Lost in…Poprad

FK Poprad v ŠK Odeva Lipany

NTC Poprad / II. Liga – Relegation Round / 1st April 2017

Poprad had been on my ‘to do’ list from day one of my Slovak adventures, although I knew of it long before I had even stepped foot in Slovakia.

During my previous 5 years living in Manchester, I’d taken a passing interest in both Manchester United and Manchester City’s U21 teams (as they were known then), as my midweek live football cravings led me to watching both sides a few times a season. On one visit to Old Trafford to watch United’s youngsters take on Norwich U21s towards the end of the 2015/2016 season, I began reading about how one of a United’s youth teams had begun making an annual summer trip to Poprad. Not having even the slightest idea where in the world Poprad was at the time, I headed to Google to confirm it was a place and not a failed Eurovision act. Google informed me that Poprad was in Slovakia and, more specifically, a town in northern Slovakia circled on one side by the country’s iconic Tatras mountains. Then I came across photos of Poprad’s football stadium and I was immediately in love. The stadium looked shiny and modern enough, but it wasn’t the stadium itself that caught my attention in the pictures – it was the backdrop to it. You’ll see what I mean shortly.

To take full advantage of the long trip north up to Poprad from Trnava, I left at the silly hour of 6am to catch the cross-country 6.27am train east. I absolutely love living in Trnava, but it’s fair to say the northern and eastern parts of Slovakia are far, far more picturesque than the south and the west of the country. As soon as you hit Trenčín – and after gawping over the famous ‘lollipop’ floodlights of Trenčín’s football stadium – it is onward into the more mountainous regions with their little hamlets and lakes leading up to Žilina.

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The High Tatras from the train.

I was riding solo to Poprad, but joining me on the long train journey was Dave Roberts’ excellent 32 Programmes, a book I’d been wanting to read for years. It is a joyous read and so with excellent reading material and lovely Slovak scenery to gaze at, the first couple of hours of my train journey flew by.

With an hour or so to go, I moved myself from the regular carriage and to my much-loved train bar. I gave up reading from here on in, as we headed east past Ružomberok, mainly because the Tatras had now come into view and I’m always enchanted by their majesticness. I fully understand why the Slovaks cherish them so much and even sing about them in their national anthem.

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Arriving into Poprad.

Over 4 hours after leaving Trnava, I finally arrived into Poprad. To give you an idea of the mountainous nature of Poprad, I’d learned the day before that Poprad’s airport is the second highest in Europe. Why would such a small town need an airport? Well, that’s because the place is a skiing holiday paradise. All the Slovaks I know seem to spend at least a few days a year in ski resorts around the Tatras and the area’s popularity with foreigners is rapidly increasing too.

Everywhere I went in the town, the High Tatras could be seen standing resolute and proud in the distance. The High Tatras can be accessed by the region’s specially made Tatras Electric Railway, but there was to be no mountaineering expedition for me today, as I instead headed to roam the streets of Poprad.

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Poprad.

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Church of St. Egidius

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The main square area.

The town centre was pleasant enough with a lovely church positioned bang in the middle and dominating the St. Egidius square, whilst a modern shopping centre could be found at the other end of the main high street. My exploration of Poprad was cut short though thanks to my bladder reacting to the beer I had drunk on the train. I headed into the first bar I came across in centre and made a rush for the toilet – only after doing the polite thing and ordering a beer first of course.

It was a stunning day in Poprad and like every town in Slovakia, the ice cream parlours were out in force. During my early, sunny months in Slovakia, I’d eaten more ice cream than I had probably eaten in my entire life. A Bounty-flavored ice cream was purchased (the Coca-Cola-flavoured ice cream was snubbed) as I walked to my only pre-planned bar destination of the day.

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Tatras everywhere.

I’d heard glowing praise of Poprad’s craft ale bar, Piváreň Dobré Časy, so I had that pencilled in for a visit. Sadly, for me, I arrived there to find it closed and not open until 4pm that afternoon – the same time that FK Poprad would be kicking off. Bugger. With Dobré Časy closed, I wandered aimlessly, until I arrived back at the rather plush Forum shopping centre and decided to sample the rather garish-looking Rock’n’Roll Steak Pub – a sort of Hard Rock Cafe-lite with various guitars and drum symbols on the wall and various items of furniture draped in the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack. The beer on tap was your standard Pilsner Urquell, but their toilets were far from standard. If there was a Lost Boyos end of season award for ‘Urinal of the Year’, this would win it. Behold this beauty below, based on the Rolling Stones’ iconic lips logo – at least I guessed that was the point and not something more bawdy.

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What a urinal.

As it was a ‘steak pub’, I did consider actually ordering some steak, but prices were fairly high. That was when I remembered that my Greek pal Thanos, who had visited Poprad before, had recommended a restaurant called Marco’s near the train station – and I’m never one to turn down a recommendation. And it was a great recommendation too. Undoubtedly the most Slovak food you can get in Slovakia is Bryndzové Halušky with it arguably being the nation’s most treasured national dish. I’m a fan of the dish, although I’ve had a mixed relationship with it. Essentially, the dish consists of dumplings (the halušky) and a soft sheep’s cheese (that’s the bryndza) usually sprinkled with small pieces of bacon. I love all those things, but sometimes there’s just too much cheese for my liking and I can only get through half a portion before I’m full. However, Marco’s halušky was spot on and I left behind an empty plate in his humble restaurant. Perfect for a measly €4.10.

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Some excellent Bryndzové Halušky.

There was still 2 hours to go until kick-off, so I headed for another of my intended destinations on my trip to Poprad. Poprad itself is actually a merger between two towns – Poprad and  Spišská Sobota (‘Spišská’ being the region’s name, Sobota the Slovak word for ‘Saturday’). This meant that Poprad technically has two town centres, so I thought it rude not to check out the Spišská Sobota centre too. My 20 minute walk to Spišská Sobota took me straight past FK Poprad’s stadium, but I’ll save lavishing love on that until later in the blog. There may be a lot to say.

Soon, I was in Spišská Sobota and I have to say that it was far more traditional and prettier than the Poprad centre, although certainly a lot, lot quieter. In fact, apart from me, I counted another 4 people walking around the main square – also dominated by a huge church – and these people were clearly tourists too judging by the hefty cameras they were packing. The area was eerily quiet, yet this sort of added to the whole beauty of the setting. Due to its well-preserved medieval town qualities, the area is now referred to as Spišská Sobota Town Conservation Reserve.

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Spišská Sobota

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Spišská Sobota.

At first, I thought that the lack of activity here was rather sad and more could be done to attract visitors than just propping up a few small restaurants, but I began to suppose that the peacefulness of the historic square pleased me more than if it was full of more snap-happy tourists (like me). However, with nothing to really keep in the square, I began the walk back down the hill to the glorious NTC Poprad – the home of FK Poprad.

I’m sure anyone who has read this blog for a while will know by now that I generally prefer grand, old relics of ground rather than glistening, modern stadia, but Poprad’s home was very impressive indeed – sort of. Lets not beat around the bush here, Poprad’s stadium is all about that stunning, Tatras-filled backdrop. Just wow. The stadium’s shiny exterior glistened beautifully under the hot sun, but my eyes were drawn away from the hot weather to those cold, snowy Tatras in the background. I expressed my love for the scene with some photos on Twitter and one ‘tweep’ replied saying that the mountainous backing looked photoshopped into the background photo. I couldn’t have agreed more. Even ‘in the flesh’ the background looked almost too beautiful and false to be real. The natural vibe to the place was accentuated by the small, lake adjacent to the stadium, whilst on the other side is probably Poprad’s most famous attraction: Aqua City – a large water park. And by golly do the central Europeans love a good water park.

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Nice.

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NTC Poprad featuring the High Tatras.

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The main stand.

The stadium is usually referred to the NTC Poprad with the ‘NTC’ standing for ‘National Training Centre’. Being a national centre, the facilities are obviously excellent and the stadium has become a footballing hub for the north of Slovakia. As well as FK Poprad playing here, other teams have called it home for brief stints whilst their grounds have been renovated. In the past couple of months, top flight clubs Tatran Prešov and Zemplín Michalovce have moved into Poprad whilst their grounds are developed – even though Michalovce is located 158km away and is closer to Ukraine that northern Slovakia. The stadium is also used by the Slovakia youth teams too, including the U21s, and it’ll also be hosting the the Slovak Cup final in May this year too. I’m now editing this blog the day after FK Poprad won the first leg of their Slovak Cup semi-final 1-0 v Skalica They’ll likely take on Slovan Bratislava in said cup final if they can hold on in the second leg; a superb achievement for a second tier team if they manage it.

Despite all its glitzy, shininess, the area immediately surrounding the stadium was still incongruously unloved, although I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the enveloping land is tidied up too. The stadium is actually accessed by crossing a small bridge over a small river, but I opted to stay on the other side for now with still over an hour until kick-off. I headed into the large, wooden Penzion in the car park and more specifically its bar. The bar was clearly trying to play the whole ‘traditional Slovak’ angle with their staff in folk costumes and the general wooden cabin-like interior, but it was not enough to keep me longer than one beer and so it was soon time to head over to the stadium.

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Prematch warm-up.

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The main stand.

The lad at the little ticket office building by the entrance gate spoke very good English and so I requested a ticket for the part of the stadium where I could take the best photos. “Main stand,” he replied before taking my €3 entry fee. Heading around to the gate leading to the main stand, it quickly dawned on me that the ticket guy may have understood English, but maybe less so what makes good photography material. He’d essentially put me in one of the only areas where the Tatras were not visible. I’d travelled all this way and I wasn’t leaving without getting some photos of the Tatras backdropping some football; how else was I going to get multiple Instagram likes? (My Instagram is ‘lostboyo’ by the way – for those who want to give me further likes and make me feel like a more loved human being).

I grabbed some photos from the main stand, while I was there, before confronting a steward to try to explain my photography frustration through a lot of pointing at the other stands and the mountains and performing a charade of taking a photo with my camera phone. He got the gist, but also felt it necessary to escort me around the side of the stadium from one gate to the other entrance, despite them being about 20m apart.

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What a view…

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…then spoiled by a very blue-looking me.

This was more like it! I now had the view I craved so much: football stadium + iconic mountains = awesomeness. I went snap crazy with my camera phone (I’d stupidly left my camera’s memory card at home), until I decided I wanted my double thumbs-up pose added to the photo too. I asked the first – well, only – person I found on this side of the ground and he willingly agreed. In fact, it turned out he spoke superb English and so for the rest of the game I spent my time with Poprad native Tomas, who it also turned out was a big fan of Manchester United; predictably, this led to me reeling out my photos of myself with ‘the Class of 92’ at my old local club, Salford City. Speaking of footballing legends, Tomas also informed me about a Premier League Legends v Slovakia Legends game that had happened here 2 years before featuring the likes of Gaiztka Mendieta, Lee Bowyer, Louis Saha, one of my childhood heroes Andy Cole and many other fun names. Enough of Premier League heroes though, it was time for the thrills and spills of second division Slovak football.

Our stand had a scattering of people within it now, as the teams walked out to some cheesy, epic Slovak power ballad. A quick spot of ‘Shazamming’ informed me that this was Na Kim Ti Zalezi by the band Gladiator (if you’re into your cheesy, epic Slovak power ballads, this was pure cheese). Poprad were in their usual white with blue trim kit today and Lipany were in all green. After the usual ceremonial, almost gladiatorial, courtesy wave to both sides of the ground from both teams – still easily my favourite prematch ritual here – we were underway.

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The teams come out.

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Match action.

To be honest, I could have happily sat there for the whole 90 minutes gawping at the Tatras, but, for a change on my Slovak travels, the football was actually fairly entertaining. With the action on show and Tomas to chat too, the first half actually flew by.

Poprad were playing some neat and tidy football, although they were missing a bit of cutting edge in the final third. However, they would be handed a helping hand by the away team. In the 24th minute, Lipany’s Kristián Hirka made a silly late lunge on a Poprad midfielder and rightfully earned himself a yellow card. Amusingly, less than 60 seconds later, he did the exact same thing, grabbed himself a 2nd yellow card and it was cheerio to Hirka. Lipany were to play over an hour with 10 men.

By the 33rd minute, Poprad had their deserved lead. They had dominated proceedings under the Slovak sun as they worked the numerically disadvantaged Lipany team hard. A great long ball out to the left wing put Poprad’s pacey winger through on goal, before he fired at goal (or maybe crossed) from an acute angle; the keeper saved it, but only palmed it up into the air, where the ball was met by Poprad’s Jakob Šašinka, who adjusted his body awkwardly to header home from close range.

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Match action.

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Match action.

The highlight of the game would come 5 minutes later. A long passing move from a quick free kick in their own half saw Poprad’s Vladmír Kukoľ receive the ball 25 yards from goal. Kukoľ cut outside the two defenders in front of him and headed for the edge of the box. From nowhere he cannonballed a shot past the keeper, almost taking the crossbar off as it smashed it on its way in. Is there anything more satisfying in football than a shot that cannons in off the crossbar? Maybe not.

Half-time: FK Poprad 2 – 0 ŠK Odeva Lipany.

All the bar facilities were shut up on our side of the ground, so for half-time refreshments we headed back to the main stand where they had two wooden huts selling food and drink. Initially, I ballsed things up by queuing for my beer and Tomas’ Kofola (he was driving) at the beer-less food hut. With halušky still filling my belly, I didn’t fancy the fairly ordinary hot dog on offer. Soon enough though, we had our beverages and we headed back around to our perch in the stand to watch the second half.

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Everything closed on our side of the ground…

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…so back to the main stand I headed.

The second half followed the same pattern as the first with Poprad completely dominating proceedings, as they now attacked towards their ‘Ultras’ –  a small band of ageing men with drums, who’d brought their little kids along to have a few arrhythmical bashes on the two drums too

It took until the 58th minute for Poprad to score their 3rd goal. Lipany had tried to shore up their defence for the second half, so they could have really done without the massive cock-up that led to goal no.3. A high cross into the box was easily caught by the Lipany keeper, who then quickly threw the ball out to a midfielder. Said midfielder then attempted a clever drag back, which wasn’t clever at all as he got tackled. The tackle turned into a crucial pass as the ball rolled through to Rudolf Bilis, who accepted the gift kindly and rolled the ball around the keeper. 3-0. It was only after this goal that I noticed that the goal music greeting each goal was the cheesy song from earlier. Great stuff.

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Match action.

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He had performed about 10 theatric rolls across the floor to end up here.

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Match action.

The goal scoring was wrapped up in the 89th minute. A lovely, neat passing move around a clearly very tired Lipany, led to an incisive, defence-splitting through ball. The ball was received by Mario Lukáč, who finished cleverly, as he took the ball around the keeper and got it just across the line before it was cleared away a little too late from a backtracking defending.

A 4-0 win was deserved award for a Poprad team who totally obliterated their counterparts.

Full-time: FK Poprad 4 – 0 ŠK Odeva Lipany.

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Top guy Tomas!

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Saying farewell to the NTC Poprad.

Conveniently, Tomas was driving to Poprad station to pick up his girlfriend and so kindly offered me a lift after the game. It was also very fortunate I had him with me at the station, as I had cocked up big time.

I was fully aware that the last train back to Trnava (at a reasonable hour) was at 18:27, but what I’d failed to notice on the Slovak Rail website was that this train was an ‘Inter City’ train. Essentially, they’re no different to regular Slovak trains, except they skip a few of the smaller stops to get you home quicker and you get the grand prize of a free bottle of water when the conductor checks your ticket. The ticket was my problem: you always have to book an Inter City train in advance and in my wallet I had a plain old, regular train ticket. I loved Poprad, but I didn’t really fancy hanging about until 1am to catch the early morning train that’d get me home by about 7am. Thankfully, Tomas had agreed to come help me charm the middle-aged lady in the ticket office to let me board the Inter City; I say ‘help me charm,’ but I was devoid of my usual charm since I spoke a completely different language to her. Instead, I left it to Tomas and just told him to emphasise the ‘he’s just a silly foreigner who doesn’t know what he’s doing in this country’ scenario. Eventually, instead of paying for a new ticket, I was charged a measly €1.40 admin fee and the ticket lady just warned me that it wasn’t to happen again. Of course it won’t. There was a lot of ‘Ďakujem‘ on my part directed at the lady and Tomas for fixing it all for me seamlessly. I said my goodbyes to Tomas and promised I’d come back to visit the much-treasured Aqua City and to visit the surrounding mountains on the electric railway.

The rest of the evening was spent in the quiet buffet carriage watching the Tatras roll by and the sun set over the central hills of Slovakia. A lovely way to finish a lovely day in the north.

I have nothing but positives things to say about the town of Poprad and the football stadium, but if there’s any reason to go watch football in Poprad, it’s to get views like the one below. Beautiful.

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Football, floodlights and snow-covered mountains. Perfect.

Highlights: love a nice train journey, Poprad was nice enough, Spišská Sobota, modern stadium, the backdrop to the stadium, Kukoľ ‘s goal, lots of goals, Tomas saving the day with my train tickets.

Low Points: nice stadium, but a bit ‘samey’ too, not many bars/food stalls,  Piváreň Dobré Časy being closed.

See all my photos from Poprad here.

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