhat been eroded in England, but remain steadfast in Germany. I get the same sense of belonging at a German football match as I do when I venture into the English non-leagues.
Can you tell us more about Ingolstadt 04, who are they and what makes them unique?
Ingolstadt are unique in a number of ways. The 04 in the club's name, like many in other in Germany, refers to the date of foundation. However, whilst you might expect that to be 1904, the Schanzer were officially created in 2004 when two local sides - MSV and ESV - merged together with the support of local trans-national business Audi. I think people have unfairly lumped Ingolstadt with Leipzig and other similar clubs due to the recent foundation and support of a benefactor, but the truth is that both predecessor clubs had played in the 2. Bundesliga back in the 1980s and the support from Audi is in practice rather non-existent. In hindsight, the merger made the most sense for a town the size of Ingolstadt and the club has grown organically since.
Anyway, back to 2004. The new club quickly rose through the German football pyramid, in part due league restructuring, and reached the 2. Bundesliga for the first time in 2008. For the most part, the Schanzer were largely nondescript in the second division until Ralph Hasenhüttl took charge in 2014. The Austrian transformed the club - particularly the sporting environment - and the Black-Reds shocked everyone when they won promotion to the Bundesliga in 2015. An extremely successful first season in the top flight followed, but the house of cards so to speak came crashing down in 2016 when Hasenhüttl left for RB Leipzig. The club never really recovered from his departure and two quick relegations saw Ingolstadt in the 3. Liga by 2019.
As we speak, the Schanzer are sitting nicely in the automatic promotion spots, what's been the secret to the success so far?
Under Tomas Oral, Ingolstadt do not often impress on the eye with their performances, but they are hard to beat and efficient in attack. Of course, it helps when you have players like Björn Paulsen that could (and maybe should) be playing in a higher division.
That said, after relegation in 2019, the club had to really scale back its expenditure and focus on youth development. Fortunately, the academy system at the Audi Sportpark is one of the club's real selling-points and a conveyor belt of young talent like Filip Bilbija and Merlin Röhl have provided youthful exuberance for the team. I think the nature of Oral's style - as gritty as it is - does leave us vulnerable at times when we do not take our chances, but so far this season that has not been a regular occurrence.
Monday's meeting of Ingolstadt and 1860 Munich is arguably the biggest of the season for both sides, with the Löwen just one spot behind you in the table. How do you see the match panning out?
Historically, Ingolstadt do not have the greatest record against their neighbours from the Bavarian capital. Looking at that, it is easy to be a pessimist prior to Monday's game. I think the game will be won and lost in the Ingolstadt defence. If Björn Paulsen and I suspect Thomas Keller are able to successfully marshal the 3.Bundesliga's most potent attack, then I have confidence that Ingolstadt will be able to eek out a low-scoring victory. Dennis Eckert-Ayensa is in red hot form in attack with five goals in just eight games after injury. With that in mind - and with my fingers crossed - I will go for a 2-1 Ingolstadt victory.