Things don’t always quite go to plan. Most people use trips abroad for a bit of rest & relaxation, but when I was thinking “what am I doing here?” on my first full day of this trip to the Czech Republic, it wasn’t a question of spiritual awareness, but a reflection of walking back empty handed from a fruitless trip through one of the less enticing parts of a small provincial town in the pouring rain. A football themed long weekend in Prague had offered the opportunity of three matches, the second of which was due to have been watching my Czech favourites, Bohemians, in Mlada Boleslav. The home side had only offered Bohemians 330 tickets, for sale to season tickets holders only if I guessed right from the ticket details in Czech on the Bohemians web page. My plan was to go up to Mlada Boleslav, buy a ticket (even if in the home ends), before nipping off to another town nearby that I’d planned to see, before dashing back for Slavia v Zlin in the evening. It wasn’t the ideal way to spend the first full day, but the weather forecast had been poor for the morning so it wouldn’t be total waste. My plans unravelled as soon as I reached the station. I had allowed an hour to walk the 800 yards or so from the station to the stadium, get a ticket, and come back. There seemed no problem with that. Unfortunately there was. Although I had looked at a map of the town and noted quite rightly that the stadium is just up the road from the station, when I peered out down the road from the station, rather than the road to my right that I expected, there was just a dead end leading to some farm buildings. I had read the map quite correctly, but not closely enough to realise the station I was currently in wasn’t the one on the map. That was Mlada Bolestav Mesto (town centre), whereas the station I was in, Mlada Boleslav Hlavni Nadrazi (main station), was in the middle of nowhere, as confirmed by the woman in the station’s ticket office. At least she gave me a map of the town, carefully ripped out the yellow pages (or Gold Pages, as they are in the Czech Republic), in case I ever made it to the centre. While trains between the two stations weren’t quite every third Tuesday in infrequency, they didn’t exactly rival the Tokyo Metro at rush hour either, and the next was over 45 minutes after I arrived. The second problem was the rain. The forecast had said rain, but being English I’m used to a spot of rain so I can put up with it. Unfortunately this wasn’t a little bit of rain, though. It was the sort that makes you consider building an ark. Indeed, when I eventually found the train I needed to board, its isolation did make me wonder if I should start gathering animals two-by-two, even if its size, roughly akin to a slightly well proportioned minibus, would have required a few selective extinctions. The train shouldn’t have been difficult to find. It was, after all, the only train in the entire station and completely visible, particularly as despite the station boasting a good half a dozen or so tracks, it only had one platform. I was used to larger stations, one’s that call themselves main stations in particular, having departures boards, stating train times and the platform the train leaves from. After hunting in vain for such information, I noticed that the isolated stubby carriage about four tracks away had a small wooden board beside it on the floor announcing its destination. Walking across railway lines anywhere else would have made me a bit nervous, but such was the state of neglect around the place that it made you feel no trains had passed through in the last 30 years, and Czech trains are so slow anyway that it’d be easy to walk away from danger. Travelling on them makes you suspect they are powered by clockwork, and the driver spends the entire journey with his feet up reading the newspaper. An incredibly wet and joyless walk from Mesto station found me outside Mlada Boleslav’s stadium, only there didn’t appear to be anywhere open. No ticket booths, no reception, nothing. A deeply unsatisfying walk around the perimeter yielded no results, but I spotted some people milling about around an office building of the club that had been locked earlier. I hoped the people there, probably players by the look of them, would understand my requests for a ticket. They didn’t, or at least didn’t care if they did. They did, however, know how to mime actions for instructing me to piss of out of the area, which didn’t help me sodden mood. I had to settle for taking a few pictures of the small ground, which was about as exciting as it sounds. By the evening the rain had gone, and fortified with a meal and a couple of beers, I was in better spirits as I made my way up to the Strahov to watch Slavia for the second time. It hadn’t been a great experience previously. There’d been a very poor game to watch, a creaking 1-0 home win, in front of 2,500 souls lost in the ground that held eight times that number. I went for the top seats in the main stand, even if finding out where exactly those seats were was none too easy with no ground plan outside. Paying just 150Kc (about £3.75) was very welcome. In an era when in cost per minute, premiership football is more costly than a premium rate phone line, with it being debateable which is more of a rip-off, paying prices similar to when I first starting going over 20 years ago was good indeed. Oh for the days when I wondered if I’d stop going if it ever started to cost £5 to get in. The crowd was a good 50% higher than last time, and even though that still only amounts to around 3800, it felt considerably less empty. Reading the programme, however, or at least the bits I could read, I noticed that the three prior Slavia home games in the league accounted for a meagre three goals in total, and wondered if this match v Zlin might be similar to the game I saw last time. I hoped not. After two minutes my fears were somewhat allayed. A nice exchange of passes around the box – a feature of Czech football that would impress me throughout the whole weekend - put a Slavia player through, and he finished with ease. At least it wouldn’t finish 0-0. Four minutes later I knew it wouldn’t finish 1-0 either, as another through ball resulted in a clinically finished one-on-one. On twelve minutes it was 3-0, with a poorly placed goalkeeper (although some might suggest just being behind the Zlin defence was poor positioning on this night) being well beaten at his near post. I’m not sure what the Czech for “You might as well go home” is, but it could have been such at the Zlin fans, who barely stretched to double figures in the away end, as a fourth went in just five minutes later, just the 17th minute – this time a weak punched clearance being headed back in from the edge of the area. There was a bit of respite, including a goal being disallowed possibly though pity as well as offside, before the pick of the bunch, just before half time – with everyone waiting for a cross, the ball was just chipped with pace to drop in at the far post. Slavia were simply putting on an exhibition. 5-0 at half time and it could have been more, and was likely to be several more by the end of the game. Now I have a thing about seeing a team score seven goals. I’ve been to about 1000 games or so, and only seen more than six once (not counting a friendly in Holland, where Reading whacked 10 past a collection of players seemingly assembled from passers-by, where even Stuart Gray was able to shake off his granite-like immobility to collect four goals). I’d seen a team score six many times, but other than one hopeless 8-0 mismatch between Barcelona and a Matador Puchov of Slovakia, I’d never seen seven. It looked nigh on certain this evening, and I was starting to count my chickens when a cross was neatly tucked away for a 6th just five minutes into the second term. Zlin were being prised apart and exposed like a gynaecologist’s patient and that elusive seventh was surely a case of when, not if. Maddeningly, the Slavia players and management had other ideas. Fair enough, with a champions league tie coming up, the better players would be subbed to rest them, but the rest, rather than going for the throat, went about performing party-pieces for what would be a disappointing party. The chances dried up, even if a Zlin defender did his best to enliven things but chipping his keeper, before amazingly getting back to clear from right under his own crossbar. A seventh goal eventually did come, but amazing it came from Zlin. A rare corner was flicked in, sending about 3 of the Zlin fans wild for a second of two. But with time running of, those Slavia players just showed what little teases they been, and another Slavia corner was headed in at the near post to complete the rout with just a minute left to play. I was happy, and remained happy on the bus back to the metro station, even if I yet again demonstrated my ability to be a kind of magnet to drunken football fans who seemingly wish to sing loudly into my ear. We established quickly that I spoke no Czech, just as easily as I established he was a single man of no fixed opportunity, who no doubt possessed a nickname related to his drinking prowess. Saying that, he wasn’t the only one to reduce Praha to one syllable in a beery tribute to the might of “Slavia Praaarrr”. With a trip to Mlada Boleslav being discounted as a possibility, what with it being too much of a risk to go without a ticket to such a tiny ground, and also having no desire to contribute in any way to the wages of the Mlada Boleslav players I’d met earlier, I chose to travel down to the town of Ceske Budejovice in the deep south of the country, and see the home team take on SAID Most. Their ground there wasn’t that much bigger, but with the two clubs occupying the bottom two places in the division, I didn’t anticipate getting in being much of a problem. Ceske Budejovice isn’t an amazing town, but it’s pleasant enough. For starters you arrive by bus at a bus station which sits on top of a brand new shopping mall, which is something of a shock compared to other Czech bus stations, which look like they should smell of turds and rust. I’m convinced Prague’s Holesovice station, pronounced “holleyshevitza” is an incorrect spelling of “shitholevitza”, for example, so grim and neglected does it look. Nobody visits for the bus station though, it has to be said. In fact most don’t visit at all, and just move on to the almost absurdly picturesque Cesky Krumlov down the road, but having already been there, I made for the centre. Even if there’s not a huge amount in the rest of the town, Ceske Budejovice’s main square is a gem, as well as being the biggest in the Czech Republic, and is also overlooked by a high medieval tower, the likes of which I always feel compelled to climb. It perhaps not best to visit Ceske Budejovice on a Sunday though. While it may be free of crowds, none of the restaurants around the square seemed to be supplying what I’ve previously assumed to be the most basic pre-requisite of a restaurant – namely food. Eventually I did find one, in a hotel on the square, and as fine and authentically Bohemian as any meal from a hotel restaurant could ever be, it did put me back on my schedule for the day. Not that that was exactly a serious blow though. OK, I had to forego a visit to the small torture museum en route to the stadium, but I doubt it’ll be the main regret of my life when I’m on my death bed. I didn’t expect a big crowd for this match, but it did strike me as odd that as I walked to the stadium, there didn’t seem to be anyone else doing likewise. I had a horrible feeling that this game might have been re-arranged at very short notice too, something of a feature of Czech football that makes arranging football weekends a tad problematic, and as I didn’t have a ticket back to Prague until over 3 hours later, it would not have made my day. I’ve seldom been so pleased to see a programme seller as I was that day – the game was indeed on, even if nobody else seemed to be going. Armed with a main stand ticket (a mere 120Kc) I tried to purchase my usual souvenir scarf from the club shop, only to be thwarted as they’d sold out. That was a bit of a surprise, as absolutely nobody, apart from a couple of kids, seemed to be wearing one. Maybe the print run was very limited. The lack of popularity might have been due to the colour. It seems that until recently Ceske Budejovice played in black and white. Certainly the badge was that colour (even if the stadium is blue), but there appears to have been a bit of “re-branding” along the line somewhere, and the club colours can perhaps best be described as “dark pink” (with the badge now dark pink and black), and for some curious reason this didn’t seem to have been universally accepted by the terrace regulars. A dark pink and black scarf would have been “interesting” to say the least, although I’d have to remember to take it off before I went back to Prague, lest I got beaten up by thugs thinking I’d just come back from a gay pride march. Three sides of the stadium were clearly new, and looking very much like the smart but basic one-tier tier stands at Mlada Boleslav, albeit about twice the size. They even had the same blue vaulted roofs over the stands and blue seats. I guess they don’t do them in dark pink. One end was much thinner than the others, with only five rows of seats, behind which was a sort of cheap imitation gothic tower of no apparent purpose. I was hoping to see a fan watching for free out of one of the windows, but nobody did. The game itself would have to go a long way to follow on for the Slavia one, but for a while it looked like it might. Again, some very slick passing and movement around the area created a number of early openings, but failings in front of goal, more comical than clinical, were reminders that these were the division’s bottom two. Slowly but surely the passes got a little longer and a little less considered, until at times it resembled a stereotypical match from the English lower divisions, but with less idea of actually how to play a longer game. Luckily, as the game seemed to be drawing to its inevitable goalless conclusion, both sides were struck by an invigorating bout of panic and desperation, as if they’d been informed there were snipers on the roof ready to take action if it ended 0-0. Just as I was considering ducking out a shade early to make sure I caught that 7.30 bus, with the walk back to the station looking like being at least 10 minutes longer than the 15 I’d imagined, a messy cross dropped for a Ceske Budejovice player to turn in the box and scuff a shot past the keeper and just inside the post for an 87th minute winner. In truth it was still an awful game, but the icing of the goal made it a much more palatable cake, and the two and a half hour bus journey home seemed a lot less long than it could have done. But then again I wasn’t one of the many unlucky ones who had to stand for the whole trip, and at least there was an “in-drive” movie. OK, it was in Czech, and I couldn’t see any of it because the aisle was chock full of people, but it did at least sound interesting. My last game of the three was the following evening in Zizkov, the slightly ragged around the edges district of Prague behind the main railway station. The ground is overlooked, or at least appears to be before you try walking there up the hill, by the Zizkov Tower. The sleek grey three-legged 700 foot tall television transmitter does look somewhat out of place in the heart of this residential district, and the decision, several years after it was built, to soften the imagine of it by liberally adorning the legs of the tower with models of giant climbing babies, is perhaps one of the more unusual decisions in the world of city planning. I’d first seen Zizkov’s stadium on a non-matchday six years previously. Then it had no floodlights and only three sides, and two of those had terracing which could have been harvested, so copious was the foliage growing through the cracks in the concrete. Now it at least had four sides, and was, as are all Czech top division grounds, all-seated. Despite the parkland behind the main stand, the ground itself still manages to find itself shoe-horned in among the surrounding buildings as if needing to huddle up against them for warmth on the colder evenings. It certainly gave the ground a certain character that modern stadiums can seldom match, even if in a different setting the actual structure of it wouldn’t be anything to write home about. The new stand at the end added twelve rows of red seats that would have offered possibly the best view of any end in Europe, overlooking Prague’s old town against a setting sun, if only there wasn’t a damn great grey/brown office block in the way. Those seats were in the open though, and as I’d purchased my ticket in advance on one of the earlier rainy days I’d opted for the cover of the “Hlavni Tribuna” or main stand (although I’d imagine that the “Hlavni Tribuna” at Mlada Boleslav is actually about 2 miles down the road from the pitch), a bargain 100Kc, or £2.50. The club official on duty, working out of a battered portakabin at the corner of the ground, can’t be used to people asking for tickets three days in advance, as he initially assumed I was after a tram ticket, and was directing me to the nearest tobacconists. This game, between Viktoria Zizkov and Banik Ostrava, was thankfully better than the Ceske Budejovice match, but wasn’t close to the Slavia one. There were still plenty of nice touches around the box, but in a curious mix of genius and incompetence, they weren’t coming off. A Zizkov winger with white boots, nearly always the sign of a player who’ll flatter to deceive, clearly thought himself to be the Czech Cristiano Ronaldo, but while his footwork could be impressive, the direction of his crosses often implied that it wasn’t white boots he needed so much as a white stick. It was interesting, but not quite exciting. Indeed, for the first half the most entertaining thing was the Banik Ostrava fans themselves, who made far more noise, without so much as a hint of roof, than I’ve ever heard 400 or so fans make. The second half kicked off with it being 6.15, with the gloom of dusk descending. By 6.30 it was becoming apparent that they really out to have turned on the floodlights by now. As neither the scoreboard, nor any of the lights in the stand appeared to be functioning either, I did wonder if someone had forgotten to put a few crowns in the meter. I hadn’t seen football played in such darkness since evening games of my youth, and I was just about expecting the players to be called in by their mothers when one by one, the bulbs in the floodlights flickered into life. At about the same time the scoreboard came back to life, with the time clearly being bumped along manually until the time caught up. The game improved a bit after Banik Ostrava took the lead – sidefooting a cross in, which seemed to take everyone by surprise. Viktoria Zizkov doubled their efforts and things got a bit heated. This prompted an odd sight after a Zizkov foul lead to the Ostrava physio coming on. Usually a club physio wears a track suit or similar, like a subliminal message that he’s part of the team. The Banik Ostrava physio (I assume that was his job) was more in keeping with the uncompromising image of their supporters, rushing on in jeans and an eastern cut leather jacket, and you felt somewhere an all-night taxi was missing its driver. Right at the death the game was sealed for the away side, when a cross was met with a shot which took a horrible deflection past a stranded keeper. Banik Ostrava probably deserved it. Their fans certainly did, but with my usual nominal support for the home side it was ever so slightly disappointing. 2-0 it finished. There would be no Viktoria for Zizkov tonight. The wet and miserable Mlada Boleslav The Zlin keeper wouldn’t be alone for long About as focussed as the Zlin defence, a shot of Slavia making it 3-0.