MFK Tatran Liptovský Mikuláš v Lokomotiva Zvolen
Stadium Liptovský Mikuláš / II. Liga – East / 5th November 2016
‘Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ – Rudyard Kipling.
The above line is arguably the most quoted of Rudyard Kipling’s work. The line is usually, and wrongly, used by people to demonstrate the poetic genius depicting our world as a multicultural world where cultures don’t and shouldn’t really mix. Of course, the lines following this completely destroy this concept, as Kipling presents a completely different meaning that in fact derides that famous line. Kipling presents the stewing of western and eastern cultures as only a positive thing. However, during my time in Slovakia it has at times very much felt like ‘East being East’ and ‘West being West.’ My home in Trnava is very much west, as is the capital Bratislava (which is about as west as you can go in Slovakia without hitting Austria). All my travels so far have generally been in western Slovakia. At times, the natives to this side seem to talk of the east side of Slovakia with a distinct hint of ‘otherness’. I’ve heard one anecdote of a traveler being told not to head to the east side of the country as they’d “eat your dog.” I’m sure such claims of savagery are hyperbolic, but, nonetheless, the other side of the country has intrigued me for a while. I wanted to see it for myself.
Like much of European football, Slovakia has a winter break midway through the football season. In the top flight this doesn’t occur until mid-December, but below that, in the lower leagues, it hits in the coming couple of weeks. Before such a break, I wanted to delve into the eastern side of the country and its lower leagues. The second tier in Slovakia is divided into a western and eastern championship, so the eastern side of this seemed to be the best place to head for some football. The only real big city in the east is Košice (it’s the second biggest in Slovakia actually), but with MFK Košice playing on Sunday and their city neighbours Lokomotiva Košice playing away, a trip to the 2013 European Capital of Culture was ruled out. Instead, I headed to anything but a thriving city: Liptovský Mikulás – right up near the Low Tatra mountains.
I’d actually asked staff and students in school where I should go when I presented them with some town/football fixture choices in the east. The outright winner seemed to be Liptovský Mikuláš, so I followed my colleagues and students’ advice. However, it was only later I realised why they all liked the town: they’d all actually avoided the town. Instead, Liptovský Mikuláš to them was the town surrounded by a host of tourist hotspots: there is a large water park nearby and the Slovaks love a water park; Slovakia’s biggest ski resort is close; and the town is also engulfed by Slovakia’s Low Tatras – and the Slovaks love nothing more than a walk in the mountains.
So at 8.27am on Saturday, I was onboard the country-spanning Bratislava to Košice train with it conveniently stopping off in Trnava and Liptovský Mikuláš on its nationwide course. It wouldn’t arrive at my destination until 3.5 hours later after leaving Trnava; plenty of time to do some reading on the train. By the time I entered the more mountainous regions, it was no time to have my head in a book (well, my Kindle) as Slovakia does offer up some breathtaking scenery – certainly in the area between Trenčin and my destination. I swapped my passenger carriage and headed for the train bar.
Train bars are becoming my favourite thing in the country. First of all, it’s a bar…that moves! That’s cool enough. However, easily my favourite feature of such bars are the absolute mental characters that dwell in them. This Saturday morning was no different with a particular trio becoming possibly the most rock’n’roll train riders I’ve ever seen. The one lad, roughly my age, looked like a homeless neo rocker-type from The Matrix with his leather jacket, piercings and scruffy dreadlocks. Him, his girlfriend (I assumed) and an older, balder gentleman, who was anything but gentle, were swigging away at small bottles of Jack Daniels, sipping pints and ordering shots of borovička at will from the bar. They were impressive drinkers. They further added to their rock’n’roll credentials with the two fellas beating me to the toilet and telling me they’d be in there smoking for 5 minutes. I said I only needed a quick piss, before they just retorted back with “No, 5 minutes.” Fair enough. Off I went to find another toilet not engaged by pissed up rockers.
I’d seen a mix of beautiful scenes (outside the train) and wacky scenes (inside the train) but I was happy to finally touch down in Liptovský Mikuláš before midday. I’m not even sure why, as it didn’t look too dissimilar to anywhere I’d been in the west, but it did feel different. I suppose the main differences were that lots of the buildings looked very rundown, yet the place automatically maintained an air of beauty to it, thanks to the snow-covered Low Tatras surrounding the area.
Liptovský Mikuláš is certainly not the most garish place I’ll ever visit – it was rather uninspiring really. The town square was your usual Slovak affair: not many people, some generic shops and cafes and, of course, a big, fancy church. Despite its underwhelming demeanour, Liptovský Mikuláš has played a significant part in Slovak history with the Slovakia National Movement taking prominence here under the ‘Magyarization’ of the nation in the 19th century. As well as this, Slovakia’s legendary Juraj Jánošík (their sort of part myth, part fact, version of Robin Hood) was imprisoned in the town, before being executed by being hung on a hook by his ribcage.
There was to be no death by ribcage hanging today and things were far more pleasant in fact on this chilly early afternoon. I’m sure Juraj Jánošík would have enjoyed a visit to the Slovak Restaurant if he wasn’t as busy being imprisoned and executed in the town. I know I did. The place – as the name suggests – specialises in Slovak favourites. As I entered, it smelled immense in the small, wooden dining room, but I had arrived in town later than planned and sadly didn’t have time to delve into the restaurant’s repertoire; for now, just the one pivo for me.
After negotiating the vast maze to the toilet (it seemed the building was huge, the restaurant part tiny), it was time to make my way to the football ground. But which one? My brief bit of reading up on the town had led me to believe that the town’s football ground was alongside the nearby lake. It seemed there was a football ground at the lake, but MFK Tatran maybe didn’t play there – according to some new information I’d stumbled upon on Google, their ground was located almost 2 miles in the opposite direction. With conflicting internet information, I had a decision to make: I eventually went with the ever reliable Futbalnet.sk‘s claim and began the walk down the main road through the town, towards the small residential area of Okoličné and away from the lake. The correct choice I was to learn. The long road to the ground involved passing by a range of retail parks, shunned car sales shops and a series of large, abandoned industrial estates, but eventually I arrived near the ground after 20 minutes of walking.
This part of town was how I had envisioned east Slovakia in my mind. I arrived at a small creek next to some rickety houses and a bridge crossing the river, carrying various trains across it. This was all magnificently backdropped by a multitude of tower blocks with the snowy Low Tatras in the distance. Bang in the middle of this apartment block housing estate was the football ground of MFK Tatran Liptovský Mikuláš, virtually on the river bank. Now just to find a way across the river.
Fortunately, I found a wooden bridge bearing no east Slovak trolls hidden underneath and headed around to the ground’s main entrance opposite a branch of Billa; it seemed there was a sort of supermarket turf war ongoing around the ground, as just metres up from the entrance was also a branch of the less salubrious Coopertiva, the supermarket favoured by the country in Communist times.
My ticket for the game cost €2 and it’s fair to say that this ground was slightly different to other lower league grounds I’ve been to in Slovakia. The main difference came from instead of a conventional stand sitting alongside the halfway, there was a three-floored building with a small balcony poking out on one side – surely for the finest that Liptovský Mikuláš’ society has to offer (and who could be bothered to watch shitty second division Slovak football). Opposite this building is a more conventional stand with shelter and seating. The rest of the ground is largely just a grassy bowl with the occasional quirk. For example, on leaving the toilets behind the actual stand, I discovered a decrepit, old beach volleyball court. It wasn’t exactly reminiscent of those sun stroked beach volleyball tournaments you’d see on Eurosport. Then, down the steps from the stand, I found a lone van selling a range of hot food and beer and it was here I made for next, having discovered that I wouldn’t be able to gain access to the bigger building where I surmised an actual indoor bar would be housed. For the second week running, I was forced to enjoy my beers outdoors.
As the teams walked out onto the pitch, it began to hit me just how cold it actually was and it seemed I was getting my comeuppance for claiming it was ‘not too cold’ on the phone to my dad earlier in the day. The stand wasn’t much help either, as it had no back to it, meaning the wind rushed straight through it. The only use the stand had, aside from a bit of shelter, was as an observation deck for the plastic football pitch below it. It seemed two middle-aged women and one lad had paid their €2 for today’s game to then spend virtually the whole 90 minutes displaying a complete lack of footballing ability on the aforementioned plastic pitch, as they passed the ball about (badly) and ran about, usually resulting in exuberant falls to the floor. It was strange.
Also, strange for Slovak football, was the game I witnessed: it was actually rather good. The tone was set early on in when it looked like the home team – in red and white hoops similar to the Bayern Munich home kit of 2007-09 – almost took the lead through a vicious 30 yard freekick, which was inches from flying in.
I had noticed a lad sitting near me with a drum and appearing to be uninterested in playing the thing. However, shortly after that freekick effort, his 9-10 mates turned up and the small group calling themselves the ‘Tatran Fanatics’ (that’s what the flag said anyway) were in good voice. Fairplay to them for their constant effort to generate some noise throughout the game.
The ‘Fanatics’ certainly had something to bang their drum about in the 10th minute as Tatran took the lead. A sliding cross from the right was placed straight on the head of young Patrik Laco, who directed his header expertly into the bottom corner. The blonde-haired number 10 would prove to be the best player on the pitch. In jubilation, one of the Ultras threw his large flag into the air, where it then blew across the banking. No bother though, he just pulled out another flag from somewhere.
Tatran looked to be fully in control, but their confidence let them down in the 25th minute. A defender tried to shepherd the ball out for a goal kick, only to have the ball taken away from him. The Zvolen striker ran across the byline, before cutting in and smashing in from the most acute of angles. 1-1 against the run of play.
Liptovský Mikuláš were unfazed and played some great football at times. In fact, in the 34th minute, they went on to score one of my goals of the season so far. A quick flowing passing move, which involve a rapid succession of one-twos, saw Goran Matic go clear through on goal and neatly tap in past the incoming goalie. It really was a majestic move.
Half-time: Liptovský Mikuláš 2 – 1 Lokomotiva Zvolen.
Having had none during my football weekend in Budapest the week before, it was good to see klobása back on the menu here. Plus, it gave me a chance to pay homage to my Blansko Klobása friends: I ate Liptovský Mikuláš’ sausage – as shown below (well, half-shown below – I promise you I ate the whole lot eventually).
For the second half, it was absolutely freezing and I couldn’t quite believe that it was still only 3pm as the skies darkened overhead. Winter is very much coming to Slovakia. Helping keep me warm on this Saturday afternoon was one of my trusty caps from my arsenal of flat caps. I noticed that half the ground here seemed to be wearing them. Coincidentally, one such gentleman asked me something in Slovak, which led to me just shrugging my shoulders in that gesture you need to pull when you are a foreigner confused in a foreign country. On learning I wasn’t a local (far from it) they began enquiring more, especially once they learned I could speak some German. More and more every week I find myself thanking that German A-Level, as I stumbled through another conversation in German. My east Slovak friends acknowledged their German was awful too, but we enjoyed each other’s company (‘football is a universal language’ and all that jazz).
My gang of middle-aged men were uneasy as Zvolen broke through on goal with their robust no.9, Erik Leiner. However, Leiner somehow hit the post, the rebound fell to another attacker who passed across goal, only for the second shot to be blocked by the keeper. They’d pay for their hapless finishing.
I won’t lie, I was cold enough by the final ten minutes to find myself staring at the clock waiting to escape to some warmth somewhere. I was defiant in not leaving early though – although I had noticed that my legs had involuntarily walked me over to right by the exit (as had many others I noticed). It was from atop this banking near the exit, where I watched Liptovský Mikuláš properly finish off their opponents as they deserved to – even if it took until the clock struck 90. A late surge into the box by one attacker saw his shot saved by the keeper, only for his block to go across his goal for Laco to scored his second of the game with pretty much the last kick of the game.
Full-time: Liptovský Mikuláš 3 – 1 Lokomotiva Zvolen.
The home players were shaking hands with the Tatran Fanatics by the time I was making my way around the ground and back to the main road. It seemed strange to me that the game was finished by 4pm, but already it was pretty much dark – and cold…did I mention it was cold yet?
Even though I was certain I was walking at a far faster pace than when I had made the journey up the side of the main road earlier in the day, the walk back seemed a hell of a lot longer in the biting cold; although I did decide right there that despite the cold at the time, I preferred the quite fresh, sub-zero ‘Slovak cold’ to the wet and windy ‘British cold’.
Warmth was eventually found in the brilliantly named ‘Jumbo Pub’ and, just like its funny-sounding name, this pub was brilliant.It actually felt like a pub, unlike the usual generic cafe/restaurant/bar combos you find scattered across most towns here. I took a seat at the semi-circular bar with a beer and a good view of Manchester City v Middlesbrough on TV.
I shuffled around the bar to access a plug socket and was soon engaged in conversation with a gentleman on his laptop. He soon began translating to everyone in the bar where I had come from and why I was there (a bit like Graham from Blind Date). He then looked up ‘Lost Boyos’ on his laptop and began to have a peruse there and then. My new friend introduced himself to me as Peter Cajka and I had the rest of the bar laughing when I correctly pointed out that ‘Cajka’ means ‘seagull’ in Slovak (well technically its ‘Čajka’ with the accent). How from my limited Slovak did I know the word for ‘seagull’, especially considering Slovakia is a landlocked country? Of course, there is a bar called Čajka in Trnava complete with an image of a seagull above the sign. Soon the rest of the bar was performing a wing flapping motion in homage to seagulls, which I joined in with as did Peter eventually.
Like any good Slovak, Peter wouldn’t let me leave without buying me a borovička and I returned the favour by buying him his favoured drink: some sort of clear spirit, which I sampled and found grim and so subsequently forgot the name of. The borovička warmed me for the 5 minute walk back to the train station.
The second half of my 7 hour round train journey was completed without having to witness drunken buffoonery from leather-clad strangers this time. I enjoyed the peace of one carriage while I read some more, before heading back to the unpredictable environs of the train bar for the final hour or so of my journey. For the first time since I had discovered train bars, there wasn’t a single complete drunken mentalist in there; unless the big twist was that I was now the complete drunken mentalist (I actually thought this to myself as I sat at a table in the bar – I was positive I wasn’t being a drunken mentalist though).
From my brief peek into the east side, I could spot some differences with the west, although they were marginal in all honesty. One thing that had proved different though was actually seeing some decent passing football for a change. I was a big fan of MFK Tatran Liptovský Mikuláš: they played good football; had a small, but hearty set of fans; and their ground, although far from staggering, was at least something a bit different. Oh, and their club badge was cool too. It was a good first dip into football on that side.
I’ll be back east in 2 weeks as I visit the larger city of Prešov and top flight FC Tatran Prešov. It’ll be my first ever Spartak Trnava away day (suppose they’ve forced themselves into the role of ‘my Slovak tea.’)
Highlights: more train bar fun, ground was ‘different’, good bunch of fans, good game, MFK Tatran’s superb second goal, Jumbo Pub.
Low Points: not much to the town really – suppose should go and check out the tourist spots next time.
See all my photos from Liptovský Mikuláš here.