A Celt at the BayArena: Bayer Leverkusen’s Lisburn Lad

Gareth Houston is the Cologne Celtics GAA Club’s Social Media and Social and Cultural Officer. He has been an integral part of our club’s committee for the past three years.

One of our club’s real characters, he is a professional musician and the man behind Cologne’s Live Irish Music Sessions at the Black Sheep Pub.

In this article, he outlines his adventures as a stadium tour guide at the Bayer Leverkusen stadium, The BayArena. Our club members visited the stadium earlier this month, were hugely impressed by it and can certainly recommend it.

Football was always my first sport. It wasn’t quite love at first sight as I remember during the first match I ever saw live, I asked to go home at half-time! It was Linfield v Coleraine; I remember it was a cold and wet January midweek fixture. It was 0-0 at half-time, and I was about 6 at the time. To be honest, now I’m 30, and I still think I’d do the same today!

Growing up in Lisburn (a predominantly unionist part of the North) in the 1990s, there was zero exposure to GAA. No hurling, no Gaelic football… you just would never come across those sports or the association more generally. I went to a very rugby-orientated high school that actually banned football, which only made me love it more. I had a typical Irish fondness for rebellion.

Chelsea FC – First Love

Chelsea FC was always my team, as my dad supported them. Dad started supporting them really after the famous 1970 FA Cup Final against Leeds United. Often branded as „The Dirtiest Game of Football Ever Played„, it ended with a Peter Osgood diving head to win the Cup. This final featured legendary figures, such as Ron „Chopper“ Harris, Eddie McCreadie, Billy Bremner, Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter and Jack Charlton, among others. I can imagine a lot of people turned to Chelsea after that final.

I followed in my dad’s footsteps by following Chelsea, despite my brother’s misgivings! Before you think I’m a bandwagoner who only got on board with the Roman Abramovich reign, my first Chelsea era was that of the 1990s. They were a great bunch of lads, although more of a „Cup team“ than the league champions and perennial Champions League contenders of the 2000s.

I remember watching Chelsea games on TV when I was about 7 or 8, and that’s when I started to fall in love with it. Seeing that late 90’s Chelsea team of Zola, Di Matteo, Vialli, Gullit etc., really gave me the bug. My favourite players of all time were Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink when they played up top together. They were pure poetry in motion.

Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink – poetry in motion

Bayer Leverkusen – Always the Bridesmaid

My earliest memories of Bayer Leverkusen are of that famous 2001/02 team. We all know the team – Lucio, Michael Ballack, Bernd Schneider, Yıldıray Baştürk – they got to three finals in a week and lost all of them. I especially remember the Champions League Final against Real Madrid at Hampden, with THAT Zidane goal.

That Zidane goal

The early 2000s was before YouTube, social media and all that. For a Lisburn lad to find Leverkusen took some work. There weren’t too many Leverkuseners walking around the local neighbourhood then (which is likely still the case today). You’d come across teams in football magazines like „Match“ or „Shoot“, although they were always more Premier League-focused… and through console games like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer.

I loved the pure romance of Leverkusen. The phrase, “always the bridesmaid, never the bride”, applies especially to them. We’ve finished second in the league so many times but still haven’t won it. We’ve always been the nearly team of German football, and I wanted to be part of the club when they finally bring home a trophy again (the last was the German Cup – DFB Pokal – in 1993!)

After that Final in 2002, I kept an eye on B04 and adopted them as my German team. The Brazilian lads of the 00s were particularly great; Ze Roberto, Emerson, Lucio, Juan etc. We’ve also had a penchant for diminutive, stylish strikers like Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez. But my two favourites of all time are Michael Ballack and Rudi Völler. Those two are Kings around these parts and are loved for their playing ability and being great lads.

I made sure to get to Leverkusen matches when I moved to Germany in 2018. After one game, I adored the atmosphere and never looked back. Corona cut my visits short (just as it did for all of us), but I did get to a derby game against FC Köln post-Covid, and I loved it. The atmosphere was absolutely electric! Although I live in Cologne, B04 is my team here.

B04 Tour Guide: How it Happened

I’m an orchestral musician by trade, so I came to Germany because of the country’s vast opportunities compared to the rest of the world. Initially, I came to study with Robert Winn, a widely renowned flute professor who lives here.

Now I run my own music studio as a freelance music teacher. I offer individual one-to-one lessons to private students across several instruments and in music theory (check out my website for more information). However, although there are extensive opportunities in Germany, music lessons and performances don’t pay all the bills.

After a couple of different jobs and roles, I wanted a side job with little to do with music, and football is my other passion. One day while scanning for jobs, I found one advertised for the club’s social media account, and I applied for it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it; however, in my application, I outlined my support for the team and said I’d be happy to do anything as long as I got to work for the club.

I became aware of the tour guide position and threw my hat in the ring. I was asked to come in for an interview, and aside from the 2021 Champions League final, it was the most stressful period of my life. I’d never done a job interview in German, and although I am learning the language, it is not my first (or second) language.

The first interview was with two members of the operations team via Zoom. I practised every possible answer for weeks, praying they wouldn’t use any big words I didn’t understand. I wore my 2002 jersey to show I was a fan, and I think that helped my chances (big thanks to Malte for that as a birthday gift!)

Thankfully, I got the job. One significant advantage for me is that I can do the tours in French as well as English. I learned French during my time in Paris at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. I lived there from 2015 to 2018, achieved diplomas in harmony, sight-reading and music theory, and was unanimously awarded the Diplôme Supérieur d’Exécution in Chamber Music whilst in the class of Nina Patarcec (Orchestre de Paris). 

I had never really planned to go to Paris, and I didn’t really think I’d get accepted there when I applied. I had almost zero French when I started, but my studies were entirely in French, so I had to learn vite. It also explains why my spoken French is excellent, but my written French is a bit shady; a music performance degree doesn’t have many essays but a lot of performing with other musicians.

But the fact that I support B04, speak fluent English and French and am genuinely enthusiastic about working in the BayArena all helped me get the job. I couldn’t be happier there!

Working at the BayArena

Honestly, working at the BayArena has been one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. It’s a cliché to say, but it really is a family here. The other guides are all hardcore fans, most of them lifelong season ticket holders, and just being around people so passionate about the club is fantastic.

It makes me feel legitimately honoured to be able to work with the club. I have never had a job that is so supportive, generous and driven as this. I can’t speak highly enough of the team and how I’ve been welcomed in; they are all geil.

Gareth with Cologne Celtics GAA Club Chairperson Laura.

I love having the chance to meet football fans from all around the world. We get groups from literally everywhere, and it’s so cool that we all have this shared love of football. Recently, I had 67 teenagers from Cavan (in Ireland) of all places, so we split them into smaller groups. My poor colleagues thought they spoke English until this lot opened their mouths. At one point, I found myself translating Cavan English into English.

The tour is excellent and is suitable for the whole family. It is even ideal for non-football fans. Some of my particular highlights include the press conference room, which is always super cool and is mega high-tech, and the underground area connecting the player’s car park to the changing rooms.

However, my personal highlight is our Champions League gift wall. It’s a collection of gifts we’ve received from teams we’ve played in Europe. There’s even a sceptre from the Ukrainian royal family that Dynamo Kyiv gifted us. That’s heaven for a football nerd!

Contact with the First Team and Club Legends

I’m not going to lie; the chance to see the Bayer Leverkusen players regularly is one of the significant advantages of this role. The men’s team train here on-site, so the lads are always around the stadium. I often bump into them, especially any injured players who train separately. For a while, I felt like I was bumping into Florian Wirtz and Patrick Schick every day!

As for former players, I swear I saw Rudi Völler briefly once, but I’m not sure. I’m doing my absolute best to get in the same room as him. Of course, I’d love to meet him or Michael Ballack, but I wouldn’t say no to a chance to meet any of the other club legends like Dimitar Berbatov, Ze Roberto, Lars Bender or Stefan Kießling.

As for our new manager, Xabi Alonso, he was a player I grew up adoring. What an absolute baller. The skill, the imagination… just one brilliant footballer. A footballer’s footballer. I haven’t seen him much as he’s an exceptionally busy man, but he walked behind me recently at an event, and I almost fainted. There are not many jobs that bring you so close to your idols.

Tour Guides for Hardcore Fans and Casual Tourists

The BayArena stadium tours are for everyone, not just hardcore Bayer Leverkusen fans. You don’t even need to be a real football fan to enjoy it. Every tour is fully personalised, and the team there know everything there is to know.

Usually, we’ll ask the group at the start if they are hardcore fans, casuals or not into football at all, and without being biased (well, maybe a little bit), undoubtedly, the best thing about the tours is the guides.

There is no specific set route; usually, it’s up to us to adapt the tour depending on the audience. The hardcore fans might find more interest in the referees changing room with the Bundesliga regulations, whilst people not interested in football might enjoy the super fancy VIP sections and lounges. We also have iPods that control the stadium lighting and music, so that’s a particular treat everyone enjoys.

The Cologne Celtics at the BayArena – 12.03.2023

The stadium tour is genuinely an activity for the whole family and is suitable for all ages. When you come to the stadium, just make sure to ask for Gareth Houston as your guide!

If you would like to know more about BayArena’s stadium tours, you can find out more by visiting their website.

If you would like to meet Gareth and other members of the Cologne Celtics, why not check out our club? We are a Gaelic Sports Club based in Cologne, but with members from all over the area. We play the traditional Irish sports, Camogie, Hurling and Gaelic Football and are always looking for new members and players.

On our website, you can find all the information you need about who we are, about the GAA and these Irish sports. We have members and players from all over the world, and it does not matter if you have no experience with our sports. Our coaches are happy to train you; we are a close community of friends and teammates.

If you are interested in joining the Celtics, attending a training session or just joining us as a social member, please do not hesitate to contact us directly.

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