Europa League Postcard from Bratislava (Slovan Bratislava -v- Dundalk)

Mon, Aug 12 2019

It’s Thursday morning and I’ve just checked out of the Hotel SET, located right next to the towering Tehelne Pole stadium, where Dundalk had only the night before lost narrowly to Slovan Bratislava, conceding an 86th-minute goal in the first-leg of their Europa League third qualifying round match.

Despite that late disappointment, the 100 or so travelling Lilywhite Army enjoyed yet another great trip to one of Europe’s capitals and of all the places they’ve been over the years, Bratislava is right up there with the very best.

The main reasons for this being the absolutely breath-taking architecture that is featured throughout the Old Town area (known as Stare Mesto locally), the friendly natives and last but not least, the ridiculously low cost of living.

A measure of exactly how cheap it is was the fact that the bus to and from the airport to the city centre cost a measly €1.20, while unlimited 72-hour travel throughout Slovakia’s capital can be bought for as little as just €4.

As my flight landed at Letisko Bratislava Airport, news had filtered of Dundalk’s potential opponents in the Europa League play-off round should they get past Slovan. It turns out they would face either PAOK of Greece or a fairy-tale clash with Dutch giants Ajax, who were Champions League semi-finalists last season.

A possible dream trip for Dundalk fans to the Johan Cruyff Arena for a rematch with their 1987 Cup Winners’ Cup opponents is by no means the worst way to build the excitement.

After a tiresome connecting flight, the majority of Monday is spent settling into my new surroundings before my latest excursion really gets going the following day. It starts with a morning stroll into town to take in some of the major Bratislava sights including the fascinating Blue Church, from which I’m absolutely convinced Slovan procured their present-day colours.

That very evening, I catch a very first glimpse of inside the remarkable Tehelne Pole, a 22,500-capacity stadium which only finished construction this year and cost a staggering €75m to build. These are figures that perhaps outline just exactly how much Dundalk are punching above their weight at this level.

Members of both the Irish and Slovak media await Vinny Perth and John Mountney before the players themselves get a feel of the stadium, taking part in their final training session before the big game. For the travelling media, no European escapade would be quite complete without a visit to one of the local pubs the night before the match.

Chaperoned by former Extratime.ie contributor Donal Greene, who’s been living in Bratislava for the past decade, we find our way to the Bukowski Bar, the place to be, located in the heart of the Old Town and where a fair amount of the Dundalk supporters are already enjoying (some more than others) the €1.80 pints of lager that are on offer.

Suddenly it’s the morning after the night before and following breakfast, I get my hands on a few of the national papers, cue futile attempts to work out what the Slovak media make of this Europa League tie.

Anyway, the time has come for me to make my way to a stadium so new, the Slovakia national team are yet to even play in it. It must be said that the Tehelne Pole is one of the best venues I’ve ever visited and definitely the best I’ve covered a match in. The press facilities are top class and even incorporated a buffet (still think the pizzas in Cyprus last year were better though).

The stadium may only be half-full, but the partisan Slovan ultras along with the two pockets of Dundalk fans are in full voice as the teams make their way onto the pitch.

Chances are aplenty for both sides in the first half, but the second period sees the Lilywhites having to weather not one, but two storms. The first is the abundance of Slovan attacks that had to be defended in the midst of the heaviest rainfall I’ve seen in quite some time.

Dundalk’s resistance is finally broken four minutes from time through David Holman’s goal before Mountney’s header hits the crossbar in injury-time.

Despite losing 1-0, the Lilywhites showed more than enough to suggest they have every chance of overturning this tie when the teams face each other in the return leg this Tuesday night in Tallaght.