The picturesque town of Drobak sits nestled on the east bank of the Oslo Fjord in Norway. Lying thirty kilometres south of the nation’s capital city, and on the narrowest part of the fjord, this otherwise quiet settlement is most famous for its role in the Battle of Drobak Sound, a formidable rear-guard action by amateurs and retired soldiers in 1940.
The sinking of the German Navy’s new cruiser, Blucher, using outdated weaponry fired from a 100 year old fort, is still celebrated locally, not only because it was an unexpected victory for the Norwegian underdogs, but also because it delayed the impending five year occupation by Nazi forces by several minutes, if not a couple of hours.
Overlooking the site of this famous battle is a small pub, the Hellhouse, which is the unlikely setting for regular meetings of newly converted Sunderland fans. The Sagajordet Hellhounds are an amateur football team who have collectively taken to following Sunderland from this serene location, some 600 miles from the Stadium of Light.
Standing at the bar of the Hellhouse, goalkeeper Mats Glenne explains: “We’re just a group of good friends who play football together. I’d seen Sunderland ‘til I Die on Netflix and I persuaded the lads to watch it. We immediately loved it and we ended up meeting every week to watch the whole series. There was more to it than good television though. There’s something special in that programme – in the way Sunderland fans are – that we all recognised. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a sense of togetherness, about belonging, there, that we also share as a team. We decided very quickly that the we Hellhounds had to be Sunderland fans.”
The Hellhounds are a tight knit bunch. They won the Bilia Cup in 2014, whatever the heck that is, but they have lots going on off the pitch too, including the delicious Hellhounds Ale. There’s a real sense of a ‘proper’ club here, with a 96-page magazine, Canidae, a club song, performed by ‘Lenny and Kim’, and even a merchandising arm, overseen by the irrepressible ‘King of Merch’, Mr Peter.
There’s a wry sense of fun everywhere but the club are at the heart of the wider football community too, including the organisation of an annual tournament of 12-15 teams of similar stature. Mirroring the Netflix story of Sunderland, the Hellhounds also have a documentary about their own team, ‘which is definitely about half an hour too long.’
Mats points at the Oscarsborg fortress in the centre of the fjord. “After Captain Eriksen’s men had sunk the Blucher, some of them celebrated with a game of football on the Sagajordet field. Word of this got back to Hitler and he was furious. He ordered mines to be placed in the field as retribution and the field stayed untouched for years. Then, in 2010, some of us sent out our children to clear any remaining debris that had been left. When that was finished and all the survivors had been counted in, some of the adults began playing football there regularly. It was a new beginning for us, but our home ground already made us a team with history.”
The Hellhouse is certainly the jewel in the crown of a project built with passion. It may have been conceived on the shore of the Oslo Fjord but there’s now a very real connection to Sunderland here. This is directly because Fulwell73, the production company behind Sunderland ‘til I Die, were able to tell the story of the club to audiences around the world, many of whom will also have similar tales to tell.
Like those of us who watched the sorry relegation from The Championship, first in real life then on the television, the Hellhounds were glued to the story as it unfolded. “It was a real eye-opener,” Mats explains, “Even though you know what’s coming – usually disaster - it’s still somehow surprising. On top of that, it was incredible to see so much going on behind the scenes and watching the entire club falling apart at almost every level. You feel such a connection, not just with the fans, but the people at the club who still gave everything they could even though their jobs were at risk.
“We followed last season very closely and really got attached. It was another disappointing finish, but I suppose we’re lucky in some ways that the club still exists. I suppose promotion was always going to be hard after the summer takeover and all the work that had to be done. We’re really looking forward to the next series, but we hope the production team can work out some magic to change real life, so we actually win against Charlton.”
Amongst the pictures, trophies and memorabilia that adorn the Hellhouse, I discover that the team officially came into existence in 2011 but the connection to the past is of great importance to them. On the day of their founding, they paid tribute to the brave men who had faced down the German navy and their role in history.
Mats looks me square in the eye. “When you think about it, the soldiers on that fateful day were ultimately brought together because of damaging reparations forced on Germany after World War One. That was itself inevitable following the emergence of European nation states and German unification. In fact, the German unification movement was heavily inspired by the 1st century Chieftan Arminus, who famously defeated three Roman Legions in Teutoburg Forest.”
Mats pauses briefly to empty the remaining Hellhound ale in his glass, before boldly declaring, “This unmistakable footprint of history provides proof of the connection between Sagajordet Hellhounds and the Roman Empire. That is why our club’s own President Blatter formed the team in 2011 and immediately declared them to be the oldest football club in the world!”
Mats puts down his glass and smiles, returning to the subject of Sunderland. “We all have our boyhood teams, of course, but this place is what brings us together and this is the place where we’re all Sunderland ‘til We Die. It’s all about togetherness, about belonging. When the fixtures were announced for this season the first thing we did was organise a visit to the Stadium of Light. We just had to.”
The Hellhounds arranged a trip to Sunderland as soon as this season’s fixtures were released. In a very Sunderland-esque twist of poor fortune, they made plans to see this weekend’s game against Fleetwood Town. Now that it’s been postponed they’ll be going to watch Sunderland RCA vs Whitley Bay instead.