Slovakia v England
Štadión Antona Malatinského / World Cup 2018 Qualifier / 4th September 2016
I kept a brave face on it, but leaving my life in Manchester after 5 years there was bloody harder than I let on. Over the final few days of my time in Mancunia, I began to feel a bit more emotional than usual and it dawned on me just how madly in love with the city and my life there I had become. After my final night out with my pals in Manchester, I felt I was leaving a pretty good life behind. There was less than 24 hours to go until I left the great ‘Northern Powerhouse.’ I definitely still miss the place immensely, but, to be honest, the city has not really crossed my mind too much in the past few weeks since switching the UK for Slovakia. I have Trnava to thank for that.
It genuinely took me a couple of years to fall under Manchester’s charm, but Trnava has sort of been love at first sight. I was very fond of the place when I went on my reconnaissance visit back in April, although I thought the town may be a little bit too small and limited for someone like me. I figured I’d be fine though, as I saw Trnava as a hub for work and a base to launch my weekend travels from. I definitely do not see Trnava as just a ‘hub’ anymore.
48 hours after landing in Slovakia, I was well-versed in the town having been shown around by my Slovak partner in crime Tomáš. Everyone asks me how I’ve settled and it has been seamless really; people like Tomáš have played a big part in such an easy transition for me. There is a hell of a lot more to Trnava than meets the eye initially. It’s absolutely superb place to live with a mix of beautiful old churches and cool, hidden away bars. Plus, Spartak Trnava’s stadium is 5 minutes walk from my flat, so football is readily available close by when on offer. More intriguingly for me though, was the fact that Spartak Trnava’s Štadión Antona Malatinského is now the highest UEFA graded stadium in the nation, which has led to it becoming the national team’s home as well as Spartak’s. So, who would Slovakia’s first game be against after my arrival in Trnava? Only the bloody English.
I’ve always found it funny when I think about my relationship with the England national team. I’ve spent the past 5 years in Manchester (following a year in Liverpool), yet I still felt absolutely no sentiment or affection for the England team at all – in any sport. Most of my best friends are English these days and I’ve come to realise that it’s nothing personal towards the nation – it’s just some sort of inherit Welsh chip on our shoulder. I knew full well though that if I ever found myself living on the continent, I’d probably instantly find myself cheering on my chosen home’s national team as a secondary to Wales; much like my brother and his affection for South Korea. My supposing proved accurate..
Despite my feelings towards the England team, I was still proper excited to have the English fans in town. I really wanted them to see Trnava and I hoped my new home would shine for them and impress them – at least be welcoming off the pitch, maybe not so much on it for the team. I’d had a great day out with the English the day before in the Bratislava suburbs watching 3rd division football, as we witnessed Lokomotiva DNV smash Pezinok 11-1. Following that, me, Anthony and Paul had headed straight to Trnava and then I headed out with Anthony to introduce him to the Slovak’s favourite drink, borovička, which, combined with a day of drinking in Bratislava, left us both a little sleepy in Trnava’s most dark, dingy and smoke-filled bar.
On the Sunday, kick-off between the Slovaks and the English in Trnava was not until 6pm, so I figured I’d go shopping in the morning, before the hordes of England fans arrived into town from Bratislava, where most were based. In Trnava, shopping generally means going to City Arena – the mall attached to the football stadium. In fact, the mall is probably the predominant structure there rather the football stadium. I exited City Arena with my food shopping, plus a Slovakia scarf; I figured with me being an English-speaker, the Slovaks may get confused, so this was my way of differentiating myself from Wales’ neighbours. Also, in an attempt to camouflage myself, I had spent the morning learning (and then butchering) the Slovak national anthem. This was also inspired by my Greek mate Thanos – who had sorted out my ticket for the game and who I’d be in the home end with – telling me he had learned the anthem too. By 10am I knew the whole thing – at least I knew the order of the words; whether I was saying them correctly was a different story.
On the walk back from the mall, the quiet alley leading from the main street to my flat was not so quiet today. Instead of a smiley Slovak person, I was greeted by a mass gathering of Robocop-esque armed police with their dogs. This was the English’s greeting party.
When I headed back out at 1pm, St. George’s flags were slowly beginning to take over the main street and square.I was en route to my beloved Čajka, but that plan was soon derailed when I spotted Anthony and Paul drinking outside one of the bars/cafe by the main square and so I joined them instead. They were joined by several England away day regulars and many stories were exchanged about their travels with the Three Lions. The England away dayers seemed a proper club of everyone knowing everyone and me, as the Welshman in the Slovakia scarf, felt very much the odd one out.
It’s very noticeable that most England fans who go away are not fans of the big teams; I found most flags had scribed on them the names of football clubs such as Lincoln, Tamworth Port Vale, Wolves and so on . However, the best news I had received was that there was a small contingent of Atherton Collieries fans heading to Trnava for the game. Days before, I received a message off Colls regular Ricky and we arranged to meet in Trnava. It was whilst sitting in the square I spotted them walking through town and so I went along to join them for a beer. Well…..if we could find beer.
We had left the original bar, as they claimed they had only small glasses left and this was not to the Colls party’s liking. We then headed to another bar underneath the City Tower, but whilst we ordered with Ricky in the toilet, we were told that there was no beer available and they claimed they had run out (we were sceptical of how true this actually was – England fans are used to being made not very welcome across the world on their travels it seems). Wine was available though and so without Ricky there, me, ‘Bod’, Vinny and Paul ordered some red. Fair to say, Ricky was unimpressed with the lack of beer and the fact he now had wine in front of him. So ensued a minute or so of ranting, before he walked off, pissed off with the situation; he soon re-emerged on the town square drinking a bottle of beer from somewhere else.
I explained how the bars on the square are not really my thing and that Trnava had plenty of hidden gems. The lads put their faith in me to get them away from ‘wine only’ bars and I was put in charge of leading the group. I initially lead us towards Čajka, but as it is less than 5 minutes way from the stadium, it was closed for the afternoon to avoid the huge match crowd. However, the title of my favourite Trnavský bar is up for grabs at the moment as Čajka has competition with the almighty ‘Lokal Pub’ proving to an incredible, smaller substitute for the Piccadilly Tap back in Manchester. I told the lads about the brilliant Lokal Pub, but I also had to explain that it’s hidden away down some stairs. It was a scorcher in Trnava and I thought the gang might want to remain in the sun; it seemed not. Lokal Pub it was to be.
On my first night of living in Trnava, Tomáš had asked “Do you like craft ale?” We all know on these pages that the answer to that is a resounding “YES!” and so he took me to the Lokal Pub, which had only opened months before. The bar is located just minutes away from my flat with it being down an alley and then down some stairs. It’s a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ sort of place. Tomáš knows the owners of the bar and he introduced me as a new inhabitant of Trnava. The owners speak very little English, but they’ve made me feel incredibly welcome on every visit (there’s been quite a few). Plus, it was in here I discovered my beloved Mazák – the ale that has replaced Punk IPA in my life.
I was greeted by one of the owners, Palo, and he immediately took to looking after us, as I declared to him I had brought “Anglicko” with me. Although I think the big Three Lions on their shirts may have given that away. There were already a few more anglický in the bar, as well as some Slovakia fans – the first I had seen all day.
Just like the much revered – and current holder of the prestigious Lost Boyos Pub of the Year award – the Piccadilly Tap, Lokal Pub changes its ales on a regular basis and today’s drink of choice for our party was ‘Lucky Bastard’. Our party was soon joined by a mix of Rochdale, Tottenham and Port Vale fans with me even agreeing to pose for a photo with the Vale flag, as a nod to my colleague and Vale-supporting pal Mr. Edgerton, who I’d left behind in Manchester. Now joining us too was my Greek pal Thanos, who the Atherton Colls lot took a shine to immediately by describing him as ‘barmy’ – which is probably considered a compliment in Atherton. I await to hear of the Atherton Colls Greek supporters’ club forming in the near future.
Much merriment was had in the Lokal Pub, but kick-off was just under an hour away and we had to leave. Clearly the service at the Lokal Pub had impressed the Colls Crazy Gang as they left a very decent tip for Palo. Richly deserved too.
Trnava is a diminutive town, so everything in the town centre is five minutes away, including the football stadium. There was a decent flow of fans heading to the Štadión Antona Malatinského with me chanting “SLOVENSKO! SLOVENSKO!” as I went. It was outside the ground that me and Thanos said our goodbye to the Atherton Colls Crazy Gang and off they headed to the away end, as we turned to the turnstiles in front of us and the home end. We were in possession of photocopies rather than actual tickets, but the barcode worked and I thought we were into the ground. However, it seems that to enter you must have your photo taken by the camera on the turnstile. I couldn’t remember this happening last time I came here to watch Spartak Trnava back in April, but apparently it’s standard practice at this ground now.
The ground was fairly empty when I had last visited here back in April for Spartak Trnava’s 2-0 win of Senica in the Super Liga. Despite many locals balking at the idea of paying €28 for this international (I’ve learned quickly that €28 is a lot of money in Slovakia), the home end was still a sell out. We never even made it to our seats as we instead spent the entire 90 minutes stood on the open concourse between the lower and upper tier with Thanos’ Spartak supporting friend, Filip; bonus points to him for wearing an Oasis t-shirt too. It’s certainly not a stadium oozing with character, but as far as modern stadiums go, I’m still a big fan. Our view of the game was awesome and beer was easily accessed from the bar behind (although there was speculation to how much, if any, alcohol was present within it).
We had arrived just as the teams were finishing their warm ups and we didn’t have long to await until Slovakia and England emerged onto the turf under the warm Trnava evening sun. I definitely don’t condone the booing of any national anthem, but as a Welshman I am used to hearing God Save the Queen booed, so it was refreshing to see the Slovaks clap at the end of it (still, it’s such a dull anthem). Then, it was finally my time to unleash my mangled rendition of the Slovak national anthem, Nad Tatrou sa blýska (‘there is lightning over the Tatras’). I’d spent all morning learning it and practising it and after all that there were the words up on the big screen for all to read. I felt cheated. At least I can claim a small degree of Slovak pride from learning it; plus, I understand that anthem about as well as my own nation’s Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (although I can definitely pronounce that one a hell of a lot better).
Kick-off was upon us and the reign of new England manager Sam ‘Big Sam’ Allardyce was underway, against the Slovak manager, Jan Kozak, who once received a year ban for throwing a ref into a glass door and smashing it, before dragging the ref into his room for further insults. Nutcase.
Slovakia had met England in their group in Euro 2016 and drawn 0-0; I should remind everyone here that this result, along with Wales beating Russia 3-0, put Wales top of the group – so cheers Slovakia! Slovakia were far from adventurous during that Euro 2016 game and not much had changed here today. However, despite many lamenting their performance on this Sunday, I thought they played well and looked remarkably organised.
I’d learned over the last few weeks that Marek Hamsik is some sort of demi-god in Slovakia, so I enjoyed the buzz around the ground whenever he got the ball. Sadly, it wasn’t enough. England, on the other hand, were seeing plenty of the ball, but still appeared to have their Euro 2016 hangover bothering them with Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling still looking off pace for their country.
As the half unfolded, I heard loud English voices behind me and I soon realised that there were England fans on the concourse with us. In fact, I realised that there were loads of England fans in the home end. The lads behind us were a boisterous, but harmless bunch. I was initially worried that their slurry English-speaking may draw attention to them and some overzealous stewards may see to it that they were ejected. No such thing happened and I actually got chatting to them about why a Welsh lad in front of them was supporting Slovakia. They turned out to be Burnley fans – very drunk, but harmless really. Thanos was more overjoyed to find a Leeds fan; all afternoon, he had shown everyone his Greek Leeds United Supporters’ club card to little interest from fans of other English clubs, but he finally found someone who was genuinely interested it.
Halfway through the first half I had already worked out how the narrative was going for the half and there was no doubt in my mind that we’d be 0-0 at half-time with Slovakia’s remarkable organisation snuffing out England’s blunt attack.
Half-time: Slovakia 0-0 England.
With ticket prices perhaps pricing out the ‘regular fan’ in Slovakia, we expected a dour atmosphere. Okay, so it wasn’t a cauldron of noise, but it had been better than expected and it generally improved throughout the second half. Even I could join in with the shouting of “SLOVENSKO!” too.
As the second half unfolded, I actually started to believe that Slovakia were going to do it. England were offering little and I just felt that Slovakia were working towards a goal. But in the space of about 60 seconds, Slovakia’s chances of winning were slashed dramatically, as I met a Premier League legend.
Thanos had gone to the toilet and midway through a conversation with Filip, I stopped him to declare, “That’s Lee bloody Dixon.” Strolling through the concourse by himself was indeed former Arsenal and England right-back Lee Dixon, all suited up and I assumed en route back to the makeshift TV studio in the corner of the ground. Hardly anyone had seemed to notice him and he wasn’t half taking his time walking through. Obviously, I approached him and had to ask for a double thumbs up photo. He happily obliged, while I began to quickly (and probably semi-drunkenly) explain to him about my new life in Trnava. “You are completely random mate,” was his retort. I went back to my perch with more England fans having now spotted their former right-back. As soon as I got back, Filip informed me that in the 30 seconds or so I had been away, Martin Skrtel had been sent off.
“You’ve missed a sending off, Lee,” I shouted back to him. “Skrtel.”
“Of course,” came Dixon’s reply.
It was weird really, as just 24 hours previous I had been posing for a photo alongside a cardboard cut out of the Slovakia captain and trying to explain to people my weird love for him. Everyone enjoys watching an erratic defender don’t they? Filip had actually missed the red card too, but a quick look on Twitter revealed that Skrtel deserved his card for his stamp on Harry Kane. He had received a yellow card for a bad challenge on Kane in the first half too and was lucky to escape without a red from that.
By now, Thanos had returned to learn he’d missed a sending off and an Arsenal legend, much to his dismay. On the pitch, England finally had their first shot on target – in the 65th minute. A long-range Rooney shot made Matus Kozacik parry the ball away and the follow-up eventually went out for a corner.
England began upping the pace against the ten men in the final 20 minutes with some half chances. Fortunately, Slovakia keeper Kozacik was on form and keeping the shots out, whilst the Slovak defenders were fighting fiercely for every loose ball. Also, the closing 20 minutes saw Cardiff flop Filip Kiss come on for Slovakia; I had completely forgotten about him, let alone recalling that he was a Slovakia international footballer.
The clock was at 90 and the home crowd were doing well to cheer their team over the line and encouraging them to hold on. Even I was standing on the railing excitedly shouting them on now, much to the confusion of the two lads behind me, who turned out to work for the company who had built the studio.
“Oh…Welsh,” laughed one, before going on to tell me about their job. Their job literally consists of travelling around Europe, building makeshift studios in football stadiums, then watching the football and then pulling the studios back down. A strange, but fun job I thought.
England’s star performer on the night, Adam Lallana, hit the post, before Theo Walcott had a goal ruled out in the dying moments. After such luck, I was sure Slovakia were there now as we went over the 4 minutes of allocated injury time. I was whistling along with the home fans to get this game over with, but England had other plans.
I could see the goal happening as soon as Danny Rose broke freely into the box, A pull back to Lallana, who took one touch, before hitting a fairly weak a low shot, which unfortunately hit Kozacik’s legs and bobbled in. 95th minute heartbreak for Slovakia as the England end went crazy. Slovakia took kick-off and the ref blew his whistle.
Full-time: Slovakia 0 – 1 England.
I stayed in the stadium for a bit and cursed England as the crowd flooded out. Firstly, England had scored a 92nd minute winner against Wales in the Euros back in June; now, 3 months later, they had scored a 95th minute winner past my adopted nation of Slovakia. Bastards.
I strolled out of the stadium and made my way straight to Čajka, as it is near the main street, but tucked away enough that I predicted that I wouldn’t have to put up with an English victory parade in there. Wrong. I walked into the outer courtyard to find Anthony, Paul and their other English mate sitting right there. Anthony had seen the sign for Čajka and remembered me raving about it, so he had predicted (rightly) that I would head there. Luckily, these lads had seen it all before and were more relieved than elated with the England win.
I really couldn’t be arsed making food when I got back home and if there’s one food in Trnava everywhere sells it is pizza. They seem to love pizza here – and ice cream actually; I’m sure they want to be Italian. But the pizzas are usually immense and cheap, so I finished my day of international by myself in a pizzeria yards away from my flat with pizza and Zlatý Bažant for company.
Obviously, I knew the English had enjoyed themselves – they’d just witnessed their country win a game of football with the last kick of the game after all. But I hoped those few who had braved leaving the more rambunctious surroundings of Bratislava and spent more time in Trnava had enjoyed the town too. It’s not the most orthodox places to visit (or live), but it really is wonderful.
Next up to take on Slovakia in Trnava: Scotland next month.
Highlights: learning Slovak anthem, international football on my doorstep, Trnava is beautiful, meeting up with English friends, Lokal Pub, good new ground.
Low Points: not a thriller of a game, another late England goal v a country I was cheering on.
See all my photos from Slovakia v England in Trnava here.