From Cardiff to Leverkusen and back

There can hardly be a Bayer 04 fan who travels further to Werkself home games than he does. Mark Evans faces a 500-mile journey when he sets off for Leverkusen. 500 miles he regularly travels by car. The story of an unusual fan whose passion for Bayer 04 started 30 years ago.

The 56-year-old Welshman from Cardiff usually gets into his blue BMW 420 early on Thursday evening for a normal Saturday afternoon fixture. Mark’s first destination en route is Dover. After passing Newport his journey takes him over the Prince of Wales bridge past Bristol, Swindon, Reading through the south of London to Dover. “The journey there is really crazy as traffic in England is diabolical,” said Mark. He boards the ferry to Calais just after midnight. “From that point it’s more relaxed.” His journey takes him on past Dunkirk, Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Liege to Aachen where Mark takes a two-hour break. When his eleven-hour journey ends early on Friday morning in Leverkusen when he usually ends up at the Best Western Hotel. Then it’s time to catch up on his sleep.

Why on earth Bayer 04?

The connection between Mark and Bayer 04, which began 30 years ago, is a wonderfully unusual story. Mark was stationed in Paderborn with the British Army in 1992. Many of his pals would travel to Gelsenkirchen or Dortmund to watch games at the weekend. And yes, a lot were FC Bayern fans. But Mark made his way to Leverkusen at the end of March to watch the game between Bayer 04 and VfL Bochum at the Ulrich Haberland Stadium. The Werkself won 2-0 thanks to an own goal from Rob Reekers and a penalty converted by Martin Kree. There were just 10,000 supporters in the ground. And yet that was the start of a great passion. Mark regularly travelled to Leverkusen. “Why on earth Bayer 04?” he was asked by one of his friends. “They could hardly believe it but I just liked the stadium, the fans and the football played by Bayer 04. For me, it was now my club in Germany.” It was that straightforward. “Back then there were players like Ulf Kirsten, Andy Thom, Jorginho, Ioan Lupescu and Rüdiger Vollborn in the team,” said Mark. “They were a really cool group.” At the end of the season, the team coached by Reinhard Saftig finished sixth having given away fourth place on the final matchday with an annoying 2-1 defeat against VfB Stuttgart. By the way, Bayern and Schalke ended up tenth and eleventh respectively in the Bundesliga.

Mark, who was now following the career path as an officer, played as a left-back with the fourth tier side TuS Paderborn-Neuhaus, the forerunner of SC Paderborn. In 1993, he went to the DFB Cup final in Berlin with his coach and celebrated the first domestic title for Bayer 04. “My coach knew some of the Werkself players such as Paulo Sergio who later came to see us in Paderborn,” explained Mark. He got to know several other Bayer 04 players over the years. Ze Roberto, Carsten Ramelow, Lucio, Dimitar Berbatov, Heung-Min Son and several more. “And that’s exactly what I love about this club: the familiarity, the fans, the proximity to the team and management. The people I meet here bring this club close to my heart.”

"no distance is too far for the black and reds"

Mark was stationed in Paderborn for eight years. He had already been in Wolfenbüttel for three years before that. He returned to Paderborn-Sennelager in 2002 after two years in England. Leverkusen was not really just round the corner but compared to the 500 miles he regularly travels today, the 125 miles to and from Sennelager to the BayArena was a mere stone’s throw. “A lot of people always ask me: Why don’t you fly? But I just like driving. I find it more comfortable and, as I lived in Germany for 15 years, I don’t have any problem with switching to driving on the right.”

He sometimes takes his partner or his daughter Emily with him to Leverkusen but more often it’s his friend Billy who caught his commitment to Bayer 04 back in the day in the army in Paderborn. Billy lives in Scotland and is a member of the Werkself UK fan club, which was founded four years ago and now has 75 members. That includes Mark of course. “I’ve hardly met another British person at the BayArena in 26 years and now there are almost always some fans from the UK at Leverkusen and also at away games,” said Mark. This season he witnessed the cup exit in Elversberg and most recently the home game in the Bundesliga against SC Freiburg. “Yes, everything is a bit crazy,” said Mark with a grin. “But no distance is too far for me to support the Black and Reds. I think it’s simply brilliant the way this small club has managed to almost regularly qualify for the Champions League. And I can see that Bayer 04 is becoming more well-known in Wales and England and the whole UK.”

a familiar face amongst the fans

Mark makes the trip from Cardiff to Leverkusen and back up to ten times a season. Ahead of kick-off at the BayArena, he meets up with friends like Oliver ‘Wuppi’ Willutzki, one of the chairs of NK 12. A good time at the ‘Stadioneck’ on Bismarckstraße is all part of the experience. Mark has long been involved in the Leverkusen fan scene and is a familiar face in the North Stand. How many thousands of miles has he travelled to support the Black and Reds in the last 30 years? He hasn’t kept a record. But it could be at least two times round the world. And the cost? “Let’s change the subject,” he said with a broad smile.

Mark is not only a Werkself fan but also a supporter of Manchester United. He has a season ticket for the matches at Old Trafford. Cardiff to Manchester: That’s just a 370-mile round trip. No comparison to Leverkusen. And what’s more: “The tickets are much cheaper in the Bundesliga, the atmosphere is better and the beer too.” Of course, those are good points. And, in spite of that, Mark particularly raves about two games in Scotland that are memorable for him. “Our 3-1 win at Ibrox against Rangers just before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the 4-0 win at Celtic a year ago were absolute highlights in terms of atmosphere. That’s the atmosphere at football matches I love.”

In the next few weeks, Mark will have to rein in his passion for football as his work takes priority. As a major in the British Army, he is now responsible for his regimental museum. His workplace is Cardiff Castle, the mediaeval castle in the centre of the Welsh capital. Uniforms and weapons from the last three centuries are exhibited here. Military history is Mark’s second biggest hobby after football. And fortunately he can pursue that without long journeys.

Photo (l. to r.): Mark Evans and John Hallows from the UK fan club in Elversberg

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