This was supposed to be the first game in SC Vasas’ newly-rebuilt Illovszky Rudolf Stadium but construction is behind schedule, so instead I head up to the venue of last season’s ignominies, the Szusza Ferenc Stadium. The ground (surrounded by industrial chimney stacks in the stereotypical way that lower league venues usually are) is in Újpest, the 4th District in the very north of the city.
Újpest doesn’t really feel like Budapest (it wasn’t unified with the capital until 1950), so it’s understandable that Vasas found it difficult to adjust to playing there last season, winning only 6 of their 17 games. It’s also pretty empty: one stand is permanently closed during Vasas games, the two ends behind the goals are home to the sparse Vasas Ultras and away supporters (of which there are few) respectively. The main stand is where most people sit, often switching sides at half time to better see the home team’s attacks. Sunflower seeds are a popular matchday snack here, and their shells litter the ground, giving it a western saloon feel.
A lot has changed since last season. Relegation has stripped Vasas of many of their best players, including towering Canadian international defender Manjrekar James (who’s gone to Denmark) and former captain Mohamed Remili (who I think has retired, my Hungarian isn’t the best). Youth and loan players pad out a pretty sparse squad: for example, starting keeper Balázs Bese is just 19 years old, whilst the bench bears more than a passing resemblance to a crèche.
As a Middlesbrough fan, I notice some other interesting changes. Vasas play today in all-red shirts instead of their Crystal Palace-esque blue and red stripes, making me feel a little bit more at home. In Ádám Rokszin, they also have an experienced number 19 on the left wing – à la Stewart Downing – and he definitely showed the ability to whip in a few dangerous crosses like the former England man.
The mood around the ground seems pretty positive, an influx of local youth tends to foster this feeling in the lower leagues I find. The narrative of refinding your club’s identity after relegation and giving the next generation the chance to fix the mistakes of the previous one is a pervasive one. And of course, everyone’s on equal points at the start of the season. But there are worries too. Teams will raise their game against a big capital-city club fallen on hard times, and today’s opponents Monor come with the confidence of a newly-promoted club who absolutely walked their league.
There’s a new manager in charge of Vasas this year. Out goes the cerebral German Michael Oenning, instead it’s Kis Károly, stepping up from NBIII’s FC Ajka to take charge. If I asked you to describe what a Hungarian football coach looked like, you’d immediately picture Károly; a stocky, scowling figure with a cold-war haircut. You get the impression he’s the sort of coach teams turn to in these situations, like a cut-price Hungarian Sam Allardyce. Given the fact that even with their departures, the Vasas squad is worth nearly double any other team in the NBII, he’ll be expected to get them back up at the first time of asking.
Kick off was at 7pm on a swelteringly humid Sunday evening. Vasas started well, playing with the confidence of a team who know they should be popping straight back up to the top tier, and their swagger was soon rewarded by a 30-yard screamer from loanee Kristóf Hinora in the first 15 minutes.
Hinora, borrowed from Budapest-based MTK, is going to be a popular player with the fans this season. A 20 year old youth international and clearly too good for this league, Hinora is also probably the most intense player I’ve seen in Hungary. He is a gesticulator, a bug-eyed cajoler and is blessed with a standing start that Linford Christie would nod approvingly at. He absolutely flew into a few tackles so I can foresee a few suspensions in his future, but he looks like a great prospect. I can’t find a video of his first goal, but it was a hell of a hit past the Monori keeper.
After the early opener, Vasas took things a little too easy. Keeper Bese didn’t have a very reassuring game, flapping at crosses and parrying catchable shots into dangerous areas. Still, there was nothing he could do about the Monor equaliser. Barna Toth’s strike was a carbon copy of the Hinora goal, a 25-yarder easily beating the young keeper. The rest of the half saw Vasas keep the ball without really doing much with it, the intense humidity slowing the game down until the break.
We grabbed our half-time Borsodis and settled in for a tense second 45. Vasas came out much stronger in the second half, restricting Monor and bossing the midfield. Forward Martin Ádám – a burly bully up front – had a few half chances but despite the dominance a winning goal didn’t seem forthcoming.
Enter Hinora again in the 89th minute, winning the ball in midfield and galloping like a Grand National winner over a couple of Monor defenders before receiving a clever backheel and coolly stroking the ball home. It was a cathartic winner that sent the crowd into a relieved frenzy and gave Vasas a perfect start to the new season. I get the feeling that Hinora could be key to Vasas’s promotion push this year. It’ll be interesting to see if he can keep up this pace all season.
It wasn’t quite over yet. A speculative lob into the box from a Monor midfielder beat everyone, including a panicked Bese, before hitting the post. But Vasas survived and exit the first weekend with a morale-boosting three points.
SC Vasas 2-1 BSS Monor (Hinora 2. Attendance 1150)
The next few games are away, but I’ll be blogging about the next home match against Csákvári in a few weeks.
Hungarian football words learned: 1 (Sárga = yellow)