FC VSS Košice v FK Poprad
Lokomotiva Stadium / II. Liga – East / 20th November 2016
‘Most foreigners have not heard of it. Many Slovaks would not think of traipsing across the country to check it out. But Košice, Slovakia’s second city and one of 2013’s European Capitals of Culture, is set to surprise everyone.’ – Luke Waterson, Europe’s unknown Capital of Culture, article for BBC, 2013.
In the past decade, renowned cities such as Liverpool, Istanbul and foodies’ favourite San Sebastián have all claimed the annual title of ‘European Capital of Culture’. A scan of the list of cities to hold the accolade brings up several familiar and glamorous names, but fair to say Košice would probably have some folk scratching their heads and even wondering where the hell it is.
I would say that what Luke Waterson wrote back in 2013 is correct: the city would surprise people – but, honestly I knew I was in for a treat really, as since I’ve lived here in Slovakia, I’ve been told several times of Košice’s magnificence and how I’d be rewarded for traipsing from one side of the country to the other to visit it. Clearly the city’s reputation has soared since the 2013 award and the city is considered a point of pride for the Slovaks these days. I’m with the consensus anyway: Košice is magnificent. Plus, if you just google some images of the city’s main football stadium, you’ll understand why I felt compelled to drag myself there.
After a long day in Prešov, getting out of bed at 6.45am the next morning to go down to reception for my typical Slovak breakfast was tough going. I made a bit of an effort with my huge plate of ham, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and bread rolls, but the taste of whisky from the previous day was still prominent, so I focused my attention more on the endless supply of orange juice. Luckily, I had plenty of vitamin c to energise me, as I completely misjudged the distance from my hotel to Prešov train station and had to full on sprint to just about make the 07:42 to Košice.
I was in Košice by 8.30am and as soon as I past through a quaint little park and over a quaint little bridge over a dual carriage, I was in the city centre and its magnificence was immediately clear. The city is a great mix of gritty run-down stuff alongside some really beautiful, gothic architecture. As I walked up the quiet street from the station to the centre, the sight of the wonderful, monolithic St. Elisabeth Cathedral loomed straight ahead. The main street was littered with little churches and range of zany statues and the street seemed to go on forever into the distance, as the skittering of the tram network sounded nearby.
As mentioned previously, Košice is considered Slovakia’s second city and the capital of the east; in fact, it was a temporary capital of Czechoslovak Republic after World War II as the Soviets invaded – until their relentless push across Europe got them to Prague, which then became the anointed capital. To emphasise just how far east Košice actually is, the Ukrainian border is just 50km away.
Košice has several big cultural claims too: the oldest marathon in Europe is held here, which is also the third oldest marathon in the world (behind Boston – the oldest marathon in the world – and then New York); it has the largest preserved historical centre in Slovakia; and, perhaps most interesting of all,the Warhola family hail from here, before they emigrated to America and had a son called Andy Warhola – he’d eventually change his name to Andy Warhol. Down an innocuous side street I found a giant high-heeled shoe in honour of the pop-art icon and apparently there’s a museum in the city dedicated to him too.
It was before 9am on a Sunday and I’d been up for over an hour and half with only one coffee in my system. I went to a central cafe called Alda to refuel myself and to refuel my ailing phone battery. It also gave me an opportunity to scavenge the internet for any recommended pubs; I’d already accepted though that I wouldn’t be seeing too much of the pub/bar scene here in Košice today as the football kicked off at 1pm.
With hours to kill, I began to aimlessly just walk around the city. In other quieter Slovak towns, this would have been a mindnumbing affair, but I loved it in Košice. Every street was a bit different and offered something new to see: from a statue of famous local journalist Sándor Márai seemingly interviewing an invisible presence in an empty chair to the various old buildings being shown and discussed by the rain-soaked walking tours I saw roaming through the main street.
Eventually, I spotted the door to the Squirrel Pub open and headed in there for a beer. If there’s one pub I really should have avoided it was the Squirrel, only because of my lifelong battle to say the word ‘squirrel’ properly. I’ve gotten much better over time – largely thanks to spending ages making sure I could say it properly after a particularly embarrassing moment in my teaching career. Basically, I had to read a chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to a class with the word ‘squirrel’ scatterguned everywhere across the page. It was a nightmare me for me, but a group of thirty 11-12-year-olds found my battle with the word ‘squirrel’ hilarious. Anyway, I only needed to say the much simpler Slovak words of “Jedno pivo, prosim” (“One beer, please”) today and not the silly word above the entrance.
It was soon 11.30am and I decided that I could fit in one more pub, before having to make the 3km walk from the centre to the stadium. Across the road from the pub named after those tree-loving, acorn collecting rodents, was a cool looking traditional place with lots of wooden framing and white fluffy rugs on the wooden seats; sitting on the wooden benches in there felt like bonding with sheep and immediately I felt like I was back home…
I’d drunk two small, sweet IPAs and decided to give myself plenty of time to make it to the stadium. According to the map, it wouldn’t be hard to find – I just needed to walk in a straight line from the main street and the stadium would appear in the Čermel area of town. From the photos, I’d seen it wouldn’t be hard to miss either.
Like all Slovak towns it seems, the areas just on the verge of the centre were far more rundown and I was soon greeted by the familiar sight of Commie apartment blocks towering above. It wasn’t long before my usual audible gasp had arrived, which usually signalled that I’d spied some glorious floodlights. And they were truly glorious. No other part of the stadium was visible yet, thanks to the trees engulfing it, but the old floodlights curved majestically, looming down on the surface below.
Outside the ground, I struggled to find a ticket office or turnstile, but my saviour was to come in the form of a new companion. I’m sure anyone who’s spent a bit of time groundhopping will know how to spot a groundhopper; well, I knew I had spotted one here (it’s always the bag that gives it away), so as I approached to ask was he indeed a groundhopper, this lad had clearly thought the same of me and sprung the “Are you a groundhopper?” question on me first. This turned out to Christoph, a groundhopper from Hannover, but now residing over the border in the Czech Republic. It also seemed that he recognised me and my big red coat from the previous evening in Prešov; it seemed Christoph had been looking over at the away end from the home stand and had even captured me on camera celebrating one of Spartak’s goals, as evidenced below.
Christoph pointed me in the direction of the small ticket booth just outside the gate leading into the stadium grounds and once I had acquired a ticket for a mere €2, we headed to the nearest entrance and into this magnificent arena.
VSS Košice now reside in the second tier of Slovak football, but are one of the few Slovak clubs to have Champions League football history behind them. In the late 90s, VSS fell into the hands of steelmaking tycoon Alexander Rezeš. Rezes lifted and funded the club from the second tier and to two league titles in 1997 and 1998. 1998 would see the team become the first Slovak team to ever qualify for the Champions League group stage. It wouldn’t be an easy ride: their group would contain Feyenoord, Juventus and Manchester United. How would the plucky Slovaks get on? 6 games, 6 losses – the first team to ever record 0 points in the group stage, although many others decided to follow their lead at the start of the 21st century and ever since.
The start of the 21st century would be unkind to VSS Košice, as the owner tried to cash in on their rapid success, but failed to do so before the club spiralled into financial oblivion. On the brink of relegation into the 3rd tier in 03/04, they were bought by the ambitious 2nd division club FC Steel Trans Ličartovce and basically became them reserve team for them and thus forced to play in the 4th division. The club had gone from Champions League away games at Old Trafford to a feeder team in the Slovak 4th tier in 6 years.
Now, FC Steel Trans Ličartovce are no more and the team became MFK Košice, before reverting to FC VSS Košice – the current name. Things are rosy right now with the club soaring at the top of the 2nd division (east section) as the league enters its winter break. So, onto their home…
First of all, I should add that, confusingly, Košice’s other 2nd tier team, Lokomotiva Košice do not play at the Lokomotiva Stadium. They did play at the stadium between 1970-1997, but it seems their crosstown rival’s financial clout and success ousted them from the arena. Regardless of who calls it home, it has to be one of my favourites that I’ve been to in Europe so far. The Lokomotiva Stadium is just pure groundhopping gold.
As soon as we climbed the steps up from the gate and emerged into the bowl of the stadium, I loved the place. Certainly helped by the meagre attendance that was there 30 minutes before kick-off, the stadium just felt vast and huge. The bowl structure seems to stretch as far as it can underneath those curving floodlights that I mentioned earlier. The whole 9000-capacity ground is open to the elements, aside from the large stand to our left (which you had to pay a whole €4 to enter!). I was a bit peeved at first, as I thought that that might be the only part of the ground housing beer and it was cut off from us thanks to a sturdy blue/yellow gate. Fortunately, me and Christoph spied a small booth over the other side of the stadium laying out cans from a crate and so we made our way around to this makeshift bar.
“Excuse me are you the guy who wrote that blog about Wiener SK?” came a voice from a gentleman near the small beer booth. Indeed the blog that started off my Central European tour was about Wiener SK and it was soon decided that it was me and my blog who he was referring too. I felt stupid for asking where he was from, as his accent was distinctively Scottish. This was Iain, who hailed from Glasgow but now works in Prague and he was joined by Billie, originally from Bulgaria, but she was also living in Prague. So here in the middle of east Slovakia, I’d found someone who recognised me and I was now watching second tier Slovak football with a Bulgarian lady, a Scottish lad and a German lad. Isn’t groundhopping wonderful? The company was brilliant too and I really enjoyed talking with all three as the game got underway.
This stadium had hosted two international games at the end of the 90s with Slovakia drawing with Finland in a friendly and beating Azerbaijan 4-0 in a Euro 2000 qualifier. The ground is certainly not up to UEFA’s high standards for such events anymore, but it would do for Slovak II. Liga East: VSS Košice v Poprad kicked off.
VSS Košice are flying at the top and it took a mere 7 minutes for them to grab the lead here in front of an apparent 652 fans. Some passing around the defence led to a defence splitting long ball. Then a cross into the box was eventually fired home from close range by Patrik Greg, who had initially fluffed his header at goal.
After my long expedition to the toilet, located behind the stadium and also strangely locked (until a hi-vis coated guy came and opened them for me), our conversation took a strange turn. There really aren’t many ginger goalkeepers are there? This was prompted by me noticing VSS Košice’s red-headed goalie patrolling the box. I thought of Adam Bogdan, but then remembered that Lost Boyos cult hero and ginger striker, Matt Harrold, once had a barnstorming, yet unorthodox, goalkeeping showing for Crawley v MK Dons on these very pages in January 2015; he’d been forced in goals after Crawley goalie Brian Jenson had been injured and they had failed to put a sub keeper on the bench. I’m sure many could name more ginger goalies with more thinking time.
Despite taking an early lead, Poprad came back strong against the home team and were creating several chances in front of the VSS Košice ultras bouncing about in the corner of the vast bowl. Poprad’s Syzmon Gruca almost scored the finest solo goal I’ve ever seen live, as he skipped away from his own penalty box, elegantly gliding past the home team before unleashing a shot from 20 yards,which had to be well-saved by Košice’s ginger goalie. However, we were about to see a moment of sheer magic.
After weathering a bit of a Poprad storm, VSS Košice earned themselves a freekick 25 yards from goal. I thought it looked too far out to curl one in, but clearly what do I know. Up stepped young Serb Stefan Čikić to curl in a poetic freekick with his left foot. It was literally perfect. See for yourself below.
It was to be virtually the last kick of the half.
Half-time: VSS Košice 2 – 0 FK Poprad.
During the interval, we began to explore the ground a bit more and to get those usual ‘groundhopper-ish’ photos. The communal world of groundhopping was further accentuated to us by the fact that me and Iain actually had several mutual acquaintances in common. A small world is the world of the groundhopper.
The second half was similar to the first as the chances came at both ends. Poprad were definitely not out of it, but they came the closest to conceding first. A 50-50 between the home striker and away goalie on the edge of the box saw the striker come out on top and go clear on goal; however, a Poprad defender scrambled back and performed a heroic goal-saving tackle just as the striker was about to tap into an open goal.
After a succession of corners and crosses, VSS Košice’s number 14 tried to dribble down the right, but was halted by a Poprad attacker , who stole the ball and quickly placed the ball into the away box. This led to it becoming 2-1, as Poprad pulled one back thanks to a close range wallop from Erik Šula.
The last 15 minutes saw Poprad lay siege at the home team goal and even when Šula got himself sent off, they still hit the bar with a beautiful chipped effort. They were still the better team in the last quarter, even with ten men.
With the final chance of the game, VSS Košice broke and went through one-on-one on goal. The attacker went as close to goal as possible and then smashed a shot from 6 yards; his effort was too thunderous and instead it hit the bar and went over rather than hitting the back of the net.
Full-time: VSS Košice 2 – 1 FK Poprad.
As the final whistle sounded, we were right next to the exit and soon out onto the tram stop adjacent to the stadium. Apparently this would get us into town in minutes, but with a 15 minute wait, I encouraged Christoph to join me on the short walk into town, as he was getting the same train back across Slovakia as me. Iain and Billie still had a few hours in the city, before heading onto a late train back to Prague, so we said our goodbyes and departed ways.
It wasn’t too long a walk before me and Christoph were back at Košice train station and with slices of pizza purchased en route, I felt our beer supply needed topping up for the train. Conveniently, a Lidl was connected to the train station and we exited with a 6 pack of Pilsner Urquell to share on the train for the usual scandalously cheap Slovak price.
I noticed that we had made excellent time from our walk to the station and declared that we had time for one more drink. I hoped that the fancy coffee shop place in the station would serve up some fancy beer (every food/drink establishment sells alcohol in some form in Slovakia). Fancy beer was on the menu and my word was it good – and Slovak too! I shall certainly be keeping my eyes peeled for the German-style Weizen beer – it was superb!
Shortly before Christoph was to get off the train in Žilina, I learned that he hadn’t experienced a Slovak train bar and so we headed down the carriages to find the bar. We had timed our visit just right as further down the line it seemed we had more thirsty passengers and the bar was soon rather full. It was now late Sunday evening and it seemed my fellow train passengers all needed beer to brace themselves for the working week ahead. I said my goodbyes to Christoph, as he alighted in Žilina and carried on his way back to the Czech Republic, while I was left to enjoy the final two hours of the journey back to Trnava.
Of course, the tourist hotspot of Slovakia is the capital, Bratislava – and what a city that is. However, Košice is equally brilliant, if not a slight bit more understated with it being located all away across the country in the east. The biggest disappointment of my trip there was that I felt I hadn’t even scratched the surface of the city with my visit being consigned to a morning, before I headed to the football stadium. Admittedly, the football stadium was probably the highlight though. The Lokomotiva Stadium is a must for anyone in or visiting that neck of the woods. Just look at the photos and I’m sure you’ll agree. A great game was witnessed there too with that freekick certainly being one to remember.
Košice will definitely be getting paid another visit some time, so I can explore the city properly. Whether that be for a Lokomotiva Košice game or as a base for some more east Slovakia football – we’ll see.
Highlights: Košice is a great city, lots of cool buildings/ architecture, stadium easy to find, amazing stadium, awesome floodlights, great game, Stefan Čikić’s freekick, meeting Iain, Billie and Christoph.
Low Points: only had the morning to visit the city properly.
See all my photos from Košice and the Lokomotiva Stadium here.