If at the season’s outset you’d asked fans, pundits, players and managers which side would keep Bayern Munich from the top of the Bundesliga for the first third of the campaign, perhaps only the deranged would have said Union Berlin.

Union have finished 11th, 7th and 5th in their three completed seasons since stepping up to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history in 2019/20. While that steady growth might dilute some surprise, their ascent this campaign should be considered even more remarkable for the fact that they’re in the window to progress from their European group, too.

Underdog stories are common enough in football, and there is no guarantee Union remain top beyond Sunday’s meeting with Monchengladbach. But adding the romantic glint to this tale is the Club’s history of hardship, passionate supporters, and what Kit Holden calls ‘the rebel myth.’

‘Union fans are still reeling from being in the Bundesliga, and to be top of it a few years later… it’s been an incredible rise these last few years’, Holden, author of Scheisse! We’re Going Up!, told Box2Box.

‘The rebel myth – there’s no smoke without fire – but it is a slight legend in terms of the fan identity. It’s based on two things: firstly their history in the former East Germany as the civilian club, not founded by the Stasi-backed state like all other clubs in communist East Germany.

‘As a result they didn’t get the best payers or facilities, and they became the club who attracted the punkers, the hippies, those who wanted to use their football fandom to express something against the status quo of communism. So there’s this legend that built up around Union that they were the rebels, outsiders and underdogs.’

The second chapter of the myth was built in the years following German reunification in 1990; while the national team won the World Cup for a third time under the ‘West Germany’ banner that same year, sides from the former East suffered a decade’s graft as they adapted to capitalism.

Union ground away in the NOFV-Oberliga Mitte and Regionalliga Nordost, the fourth and fifth tiers of German football, throughout the 1990’s before reaching the Bundesliga II in 2001, leaning heavily on their loyal supporter base to stay afloat.

‘They had a lot of financial trouble in the 90’s, and it was that really strong fanbase and that really strong connection that kept them alive. Fans donated blood to raise money, more than 2,000 pitched in to rebuild the stadium, they founded a tradition of singing carols on their pitch on Christmas eve from 2003.

‘All of this consolidated this sense of Union being a place with a special fanbase. Everyone’s now really excited they’ve got footballing success, because that’s never been the case until now.’

It’s evident current manager Urs Fischer has drilled the zeitgeist of the club into each player that’s walked through his dressing room since he took the job in mid-2018. Holden explains that while turnover has been high so has organisation, with the club now extraordinarily on the cusp of European knockout football in just their fourth top-flight season.

‘In some ways these players are household names in Germany – they’re household for being quite average Bundesliga players that are now competing at a level that is far beyond what they were able to do at other clubs.

‘That’s what Fischer has been able to do despite big turnover of players. In the years since he’s joined there’s been ten leaving and ten coming in every summer almost, but despite that he’s been able to keep a certain level of continuity and team spirit.’

‘It’s not always pretty with his football, it’s safety first… and they do have limitations in terms of how they play the ball. But ultimately it works and his ability to communicate that clear playing style to new players coming in has meant turnover and lack of quality have been more than compensated for.’