The 2018 FIFA World Cup was fast approaching and for those nations who had managed to qualify for the tournament in Russia, they were well underway with their preparations. Two nations that didn’t qualify were Slovakia and Holland, and not wanting to feel left out, they organised a competitive friendly against one another in the quiet, sleepy city of Trnava.
My trip to the seventh largest town in Slovakia worked perfectly. It just so happened that after years of teaching in Salford, my good friend and groundhopping companion Matt had recently moved out there and was now living just minutes from the Anton Malatinský Stadium where the match would be taking place. Even better still, this fixture fell right in the middle of my May half term meaning I could spend a few days exploring not only Trnava but the neighbouring cities of Bratislava and also Vienna which was only a couple of hours over the border by train.
Flights to Bratislava – the Slovak captial – weren’t the easiest to source, with the only realistic option flying from Leeds Bradford. A couple of drinks on the much loved Headrow preceded a bumpy bus ride to the outskirts of the city, where I found an airport that resembled a building sight. In the stuffy heat of late Spring, the small and overcrowded departures lounge was unbearable. Even standing next to Leeds Rhinos legend Adrian Morley at the urinals didn’t make things any better.
By dusk, I was stood outside Bratislava Airport waiting for a shuttle bus to take me to the main train station where Matt was eagerly awaiting my arrival. The next service to Trnava was imminent. He threw me an ice cold can of local beer and we headed for the train.
This was my first real experience of what I considered to be proper Central Europe and the humid weather took me by surprise. Temperatures had broken 30 degrees and there wasn’t a chance of a breeze in the clear sky. On reflection, it was poor form on my behalf as for some reason I opted not take any shorts, other than my Bolton Wanderers ones and there was no way I was wearing those all week with the forecast showing blistering sunshine for the duration.
On the day of the match, I was left completely to my own devices. Matt was still in work with the Slovakian school holidays being completely different to ours. As he begrudgingly left his flat at the crack of dawn, I headed out with him in search of some breakfast. Trnava’s quiet streets, which really were beautiful in the morning sunshine, were mine to explore. Although, I kind of guessed that I had to pace myself or I could be in the precarious position of being bored by lunchtime.
Wanting to experience a typically Slovak day, I had asked my Welsh host what the locals would typically have for breakfast. “Omelettes. They bloody love omelettes!” This was a disappointing answer; I could get omelettes in Wigan – if I looked hard enough. Up the main street stands the Mestská Veža (City Tower) which protrudes above all of the other buildings in the city. By this I found City Cafe, which was an upmarket purveyor of omelettes. Local businessmen sat and discussed their latest developments and strategies over an omelette, while builders, who didn’t seem to build much during my week in Trnava, stopped for their next cigarette and an omelette.
Weeks beforehand, the Mestská Veža was the centre of a huge street party when the local football team Spartak Trnava claimed their first ever Slovakian league title. The players gathered at the top of the tower while supporters partied in the streets below, drinking, chanting and setting off red smoke bombs and flares long into the night. It was an awful lot quieter this morning, as I headed back towards the centre of the main street where I sat at Pizza Kitty for a couple of hours, drinking bottles of beer which cost less than €1.50 per bottle.
It was a trend that would continue through the day. Temperatures had passed 30 degrees again, so I headed back to the flat for a shower and a cool down. Matt had texted me from a nearby field, telling me that his outing with his students had finished early and he would soon be back to commence a pub crawl that would take in all the ‘hot spots’ of the city.
I met him in Piváreň Bokovka which is an impressive bar and restaurant housed within the stadium. Large glasses of Budvar were being passed around by the handful of Holland fans, who were brightening the area up with their orange clothing and assortment of wigs. While my omelette breakfast had been disappointingly generic as far as local cuisine goes, my tea was the complete polar opposite; a bowl halušky which is potato dumplings with sheep cheese and roasted bacon. Until the night before, I had never sampled the strange delicacy that is sheep’s cheese but it was the only thing that Matt had in his fridge, alongside an assortment of beer… oh, and my mobile phone which was struggling to deal with the heat!
With a few hours to go until kick-off, Matt was keen to show me a true Trnava pub crawl based on the gems he had found over the previous few months. To give him credit, as far as pub crawls go, it was an absolute cracker. We headed over to Čajka where we lounged in it’s quiet beer garden, listening to a range of British indie music including some of my favourite bands, which was a nice touch. It was in here that I nearly fell into the trap of asking for a pint of Kofola, which looks like a nice IPA on the pump label but is instead a communist form of Coca-Cola. I would wait until another time to sample it’s strange but slightly addictive taste.
Another highlight was the modern Akademia, a pub and brewery which sits in the centre of the Malý Berlín (Little Berlin) area. This new cultural hub for the city was opened a couple of months beforehand, so was still sparkling clean and full of excitable locals who were enjoying the range of in-house craft beers available.
Matt’s much professed ‘favourite bar’ was our final port of call before the match. Found underground, down an alleyway was LOKAL PUB. It’s cold and damp cellar like atmosphere presented a refreshing break from the humid conditions outside. Kosto, a fashionable lad who manned the bar in his cool hat and braces was happy to see us as was his other mate who did a shift behind the bar, asking me to take a photo of his perfect beer. An odd woman, who I met a couple times during my stay was busy changing the list of beers on the chalk board at the end of the bar. It took me a few days to realise that she didn’t actually work at the bar and was simply a tart who loved the attention of anybody who would talk to her.
A couple of pints in and we were joined by arguably one of the greatest football minds in Europe. Thanos, a Greek lad who lives in Bratislava, had arrived. Matt and Thanos had become acquainted with each other through the European Football Weekends group on Facebook. Despite being from Greece, Thanos – rather impressively – knew an awful lot about English lower league football and as a result, I managed to have more interesting conversations with him than I do with football fans back home.
The stroll over to the Anton Malatinský Stadium grew louder in noise as we approached. Local traders were trying their best to flog large bags of pumpkin seeds but competition was rife, with stalls lining the streets. Supporters were being crammed through the tight entrances that were in operation as kick-off approached. One thing hit me though, if it wasn’t for the large crowds, you wouldn’t have known that this was even a stadium.
Originally built in 1921, the recent rebuilding of the venue took two years and it was reopened in 2015 at a total cost of €79 million. Of the money spent, a large proportion of it had been put towards the construction of a large shopping centre which forms most of the stadium’s exterior.
This place had only been hosting international matches on a temporary basis, albeit for a good number of years now. Since it’s reopening it had become the highest graded UEFA stadium in the country, with the Tehelné pole stadium in Bratislava only opening towards the end of 2019. It very much felt like Trnava’s days of hosting random international matches may well be numbered, so the locals were enjoying every single minute of it.
On the whole, the stands of this compact stadium were packed. The stand to our right was the smallest, with just the one tier. That small in fact, that the architects had incorporated some form of screen on the roof to stop stray passes hitting the residential buildings opposite. It was up here that the Slovak football authorities thought it would be good to release en eagle into the stadium in an attempt to build up some atmosphere. Kick-off, when it eventually arrived, was a few minutes late as the bird wasn’t for moving whatsoever.
There were a number of well known names hanging about waiting for the petulant eagle to complete it’s anticipated lap. Included in the Holland squad were Liverpool pair Virgil van Dijk – who had recently become the most expensive defender in world football – and Georginio Wijnaldum. On reflection, I found it rather amusing that they were dragged all the way from Merseyside to a remote Slovakian city to wait for an unruly eagle, before being made to sit on the bench for the entirety of the night.
We positioned ourselves behind the goal that Holland were attacking for this first half. Rather than actually going into the seating area, we hung around on the open concourse which had tables and railings that you could perch yourself and your belongings on. It all felt rather non-league. You had to keep reminding yourself that you were actually watching an international match between two decent sides.
Slovakia opened the scoring on nine minutes when Dinamo Bucharest striker Adam Nemec headed past PSV goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet. The goal had been created by Slovakian poster boy and Napoli legend Marek Hamšík who fired a long ranging cross over the head of a young Matthijs de Ligt, who had recently become the youngest player since 1931 to represent the Dutch national team.
It was players like Matthijs de Ligt that new manager Ronald Koeman was hoping would rejuvenate a Dutch squad that had been quite poor under previous head coach Dick Advocaat. Their attack was comprised of Quincy Promes, Patrick van Aanholt and Manchester United flop Memphis Depay; not exactly a front line trio that were going to scare the best international back lines any time soon.
The majority of the 15,432 were helping to create a party atmosphere. Dutch supporters in their bright orange shirts were easy to spot, while the Slovakia supporters were a bit more difficult to distinguish. Not many were sporting the national shirt but instead were proudly wearing a variety of European club shirts, all displaying the name of a Slovakian international on the back. Amongst a scattering of Napoli shirts and Liverpool ones with Martin Škrtel on, the most popular proved to be Celta Vigo tops with Stanislav Lobotka and Róbert Mazáň on the back. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more Celta Vigo shirts in Slovakia than in the Spanish city itself.
Coming into the match, Slovakia had remarkably not conceded at home for two years when Adam Lallana scored a late winner for England in a Euro 2016 qualifier – Sam Allardyce’s only game in charge – although Depay almost broke that streak when he stung the palms of Martin Dubravka – Newcastle United’s goalkeeper. Moments later Holland did equalise when Promes, who earned himself a move to Sevilla a couple of months later, curled the ball into the bottom corner.
By the time the striker had got his name on the score sheet, we were starving so made the long and treacherous ten second walk across the concourse to a food gazebo that had been plonked there. Three women were sweating as they served up cigánska pečienka which turned out to be a tasty concoction of juicy chicken, thrown into a barm cake and then topped with some form of sauce. It was so nice, that despite the risk of sweat being present in my snack, I went back for a second as the match headed for an entertaining conclusion.
It ended a draw and the spectators left, wading their way through used beer cups like at the end of a riotous gig or music festival. Normally after a match we would also leave straight away to cram another drink in somewhere, but we were in no rush thanks to the generous opening times of the local bars. While we held back, we noticed that a few of the Slovakia players were taking time to sign autographs and have selfies with supporters. After an evening of drinking, we thought it would be rude not to join in. I passed my mobile phone to Inter Milan defender Milan Škriniar, who took an absolutely belting selfie and then he passed my frail Samsung on to Dúbravka.
The latter, who was slowly accustoming himself to life in Newcastle following his move from Sparta Prague, seemed a little bemused at two British fans being amongst the fanatical Slovak’s but he greeted us with a smile and a laugh. He even took great care of my mobile phone, as you would expect from somebody with such safe hands.
As much as I had enjoyed my time in LOKAL PUB before the match, it would be our final destination that would steal the show. Tucked away down Hornopotočná, in the University area of the city is a “complete anomaly” of a bar called Krušovice. For those of you who are familiar with European beers, you will know that the name of this bar is simply a Czech brewery. It would be a bit like giving a bar in the middle of Bristol the name Tennent’s. Inside, a thick, dense cloud of cigarette smoke hugged the old furnishings, staining all of the wooden cladding which formed an interesting interior decor.
Beer, as I expected just from walking in, was extremely cheap in here and the jukebox in the corner was being hammered by all. A handful of Dutch supporters were in the corner, still sporting their orange wigs which were surely a fire hazard in an establishment which felt as close to being in a crack den as I would ever get.
Drinks flowed long into the night before heading back to the flat, which was around the corner. Trnava is just that small, we were never more than five minutes walk from where we wanted to head to next. Thing were slightly different on my journey to Bratislava the following day where the sparseness of the city made it feel rather boring and tedious.
I was genuinely gutted to have to leave Trnava behind. From start to finish the whole trip had just been amazing. After spending almost a week there, it felt like I had managed to hide away from the rest of the world for a few days as it’s not exactly the easiest place to get to. Bars, of which the city had loads, were all really good and in each one you would find somebody who wanted to chat to you – possibly because they don’t receive many tourists. Football wise, the experience at the Anton Malatinský Stadium was one of the best I think I have ever had.
Unfortunately – or maybe not – Matt has since moved to Spain and is working in Marbella. So while a trip to Slovakia may not be on the cards again anytime soon, if I was to go back to the country I would definitely make sure to revisit Trnava… and I don’t tend to say that about many places.