The train meanders along its slow but steady procession out from the pleasingly grimy bustle of Bratislava’s main station into the Slovak countryside. Low hills give way to higher ranges, green countryside and church spires abound, a deep and strongly flowing river joins us on the left side. The town of Trenčín comes and goes, offering a view of a neat but unviably small football stadium and a splendidly romantic castle perched high above the houses. The beer is chilled and studiously downed in the well-provisioned buffet car as the route winds past the scarcely larger stadium in Dubnica, where Trenčín bested Vojvodina Novi Sad in the previous round. We’re on our way to Žilina. We’re on our way to see Hull City in Europe.
Europe! Not the entity from which, contrary to popular misconception, it is geologically impossible for the United Kingdom to separate. Europe – European football, competitive stuff. The UEFA Europa League.
How far we have travelled!
It’s well over twenty years since Terry Dolan took over as manager of Hull City. Now, that’s a journey. Gruesome days. Grotesque football. Six long years and more we suffered, two relegations, poverty-stricken football and a combination of manager and Chairman who resolutely refused to accept the slightest responsibility for the decline and near demise of the club. Most current fans of Hull City don’t have any memory of those dreadful afternoons spent losing to Mansfield and Kidderminster and Northampton and so many others besides. Some are too young but most simply weren’t there: Dolan’s formless passionless defensive garbage sliced our crowds down to the bare bones, 3,000 at most inside Boothferry Park by the later stages.
But oh, we had some fun. Byways and back lanes to some of the remoter towns in the country, welcoming pubs, songs to sing and flags to flutter, a sense of camaraderie and defiance among a small band of regular travellers, a resolute determination to impose high jinks and colourful behaviour on a day that would unavoidably have at its unwanted core a miserable ninety minutes of grey half-paced football.
Long time ago!
We’re in Europe now. It’s different now.
Hull City are in Europe.
Byways and back lanes to a remote town? Check. Welcoming pubs? Check. Songs, flags, camaraderie, defiance, high jinks and colourful behaviour – yes, yes, we had all that in Žilina. And a miserable ninety minutes of grey half-paced football. Yay! Bring it on! O yes, we had that too.
The pelting rain of a Slovak summer afternoon relents and we make our way towards the main square, from which the tunes of Hull City waft. Here I admit to a small sense of impeding dread. I’ve watched Scotland play away dozens of times, and it is a uniquely exhilarating experience. I’ve seen England play away now and then too, though I don’t support them, and the majority of their fans, especially nowadays, are similarly cheerfully minded to revel in the opportunity to travel to new places and meet new people, but there remains a sour-faced knot whose understanding of patriotism is not to love your own country but to hate others’. And I really did not want to find myself making my Hull City competitive debut in continental Europe to the strains of ‘No Surrender’ or ‘German Bombers’.
I needn’t have worried. I shouldn’t be so precious (as if). The main square, a pleasantly if architecturally unremarkable open space, is ringed by cafes and bars, all thronged and songed by Hull City fans determined to enjoy the whole experience. The feel is exceptionally positive, the smiles are broad and genuine, and they have taken decades in the shaping. We are going to have fun in this competition. Heavy-handed police are in sight, but they stay relaxed throughout.
To the stadium, a mere ten minutes walk from the main square (significantly less if you are fleeing to avoid the rain), a neat compact affair. Each of the four stands carries a merciful roof against the darkening clouds that continue to circle above, and the City support, some 600 strong, is housed at the North end behind the goal that Alan McGregor will be defending in the first half. Fine mesh netting stretches from floor to ceiling, protecting the pitch from incursion by fans or projectiles, and here and there ungainly spikes and fences intrude. It’s not like that any more in England.
We are not in England any more.
The game kicks off. I remember now, like it was yesterday, just how excited I felt on an oppressively hot night in Malaga in 1982 as the match kicked off. It was Scotland v New Zealand, and it was the first World Cup game I’d ever been at. I was dazed, I was full of glee (also Sangria, local brandy, beer et al), I was utterly thrilled. And now here I am, the game is kicking off, and I am attending a match I never believed would or could happen. Hull City’s first ever venture into competitive European football.
O, this is great, this is wonderful, this is truly special.
Then not much happens for a while. It is – I adjust my reporter’s paisley cravat self-consciously – ‘largely formless’.
Legs look tired even this early. There is no sharpness. The football played is sloppy. Huddlestone and Long are perhaps the most lethargic, though Meyler and Aluko are close behind. In truth none of our players looks noticeably eager to be playing a competitive match in July, and, with a ten month haul now lying in front of them, they have some reason to embrace this caution.
22, Huddlestone’s free kick from the left, bashed straight into the wall. 27, their ‘keeper, Volesak, spills Aluko’s shot, but recovers quickly.
Trenčín’s small knot of fans in the corner of the stand opposite us begin to become more vocal as the half progress, grasping, perhaps with surprise and certainly with relief, that their opponents from the self-styled finest league in the world are not going to obliterate their hopes. The home side, in a predominantly white kit, with a single vertical red stripe off-centre on the shirts, are well organised and hard working and, their League season already underway, evidently fitter than our team. They press a little in the later stages of the first half, though without causing serious alarm to McGregor, soundly protected by the three centre backs that did such a fine job for much of last season, including in the Cup Final.
Half time. No score.
On 49 Bruce blunders horribly, gifting possession in a dangerous area, and only desperate defence rescues the situation, at the expense of a corner. Then on 52, as the home side enjoy the better of the play, a shot rips into our side netting – one of those that the dopy fan with a poor sightline celebrates, thinking it’s a goal. Ha! Slovak dopes are duly reeled in. You’re dealing with professionals here, sonny.
None more professional than Shane Long.
Which I do not mean in a good way.
Long does remarkably well to wrest possession wide out on the left, and cuts inside, racing at high speed into the box. He slips the first challenge, but it’s as obvious as the nose on Gareth Southgate’s face that he has not the slightest intention of shooting nor or finding a team-mate with a pass. He’s looking for a defender’s leg to fall over. He finds one, tumbles to the turf with extravagant theatre. And the referee awards a penalty.
I understand the match was not televised so perhaps there is a referee or two tucked away somewhere in a remote corner of Europe who is still not aware that Shane Long dives. Not occasionally, but routinely.
Defenders whose tackling verges on the brutal. Midfielders who attempt ambitious through passes too frequently. Wingers who over-elaborate their stepovers. Flawed players, but I recognise what they’re trying to do and sometimes – especially the defenders, especially if they’re ours – I can enjoy the exuberance. But forwards whose primary aim when they enter the field of play is to win a penalty? No. I can’t accept that. That goes beyond any proper definition of the purpose of this sport. We’ve done some exciting transfer business during the summer but a deal that saw us sell this weasel Long before he gets a richly deserved long-term ban for simulation would please me most.
Still, penalty it is. Huddlestone takes the ball, and, since no one else looks interested in stepping up, I suppose he must be our designated penalty taker. For the moment. Da Silva, one of their defenders, approaches Sir Tom, talks to him, pats him. He’s been watching Tim Krul. Sir Tom’s head is down, focused on the ball sitting placidly on the spot. I’m wanting to believe he is concentrating. In fact he looks tentative and unsure.
The penalty is dreadful. It’s hit without power and close to the goalkeeper, on his left side. Volesak stops it easily. But the ball bounces up kindly for Huddlestone who is able to advance and slam the ball into the exposed net from no more than four yards out.
Except he leans back. He looks for the stars and he sends the ball in their general direction.
Ye cannae defy the laws of physics Cap’n, but putting the ball over the crossbar from that short distance out demands some pretty challenging geometry.
Snodgrass and Ince come on, replacing Aluko, almost entirely anonymous, and Meyler, slightly better but far short of his sharp best.
Snodgrass and Ince had the easy job in Trenčín, because they were asked only to play a cameo rather than extend depleted levels of fitness over the full 90, and so too, arriving fresh, they were able to take on opponents that were beginning to tire. Even allowing for that, both our subs impressed. They looked lively, eager to please and both offered a couple of neat touches of a quality that we’d seen precious little of until their arrival.
A Snodgrass free-kick is stopped by an utterly blatant hand ball by a man in the wall, standing just inside the area, but the referee ignores an obvious penalty (plus yellow card). But the game’s petering out now. Trenčín are tiring, but grimly determined to see it out, and we lack the resources to trouble them. In fact the home side probably shades the possession over the last ten or so minutes, and a mazy run on 87 briefly threatens to unravel our defence.
Jelavič makes a brief appearance in place of Long, but soon enough, after three added minutes, it’s over, and nil nil it is. Rightly so. The City players acknowledge and applaud us. Then Trenčín’s do the same, rather more warmly and rather closer up. They are greeted with admiration for their spirit by our excellent support.
I have been too critical. The whole idea was to treat this game and next week’s as only slightly more testing than a pre-season friendly. It would have been absurd for Mr Bruce to have got his team fully prepared for a game in late July, ahead of a season that will stretch deep into May. A steady if humdrum scoreless draw is just fine. As long as we finish the assigned task next Thursday. I hope we will, and we should, but I confess I am a bit twitchy we have not killed off determined but limited opponents, who look to me perfectly capable of being durable and hard to break down in Hull. I really don’t want to get knocked out.
Because I absolutely love watching Hull City play in Europe.