Lost in…Michalovce

MFK Zemplín Michalovce v FK Senica

Štadión MFK Zemplín / Fortuna Liga / 16th September

Zemplín Michalovce: the one that got away. Oh, how they frustrated me last season. Well, actually not them, but the Slovak FA really. Basically, my goal last season was to visit all 12 top flight Slovak grounds. I was flying and had most of the teams ticked off by the winter break. One of the few I had left to do was Zemplín Michalovce – undoubtedly the most arduous ground to get to thanks to Michalovce being located almost 7 hours from my Trnava base and only about 30-40 minutes from the Ukraine border. Fortunately for me, I love a long train journey, so the effort of crossing from one side of Slovakia to the other was appealing really. Such a trip was planned for once the Fortuna Liga resumed after the winter break last season. However, the chance to visit the home of Zemplín Michalovce last season was taken away from me…

Quite frankly, the Slovak FA are clueless and incompetent on several levels. During the winter break, the SFZ clearly got bored and began thinking of other ways to mess up Slovak football. Their idea was to kick Tatran Prešov and Zemplín Michalovce out of their grounds, claiming that they were suddenly not up to standard halfway through the season. I had visited Prešov back in November before they were kicked out and although not the most sparkling and modern of arenas, it did its job and could easily handle the measly crowds that top flight football in Slovakia gets (another issue the SFZ doesn’t seem arsed about improving). The issue at Štadión MFK Zemplín apparently was that one of the stands was not up to scratch and so Michalovce were forced to play home games in the very impressive and sparkly new stadium in Poprad. The stupid part was that Poprad is about 160km from Michalovce and, with Zemplín Michalovce not exactly being a glamour team, virtually no home fans made the journey. There have even been conspiracy theories brandished about that the SFZ made the two clubs play in Poprad to generate more money for themselves, as Poprad’s stadium is an SFZ hub and a burgeoning home of football in northern Slovakia.

Sadly for Tatran Prešov, they are still forced to still play in Poprad for now (just the 76km for them to travel for ‘home’ games), whilst Zemplín Michalovce did a good enough job to convince the powers that be to let them return home. Of course this meant I could finally head over to the far east of Slovakia and finally tick off the ground that had evaded me last season.

In Slovakia the 15th September is ‘Day of Our Lady of Sorrows’ – a public holiday in Slovakia meaning no work for me. Even better was the fact that the holiday fell on a Friday giving me the chance to take a long weekend away somewhere. On seeing that Michalovce were at home I decided a few days in east Slovakia would do me fine. I’d not be spending all that time in Michalovce.

For reasons that I hope will become clearer later, I would not be spending a lot of my time in Michalovce, as I opted for two nights in Košice. Košice is the second biggest city in Slovakia and it is a beauty too. I’d spent a Sunday afternoon there last November, as I watched VSS Košice play at the Lokomotiva Stadium (this famous club has virtually become defunct since after more ineptitude from the SFZ). I loved Košice immediately and was saddened that my visit there was so brief thanks to actually having to work the next day. This time, I arrived early Friday afternoon and had the chance to explore the city more and become more acquainted with some of its excellent bars (Hostinec brewery bar was a personal favourite).

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Having enjoyed Košice on the Friday, Saturday was the day of the football in Michalovce – located just an hour on the train away from Košice. Another favourite of mine, and definitely my most visited bar of the weekend, was the Košická Klubovňa bar on Košice’s main big street and almost in the shadow of the city’s famous and stunning Cathedral of St. Elisabeth  (Slovakia’s largest church). It was here I enjoyed a lunch of chicken and gnocchi in a paprika sauce, along with one of the bar’s very own Klubovňa beer of course. At 3pm it was onwards Michalovce.

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In Košická Klubovňa for some chicken and gnocchi in a beautiful paprika sauce.

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Mustachio beer purchased from the train station bar for the hour journey to Michalovce.

I arrived into Michalovce at 4pm and I arrived to exactly what I expected: a shithole. I’d read about and heard enough about Michalovce, so I knew what coming. Put very bluntly, Michalovce is grim. Very grim. On telling one colleague I was heading to the eastern town, she jokingly expressed  concern for me returning to work on Monday (at least I think she was joking). Michalovce’s name derives from the Archangel Saint Michael, but there is certainly nothing angelic in the town’s appearance. Michalovce may be in tune with the other side of Saint Michael, which was that of a battler. Michalovce looks brutal.

Ther oad from the train station was a mind-numbing parade of residential areas and the one or two little bars, which led towards a very weatherworn looking estate of tower blocks. Once I got around this, I arrived onto the main high street. This was a tad bit nicer but not by much with many of the older buildings looking like they had been received no care for decades. I felt the town could be summed up well by the appearance of its branch of Tesco Express pictured below.

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Welcome to Tesco Michalovce…

The town was eerily quiet on this Saturday afternoon as I wandered aimlessly down the high street, not looking for anything in particular. I wandered down the narrow park-like area that went down the streets middle with various statues and fountains. Shopping choices were limited to the usual Slovak favourites of Coopertiva, DM and second hand clothes shops, although a slight uniqueness was added by ‘Sex Shop’ being placed upstairs and directly next door to ‘Army Shop’ – in case you ever find yourself in an orgy in the trenches.

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Army Shop and Sex Shop…

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To be fair, some of the architecture, although battered, was pretty cool.

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Lots of ornamental fountains here.

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I’m using the prettiest photos now to give the place some credit.

An extra level of eery was added by the stage set up in the town and the many chairs around it left unusued. I decided to end my wander here and something led to me heading down one of the streets heading off the main street. It was a good choice considering the name I found at the end of it…

For those who don’t know, Swansea fans are called ‘Jacks’ (we’re the ‘Jack Army’) so it seemed fitting for me to head into ‘Jack Pub’. The place was very spacious and had a weird mix of one part being a large bar area and the other a small living room setup in the corner; it looked like a granny’s lounge that hadn’t changed since the 70s. Of course, like everywhere in town, the place was devoid of life. At least they had Digisport though meaning I could watch Slovak TV’s highlights of the Premier League and the build up to that afternoon’s games. Plus, I was a big fan of the bar’s toilets with the urinal being made out of an empty beer keg and the soap dispenser an adpated old Jack Daniel’s bottle.

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Jack Pub.

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The weird living room area of Jack Pub.

After one generic Slovak beer, I headed back up the high street and then turned off again onto another street – again, I was just winging it. Just as I was about to turn back, I spotted something through one of the doors on the street: football shirts. By coincidence, I had stumbled upon a bar mentioned to me by my pal Ralph (who had visited Michalovce and on one of his central European jaunts). I went in to find a few men watching the Slovan Bratislava game on TV, but it was the walls of football memorabilia that took my interest. There was mainly the shirts of the famous big European names – Barca, Liverpool, Celtic etc. – as well as several framed photos of Premier League stadiums. However, undoubtedly the crowning jewel of the wallpiece was the shirt of the strangest named football team I’ve ever heard of: FC Viagra – who I hope are genuine, but I’m guessing are fictional. I have no idea who they are, but I bet they are staying up this year…

BOOM! BOOM! Anyway, onwards to the ground.

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This was just one of the walls of memorabilia, but wait…

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…who the hell are these?!?

The town’s football ground was a ten minute walk from the main street and easy enough to find. A lane took me to the back of the ground where I found a slight queue at the little ticket booth. The wait was hardly exhaustive though and soon I was handing over my €3 to head into the stand behind the goal; although me handing over a €20 did upset the ticket lady quite a lot it seemed (a lot more so than home, they hate having to give lots of change back here in Slovakia).

So after all this wait was the home of Zemplín Michalovce anything to write home about? Well, yes it was I suppose, as I am writing this right now, but it was nothing to take the breath away. I found myself on the open standing terrace in the corner of the ground alongside the unsheltered seating area behind the goals. The only available facilities were some toilets and a food/beer/borovička hatch just below the terrace. Food, alcohol and somewhere to piss is all you really need at a football ground though, so that’d do for me. The stand to my right appeared to be the new one that had been built to appease the Slovak FA; as it had been sorted out and assembled quickly, it was nothing too inspiring – just a standard seating stand. In fact, the older stand opposite was also fairly bland. And with the stand opposite being almost identical to the one I was on, the ground felt a bit samey all round. Nevermiond, it’d do the trick. With beer in hand, I was just hoping for a decent game now.

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The back of the stand I’d be in. Glitzy…

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I’m in.

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Smiley Lost Boyo after finally making it to Michalovce.

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And pivo ready for kick-off.

I had seen Zemplín Michalovce play at my local Spartak Trnava at the end of last season and although they only lost 1-0, I found them to be very poor. I was yet to find out if they had improved on the pitch, but there was certainly one improvement from the second they walked out. Zemplín Michalovce have one of the most beautiful shirts I’ve seen in ages! A sash! Why don’t more teams have a bloody sash on their shirt?! As they strutted out in their blue and yellow colours, they looked like a beautiful meeting between Central/Eastern Europe football and Boca Juniors..a bit like that time Georgi Kinkladze went to Boca I suppose (only just remembered about that – that was cool/weird wasn’t it?) If anybody wants to buy me a Zemplín Michalovce shirt, feel free too.

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Teams are out.

There was only ever going to be a Zemplín Michalovce win tonight, as their opponents were Senica – the team I am the curse of. Through pure coincidence it seems that every time I take another step on my quest to ‘complete the Slovak top flight’ the away team always seem to be Senica. I’ve probably been to more Senica away matches than their home fans; this is genuinely not a joke, as they rarely seem to have any at all. There appeared to be zero travelling fans again at Zemplín Michalovce on this Saturday night. The only time I’ve seen Senica grab even a point was with a last second equaliser at Trenčín last December.

The game was decent to be fair, but Zemplín Michalovce had the ultimate trump card: their number 10 may be my favourite player of this season’s travels so far. Introducing 34-year-old Slovak playmaker Igor Žofčák – what a player! His passing and his movement were just a joy to watch and he certainly appeared to warrant the captain’s armband around his arm as he bossed everything. A quick look at this career shows he was playing in the Hungarian 3rd division last season at the wonderfully named Nyíregyháza Spartacus FC, but before that had played quite a lot few more renowned names such as Slovan Bratislava and Sparta Prague. He was a joy to watch all night.

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Match action.

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That’s the ‘Hostia’ stand in the background – ‘Hostia’ means the away end…

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Watching for the beer queue.

The football was good from Michalovce but without much end product. As the first half ticked over its own first half, the beer had hit my bladder and I needed the toilet. I felt that nothing would happen during a quick toilet visit, but then my recent luck came back to me. I’d missed several goals already this season because of mistimed toilet visits. I decided to test if the goalscoring gods have really been against me this season by delaying my toilet visit for a minute or two. And lo and behold, Michalovce scored, courtesy of their loan signing from Legia Warsaw, Sadam Sulley. The Ghanian slotted home from close range after a neat pass in from the right touchline. I should add that the cross from the right was teed up with our delightful through ball from Igor Žofčák – who by now I was already completing swooning and fanboying over. The main lesson here though was that it really seems that when my bladder decides that nature calls, a goal is coming.

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That shirt. Woof.

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Match action.

It was only after the goal that I really looked around where I was standing and realised that I was probably easily one of the youngest members in this corner of the ground; it seemed that this was maybe a place for the retired Michalovce Ultras, as the small band of their current Ultras halfheartedly tried to create some sort of noise in the corner directly ahead of us.

Half-time: Zemplín Michalovce 1 – 0 Senica.

Zemplín Michalovce looked comfortable in the opening of the second half and the game was petering out a bit. However, things were made interesting on the hour mark as Senica attempted to defy my curse. Interestingly they only scored when I was in the toilet; it seems my curse on them is lifted when I am not in the stands. 1-1 and game on and my ridiculous habit of missing goals this season continues too.

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Match action.

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Old timers’ corner.

The goal made the game a bit more of a contest and there were half chances for both teams in the final 30 minutes. It would be Michalovce who would score next though to win the game and it was once again Sulley getting his name on the scoresheet. A lovely cross from the right was met with a brilliant header by Sulley, as he guided it into the far corner past the full-stretched keeper.

Once it was 2-1 to Michalovce, they never looked troubled and held on for the win. The Senica curse continues…

Full-time: Zemplín Michalovce 2 – 1 Senica.

A decent game by Slovak top flight standards. It was time to get out of Michalovce though.

5 minutes after leaving the stadium, I was back on the long road to the station and found myself with enough time for a pub visit. However, the first bar  looked like I might get stabbed in and the second bar was booked out for a party meaning a pub visit was denied. Instead I settled for cans of beer from a petrol station by the train station to accompany me on the train back.

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It was good to be back in Kosice and I finished my evening with two pub visits. Firstly, I called into the Golem brewery bar after literally everyone I know who had ever been to Košice recommended it (to be honest, I preferred my visit to the Hostinec Brewery bar the day before). But my time in Kosice ended with a visit to what was probably my favourite bar of the weekend: the Red Nose Pub is just awesome. Admittedly, my love for the place may have been swayed by the fact they had sour beer – and there’s not much  I love more in this world than sour beer.

So Michalovce was finally completed – just Nitra to go to complete the Fortuna Liga!

Highlights: a return to Košice (small but awesome city), Jack Pub, football shirt pub, decent game, the Michalovce home shirt, Igor Žofčák.

Low Points: Michalovce is grim, the ground isn’t too exciting.

See all my photos from Michalovce – and some from Kosice – here.

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