MŠK Žilina v FK Senica
Štadión pod Dubňom / Slovak Super Liga / 17th September 2016
Apart from maybe my last blog, where I took a hatchet to the town of Zlaté Moravce, I would say I’ve painted a glowing picture of the country of Slovakia in my posts since my move here over 6 weeks ago. It really is a beautiful country and this was to emphatically hit home once again as my train left Trencin and headed through the hills between the aforementioned town and my destination, Žilina. The views were stunning with little villages, misty mountains and lakes meandering past my train window, only to be sporadically interrupted by the odd huge abandoned, Commie factory. I had heard good things about Žilina and I needed a more exuberant place to visit this weekend after the blandness of Zlaté Moravce the week before. Plus, this weekend I had no Craig for company, so I also needed a livelier town to make up for the loss of my chatty companion from the weekend before.
Žilina was also chosen for my Saturday Slovak footballing fix as MŠK Žilina were the current league leaders of the Super Liga after 8 games. I’ve loved travelling around Slovakia watching football, but the quality of football on show at times has been abysmal. Like, scandalously bad at times. I figured if anyone was going to show me quality football, it was going to be the team currently ruling the Slovak football roost with 1 loss to their name so far.
It was a strange day in Slovakia for me, purely because it was actually raining. Apart from 1 or 2 crazy short-lived thunder storms, grey skies and rain have been a stranger to me for weeks; my life here was a far cry from the rain-sodden climate of my previous Mancunian home. But, here it was again: my old friend, rain. I clearly wasn’t used to the wet now either as I almost started my day in Žilina with a broken leg, when I went skidding across the slippery floor of the train station on arriving in the northern town (no ‘WET FLOOR’ signs here).
I made it to the main street, with limbs all intact, and I was greeted by a lot of restrictive fencing for some sort of event. It seemed there was some sort of fun run in town today. However, aside from lycra-clad men and women doing their warm ups, the town seemed dead. Clearly, the Slovaks are scared of the rain. Žilina, close to the Czech and Polish border, is the 4th biggest town in Slovakia, so I was surprised at the lack of activity here on an early Saturday afternoon. Then, I remembered: this was Slovakia – the 4th biggest town means nothing here. To put it into perspective, the 4th biggest city in the UK is Glasgow with just over 600,000 inhabitants; Žilina has a population of about 85,000. No matter, I would find fun here – after last week’s visit to Zlaté Moravce, I was determined.
It’s not pretty like my adopted home of Trnava (have I mentioned how much I love that place enough yet), but it definitely has it’s own charm. The hub of the town is dominated by the impressive and beautiful Church of St. Paul the Apostle. The cobbled alley down the side of this leads to the square where there are host of bars and cafes and it was here I found most life; although there was far from a ‘buzz’ here either. In pursuit of ‘something to do’, I did consider heading over to the famous Budatin Castle on the edge of town, but when Google Maps displayed the 40-minute-long, twisty-turvy route I’d have to take to get there, I was soon put off. Unsurprisingly, I opted for beer instead.
After passing a Sex Shop humorously placed on a street called Horný Val (“hehe!”) and then past a coffee shop called Štúrbaks (which I felt sounded more than a little bit like a more renowned global coffee merchant), I found myself outside the equally strange sounding ‘Charlie Chapiln’s Pub’. I had to go in – especially as the rain had really picked up now. It sounded strange and it was strange in this bar. Of course, I was the only customer, but after some pointing and some signing to the barman, I seemed to be being recommended the local brew, Frambor. Good call barman too – a delight. I enjoyed it whilst looking bemused at the Audrey Hepburn wallpaper that plastered the walls, as the fun runners jogged past with Metallica’s Enter Sandman blaring out at a unnecessarily loud volume through the pub windows. As I left, I did the international sign for ‘beautiful food/drink’ by kissing the end of my thumb and forefinger. Once the initially perplexed barman understood I wasn’t trying to flirt with him, he came chasing after me to give me a Frambor bar mat as a memento. Maybe collecting bar mats could be my new thing here?
Next up, I headed back to the main square and into the dark Irish bar, boringly named ‘Guinness Pub’. Once again, I was the sole occupier of the establishment. I turned down the offer of the ‘Velvet’ Guinness and instead opted for a pint of Prague-based beer Staropramen. Staropramen is everywhere across Slovakia and it does taste a bit rank to be honest; however, this was Staropramen ‘Nefiltrovaný’ (unfiltered) and by golly did that unfiltering make a massive difference. Genuinely stunning stuff. So good, I almost stayed for another, but I opted to see some more of the town instead and not confine myself to the dark innards of a windowless Irish bar.
It was a day where I had arrived with no real plan other than to make it to Žilina’s ground for the 5pm kick-off. I continued to wander the rain-soaked, arched passageways of the town, passing the odd fun runner at intervals. My meander through the streets eventually brought me to the Central Pub, which felt like a good place to visit for some reason.
Much to my astonishment, I found one more customer in the bar this time. Every wall seemed to have at least one football scarf shrine adorning it, with all of European football’s big names seeming to feature on the wall at least once. The barman was also wearing a MŠK Žilina t-shirt, so I knew this bar was the place for me. Some broken English was spoken with the barman and the guy at the bar, before within a matter of seconds of me mentioning MŠK Žilina, the lad had his trousers rolled up his leg to reveal a MŠK Žilina tattoo on his calf. I soon noticed that he was quite an intimidating character. He was sipping away at whisky and he seemed to refer to me as a “pussy” for not having a short drink to partner my beer (this is a drinking custom amongst the more old-school in Slovakia). I explained that I liked borovička a lot and seconds later he was purchasing me one; I’m sure I’ve had more borovičkas bought for me than I’ve bought myself in the past 6 weeks. As the bar began to pack out with a whole 3 customers now drinking in there, I thought things were getting a little too out of hand, so I headed back out into the drizzle and began the walk around the train station to the ground.
The ground is visible from the train station, so it was easy enough to find. Even the pedestrian tunnel under the track hints at the proximity to the football stadium with the walls doused in graffiti to mark MŠK Žilina’s two most famous European adventures: making the UEFA Cup group stage in 2009/09 and the Champiosn League group stage in 2010/11, having knocked out Czech giants Sparta Prague in qualifiying. In both campaigns they would take on Premier League opposition: Aston Villa in 08/09 (they actually won 2-1 at Villa Park, despite getting knocked out) and then Chelsea in the Champions League (it seemed every bar here had a MŠK Žilina/Chelsea 50/50 scarf).
The ticket office was spotted easliy enough down the one side of the green/yellow stadium, but something didn’t feel quite right. I noticed a few kids in hockey gear and then realised that the stadium actually had a roof on it: this was the ice hockey stadium. Fortunately, the football ground is located directly next door and I soon found the ticket office for my chosen sport. Today’s game was priced €7 to see the table toppers.
From the outside, the stadium looks fairly rundown and antiquated, but far from it within. I had myself a ticket in Vychodná Tribúna (East Stand), which was all very modern and wouldn’t be out of place in the Football League back home. The site has been MŠK Žilina’s home since their formation in 1908, although an actual ‘ground’ wasn’t built until 1941. The 21st century has seen the ground developed to fit UEFA standards and has recently been the home ground of AS Trenčín for their European games with their ground not up to UEFA’s standards. Also, before Trnava’s new glittering football home was completed last year, Žilina hosted international games between 2003 and 2015; I imagined that the Republic of Ireland fans, who visited in 2012, would have particularly liked the all green seating.
The ground is made up of four fairly similar, all-seater stands with beautiful, old-school floodlights sitting in all four corners. The backdrop is a beauty too and one that gives the stadium its name. Behind the North Stand – where the Ultras house themselves – is the Dubeň Hill (which was particularly mist-covered today), hence the stadium’s Štadión pod Dubňom – ‘Stadium under Dubeň Hill’.
On the concourse, I was delighted to find klobasa on sale for €3.50 and with beer and sausage in hand, I headed pitch side. I was looking forward to getting stuck into my klobasa, but I wasn’t the only one. As I put my plate of sausage down to swig some beer, from nowhere a small cat appeared and made a beeline for my klobasa. Weirdly, the cat would hang around the stand and concourse for 90 minutes without anyone paying much to attention to it. He must have a season ticket.
It had brightened up slightly as the teams emerged onto the pitch with Senica in their usual red shirts, navy blue shorts and Žilina in a luminous green shirt. Now, as the home team, I felt this was a scandalous decision by Žilina; away kits for away games lads. I’d even thought about my colours today with my all green outfit. Žilina usually wear yellow shirts, green shorts, but aside from a Taffs Well FC shirt, I had nothing yellow and so went with all green instead, leaving me slightly camouflaged amongst the stadium’s seating.
Nevermind the club’s silly choice to wear luminous green kits, it took mere minutes for me to realise that Žilina were the best footballing entity I had seen in the Slovenská Republika so far. In fact, they played some beautiful stuff at times. The club were boasting the league’s top goalscorer in Nigerian striker Yusuf Otubanjo (once of Atletico Madrid C apparently), but it was the Argentine no.9 Iván Diaz who was the one I fell for. His no.9 was a mere number as he played in midfielder, instead of the traditional no.9 striker role, and controlled everything; Diaz is a definite early contender for the prestigious Lost Boyos end of season award of ‘The Cosmin Matei Hipster of the Year’.
It took just 11 minutes of domination for Žilina to take a thoroughly deserved lead through Michael Škvarka. Some neat passing saw the ball go out wide, which then led to a simple pass across goal for Škvarka to tap in from close range.
The Žilina show continued, but fairplay to Senica, with their contingent of Spaniards (not sure what the story is with that), they were dogged and hung in there. Without creating much, Senica actually equalised in the 37th minute. It looked like Žilina had dealt with a dangerous one-on-one situation, before the ball went wide and was whipped back in for Samuel Mráz to score into an empty net (I’m assuming no relation to Jason).
It had been an entertaining half, but there was still time for Adrián Kopičár to get himself sent off for Senica for a second yellow to give Žilina a confidence boost as the teams went in at half-time.
Half-time: MŠK Zilina 1 – 1 FK Senica.
At half-time, I headed to the top of the stand to see if a bar lurked through the open door. Indeed there was one, but it was rammed and there were kids everywhere. It then occurred to me that Žilina’s East Stand – the most full of the four – did have a lot of kids spectating; I thought this was good to see with attendances plummeting across Slovakia. If there was a game to get these young ones hooked, then they could have done a hell of a lot worse than this game. The second half was to prove more entertaining than the first.
Buoyed by playing against ten men, Žilina continued to take the game to their opposition with Diaz still dazzling me. It took until the 70th minute for Škvarka to add a 2nd for the hosts with another near post tap-in right in front of the now elated Žilina Ultras.
Adding to the drama, Žilina’s Martin Králik saw a straight red for a challenge as the last man and a penalty was given to Senica. Despite being dominated all game, up stepped one of Senica’s Spaniards, Jose Antonio Ruiz Lopez, to score an unlikely equaliser and leaving me to wonder whether he had the most Spanish name I’d ever witnessed.
It was now 10 v 10, but there was one man here to save the day for Žilina: up step Filip Hlohovský – easily the best Slovak footballer I’ve seen thus far on my travels. Diaz was my favourite, but undoubtedly, as the game went on, Hlohovský was the star of the show. 2 minutes after Senica had equalised, Hlohovsky was expertedly bending a beautiful 20 yard free kick into the bottom corner. He really did have a majestic right foot.
Hlohovský seemed to start game on the left, but it was difficult to work out his true position with him popping up everywhere. He would end the day overtaking his team mate Otubanjo as the top goalscorer in the league (with 6 in 9 league games so far), as he scored again for Žilina to give them the 4th goal they deserved. This time, he rode a few challenges in the box before wrong footing a defender and shooting into the near bottom corner in the 83rd minute.
As the clocked ticked past the 90, I looked up at the sky to realise it had turned that sort of brooding mix of grey and orange colour. There was only one thought that was to enter my mind at that moment: “Well that’s a proper Instagram sky.” The result of my Instagramming is below (although admittedly much more faded on the blog than my phone).
Full-time: MŠK Žilina 4 – 2 FK Senica.
This was more like it! My first genuinely thrilling 90 minutes of football since I’d arrived in Central Europe (I’m not sure the 11-1 drubbing I saw Lokomotiva DNV hand out to Pezinok a few weeks ago counts as a ‘thriller’). 6 goals, 2 red cards and some great individual performances on the pitch, plus beer and klobasa in the stands, all for a meagre €7. I was probably a really good atmosphere away from a perfect European football experience; not that the small army of Žilina ultras were shrinking violets over on the north stand by themselves.
After watching the team complete the usual ritual of paying homage to the Ultras, I quickly exited the stadium and made a dash for the station with a 20 minute window to make the last train back to Trnava. It was now dark and so with no scenery to keep me entertained on my return train journey, I felt some of my 20 minute window should be used to buy beer to keep me company on the train home. A quick trip to Lidl was made to buy some bottles of what I call ‘that fancy version of Zlaty Bažant’ and I was soon on the train back to Trnava, listening to some Sigur Rós with my beer to compliment a chilled two hour trainjourney.
Žilina had been a great antidote to the soul-sapping poison of Zlaté Moravce the Saturday before. The town was nice, although sadly lacking much life on this wet Saturday. For a change in this country though, the star of the day was the actual football on the pitch. Big thanks to Diaz, Hlohovsky and even the less able, but plucky, Senica team for putting on a good show in a tidy footballing arena.
Highlights: nice, scenic train journey, pleasant town, football mad Central Pub, decent ground and easy to get to, great game, performances of Diaz and Hlohovský.
Low Points: town was dead, threat of klobasa-thieving cats.
See all my photos from my day in Žilina here.