I have already been to all three destinations…
The less said about Moscow the better; and Marseille, although we ate and drank enjoyably, was spoilt by the appalling treatment we received from the French police before, during and after the game, and doesn’t hold too many fond memories.
So, a return trip to Slovakia was probably the favoured of the three.
As I had spent three days in Zilina in August 2003, Roman’s debut when we won 2-0 in the rain, this time I opted to go out on the morning of the game and come back the day after.
Last time we flew from London to Prague, and then on to Ostrava, then getting a fleet of taxis across the border. This time I was pleased to find that Zilina International Airport had opened. “International” in the most tenuous sense of the word as it is merely a link to Prague and beyond, and apparently cannot accommodate planes carrying more than 50 passengers.
However it was only 4 miles from the town so it would do.
Not cheap though, at about £300 return.
The alternative was to fly into neighbouring eastern European destinations and make your way from them by train or road, and I didn’t really have the time or inclination for that.
We left Heathrow at 07.35 on an excellent Czech Airlines service ; had a couple of hours and a couple of beers in Prague, then onto Zilina. The onward flight was in an ATR 42, twin-propeller job. Now I’m a big fella, and it looked as though I was wearing the plane. Fortunately there were only 15 passengers on it and I folded my legs up in the empty seat next to me.
45 minutes later we landed at Zilina where I was eased out of my seat and into the arrivals hall, which was in fact just a door to the road outside. This must be the only airport in the world where there are no taxis waiting. Fortunately, a friend who had done the same journey 24 hours earlier had arranged a car to come and get us, and 10 minutes later we were at The Pollom Hotel in Zilina.
In 2003 The Pollom rated as the nastiest, filthiest hovel I have ever stayed in……… Ever!!.
I kept my shoes on in the shower and the rats wiped their feet on the way out. Having said that, I think it was only about £ 15 a night then. This time, as I had paid as much for a room here as I have for the Marseille trip (100 euros) I was hoping for a vast improvement.
I was pleasantly surprised. Best Western have taken the place over an obviously spent a few quid. It has been completely modernised, albeit in a Slovakian way, and the rooms were very comfortable and clean.
The first familiar face was that of Neil Barnett, who was staying there, along with ex-Chelsea favourite (!), Craig Burley, working for a radio station, and all the rest of the press hacks. As we left the hotel to find a bar, more familiar faces poured out of the train station opposite.
This was the Ryan Air > Bratislava > train to Zilina tour.
There were two other tours I was aware of…the Wizz Air > Katovice > Hire-a-car boys ; and the Ryan Air > Krakow > train mob.
I’m told this latter route went horribly wrong for some with a coach replacing the train!
The Katovice tour was due to take in a Polish brewery on the way home, whilst the Krakow party were heading for the Wieliczka salt cathedral and a trip to Auschwitz.
A trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau would probably have taught a salutary lesson to the morons amongst our support who later that night would insist on singing about it.
In 2005, the South Korean motor company, Kia, opened a plant in Zilina, giving the local economy a huge boost and employing thousands of locals.
The knock-on effect is that everything has become more expensive, although still offering the travelling Chelsea fans a welcome financial respite before the horrendously expensive return to Russia in October. A pint of decent lager was a euro, and every restaurant and bar in the town square was heaving with Chelsea fans.
Our group of nine enjoyed an excellent meal with plenty of beer and 8 bottles of wine for 300 euros…great stuff.
The game itself is often a side-issue on these trips.
We left the hotel at 8 o’clock and wandered down under the railway line, passing the new Holiday Inn (where the players stayed, hilariously being bussed the 100 yards to the ground) to the Štadión pod Dubňom. The stadium has been completely renovated since our last visit but the capacity is about the same, at 11,000.
There had been uproar in Slovakia in the preceding week over the price of the match tickets. Last season the price of a seat was between 2 and 8 euros, depending on the competition. For this game the powers that be had increased the price to a hideous 50 euros (the average salary is apparently 600 euros per month).
This had led to a protest before the last game, against Presov, when for 60 minutes, the “ultras” in Section C of the North Stand gave their normal vociferous support.
Those that stayed behind maintained a silence. A banner was left in the empty section asking “Is it better without us ?”. ….Fantastic.
I wonder if we could learn something from them. There were some empty seats in the home areas but not many. We had about 500 fans behind the goal, and about 50 in the “executive area”, who had paid an exorbitant 200 euros each, but they did enjoy beer with alcohol in it, unlike those around us who were knocking back an alcohol-free version, brought round by CFC-shirt wearing dollies whilst thinking they were getting pissed.
With a following that small you can see all the faces and most of the crowd was made up of “old school” Chelsea supporters, with a smattering of youngsters and a few foreigners who were having difficulties with the songs.
The atmosphere was very relaxed probably because the game wasn’t too much of a contest. JT was the only player who played in Roman’s first competitive match back in 2003.
Drogs was banned ; Lampard was still recovering from his hernia surgery and Ashley Cole had earned a well deserved rest.
Zhirkov came in for Cole with Yossi Benayoun and Daniel Sturridge up front.
Chelsea started very well with three chances inside the first 10 minutes before Anelka pulled the ball back for Michael Essien to smash the ball home. Cech then had to make a couple of good saves before Malouda found Anelka with a nice ball and he slotted it home. After half an hour, a Malouda corner found Terry, whose header smacked off the bar and into Anelka’s path for our third. So, 3-0 up at half-time.
No changes at half-time and within a couple of minutes of the restart Sturridge ran onto a superb Benayoun pass to calmly score. He then celebrated right in front of us with a dance.
Then we let in a panto goal.
Cech palmed a shot onto the back of Ivanovic’s head and the ball was tapped in. Kakuta came on for Sturridge and did well. With ten minutes left Carlo gave Josh McEachran his debut, replacing Benayoun in midfield. Malouda was brought down for a definite penalty right in front of the fifth official who obviously had no authority to indicate to the referee that Malouda had been assaulted. Malouda then made way for Patrick van Aanolt. And that was it.
All in all, a comfortable performance but we looked a bit out of sorts at the back with Ivanovic and Zhirkov both looking iffy at times.
Good to see the youngsters getting an opportunity.
I suspect we might be more severely tested in Russia and France.
Back to the hotel for a few celebratory beers. I’m told it got a bit lively in the town square later on with a local letting off a flare and some of the Chelsea Yoof taking offence.
We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast the next morning before a couple of lunchtime beers and then a taxi back to Zilina International Airport.
The 42-seater was packed this time…so much so that a couple of well known fans got back to Heathrow without their luggage which had been dumped on the tarmac to keep the weight down. They were told it would be driven to Bratislava and then flown back to London via Prague.
So much for the lucky pants!
A fun, if short, trip ; friendly locals ; nice and cheap to eat and drink ; and an excellent result.
Next stop, Moscow.
Chelsea (4-3-3) : Cech, Ivanovic, Alex, Terry (Captain), Zhirkov, Essien, Mikel, Benayoun (McEachran 78), Sturridge (Kakuta 61), Anelka, Malouda (van Aanholt 87 )
Unused subs : Turnbull, Ramires, Ferreira, Kalou
Goals : Essien 13, Anelka 24, 28, Sturridge 48
Zilina (4-2-3-1) : Dubravka, Guldan (Angelovic 78), Piacek, Pecalka, Mraz; Jez (Captain), Bello, Rilke (Poliacek 57), Ceesay (Majtan 61), Vladavic, Oravec
Unused subs : Krnac, Leitner, Sourek, Vittor
Goal : Oravec 55
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Holland)
Match ticket: £43
Food & booze: £50
Trip score: 7/10