Peterjon Cresswell visits Trnava, home of Spartak, a legendary European name of the 1970s. Celebrated at the Central Pub opposite their stadium currently being rebuilt, this Spartak side once took on Cruyff’s Ajax in a European semi-final. On Thursday, Spartak host St Johnstone at Zlate Moravce, a Europa League tie that could lead to best-ever progress in Europe since the era of legendary coach Anton Malatinsky.
In the back bar of the rather excellent Central Pub, on a quiet corner overlooking the building site shaping up to be the City Arena, a wall has been turned into a shrine to Anton Malatinsky and the team he created.
When Malatinsky was manager, this team, Spartak Trnava, were five-time national champions and reached Europe’s top four. This was Spartak’s golden era, from the late 1960s to mid 1970s, celebrated at the Central.
Malatinsky, a Spartak player (and Slovak international) in the 1940s, Spartak youth coach after the war and connected with the club’s managerial side in different periods from 1948 to 1976, is best known for his tactical savvy. A former playmaker himself, he taught the likes of Ladislav Kuna and Jozef Adamec in the ways of creating space and intelligent movement.
Spartak, the White Angels, won the old Czechoslovak championship five times in six seasons, in a league featuring strong Dukla Prague and Slovan Bratislava sides, whose players would lift the European Championship for Czechoslovakia in 1976 – just as Spartak’s golden era was drawing to a close.
Malatinsky left Spartak in 1976 and died in 1992. A year later, Slovakia’s weaker, stand-alone league was created. Since then, only three Slovak clubs have made the group stage of the Champions League, and Spartak aren’t one of them. Unlike, say, Artmedia Bratislava or MFK Ruzomberok, Spartak haven’t lifted a single Slovak title despite more than two decades of trying.
But a third-placed finish in 2013-14 has given access to the Europa League and, given the 2-1 score in Perth last week, every chance of Spartak’s progress to the play-off round. All depends on this Thursday’s second leg, being played at Zlate Moravce 75km from Trnava. The right result against St Johnstone, and Spartak equal their best European performance since 1974 – since Malatinsky.
Manager of the current side, Trnava-born Juraj Jarábek, is son of the Spartak centre-back in the Malatinsky era, Stanislav, who also coached Trnava ten years ago. Teenage prodigy Dominik Ujlaky is the cousin of Marek, the 40-time Slovak international who shared in Spartak’s solitary success of the independent era, the cup win of 1998. Marek is currently assistant coach at the club. Even the revered Ladislav Kuna, his No.9 shirt retired in perpetuity, was club chairman for six years until his death in 2012.
There’s a sense of continuation, of decades of football tradition. There are also, of course, the fans, the Ultras Spartak, almost as loud, as colourful and as co-ordinated – if not as numerous – as their Italian counterparts from the 1980s.
Theirs is the mural on the road that leads from the stadium to the Central Pub, images of Spartak support, the town of Trnava itself and the former Amfik Café, whose closure left a gap until the opening of the Central this spring.
Supporter numbers are being kept deliberately low in 2014-15 as domestic fixtures at the ground are being limited to 3,300 while building work goes on around. Almost as low as a busy night in the pub itself, in fact, with its two rooms and beer garden.
The main stand of the stadium where Malatinsky’s men took on Cruyff’s Ajax and Clough’s Derby still bears the name of the legendary manager. Though three-quarters of it now a shell set by Trnava’s crumbling medieval city walls, the words ‘Stadión Antona Malatinského’ (Stadium of Anton Malatinsky’) can still clearly be seen. The venue was renamed after him the year of that cup win, 1998.
Even the forces of commerce, retail and marketing – once ready for the 2015-16 season, the new venue will be both a shopping mall and football stadium – have permitted the new venue to retain Malatinsky’s name beside the new one of City Arena.
Meanwhile on the pitch, youth has been brought to the fore. The signing of Spaniard Jose Casado, on Barcelona’s books as a teenager, adds flair to a midfield that also features 17-year-old Nikolas Spalek, a Spartak debutee last March. Up front, 20-year-old Ivan Schranz bagged the two goals that beat St Johnstone in the first leg of last week’s Europa League tie.
Come next spring, the wall of the Central Pub might just have displays of Spartak heroes of a different, more contemporary, era.