Since I’ve been watching Vasas I’ve been astonished by the club’s openness and support. I got to go on a stadium tour, have been welcomed by the supporters clubs and last week I was able to interview Vasas’s free-scoring attacking midfielder Botond Birtalan at the club’s home in District XIII.
Botond more than lived up to the “Nice Guy Botond” nickname that my matchday buddy Mike bestowed on him several months ago, and we talked at length about this season, his trial in Engand, the return to the newly-rebuilt Illovszky Rudolf Stadium, and the team’s upcoming promotion bid.
Thanks to Sandor Dobos for his help sorting out the interview.
You’ve just missed out on promotion after a good run, what’s the mood like in the team at the moment?
It’s a difficult situation. When the new coach [Károly Szanyó] came six months ago we started to play well. Before that we were 14 points away from promotion but after the change we started to realise – hey – we are Vasas, we’re good players. The mood changed. We won eight in a row and closed to two or three points from the promotion places. If we’d finished here at the beginning of the season it would have been be disappointing, but from where we were in November this is a good outcome.
Under [previous manager] Károly Kis the team tended to come out slowly in the second half…
Yes, something changed, Károly Kis is a different manager to Szanyó, but he was also unlucky. We were making the same mistakes as him, but when a team plays badly, it’s the manager that gets fired, not the players. But the maestro [Szanyó] came in and found out what was best for the team, y’know? The positions: Ádi [Ádám Balajti], me on the right side, Szatmári Lóránd back, Király on the left…everything became more comfortable.
You played for Vasas when you were young right?
Yeah, I started here when I was 9.
So what happened?
I played here from age 9 ’til age 11 and then went to Ferencvaros, I played there for 3 years then came back to Vasas until I was 16. Then I went to Sopron in the top division. The manager had come from there to watch me – back then I was a striker and was scoring a lot so he said “I want this player for the first team”. At 16 I went over there to Sopron and it turned out to be a good decision for me. Vasas weren’t happy but I had the chance to play in the top division and that’s a big thing at that age.
How was your time at Sopron?
I was there for three years. It was fine; I was very young but I got to play with the best in Hungary. I mean of course it was difficult at 16 and I made some mistakes but it was enjoyable. It’s a little sad because they’re down in the third division now.
Did you support Vasas as a kid then?
Yeah because I grew up here. My parents live in District XIII and whenever I came home on a break or vacation from other clubs I was back here in Angyalföld. Now I live here, my mother and father do too. My Dad’s a big Vasas fan. He comes to all the games, so whenever I score I can picture him in my head congratulating me. I know he’s very proud of me.
So what do I need to know about this club as an outsider?
If you go to other countries and they know anything about Hungarian football history, it’s the three: Ferencvaros, Ujpest and Vasas, because of the games in Europe. It’s hard now in Division 2 because all the other teams know us and they all raise their game against us. Everyone want to beat Vasas no we’re down here. When they play each other they want to win, but against us it’s different. The players want to have the kudos of scoring in that game. They give 200%, so we need to be ready.
Vasas reminds me a little of my hometown team (Middlesbrough): the ironworking history and that historical expectation of being in the top flight.
Yeah I saw that. They used to be a good team. Where are Middlesbrough now?
Haha! Championship. They just missed the playoffs. Similar situation to Vasas but without the excitement.
Five years ago they were in the Premier League yeah?
Aye, in and out. They used to be regulars up there. Southgate, the England manager was our captain and manager at one point.
When I was younger I went for a trial in England. At Sheffield United.
Really? They just went up to the Premier League.
Ahh. My manager at Sopron told me they wanted to see me. They had a good team them. Kazim Kazim was there (Colin Kazim-Richards), Rob Hulse…I’m trying to remember who the captain was. Anyway, the trial went well and the boss told me if they had stayed up I would have gone there, but they got relegated. Changed the coach and the team. That’s football. You can have all the talent and work hard but the most important thing is luck.
You must feel now that you’re approaching your prime, given the way you’ve played the last few years. You’re scoring and assisting a lot more [Birtalan was involved in 23 goals this year and was the league’s top-scorer last year]. What’s changed?
It’s hard because in my career it’s always been 8 or 10 goals a season, but then at Békéscsaba [Birtalan’s previous club before Vasas] the coach Gábor Boér put his trust in me as a striker and I was the top scorer in the league.
For me this trust was the most important. If I make a mistake I know that I’m not going to be out of the team next week. Everyone makes mistakes, but having trust and confidence from the coach has made me a better player. If I don’t score one week I know it’s coming in next game.
You and [top scorer] Ádám Balajti have built a great partnership recently…
Yeah, our system is that he’s the first striker and I’m playing from the right. So if he drops back and I move up. He’s fantastic: penalties, one-touch football, scoring goals. It’s easy to play one-two passes with him. And the whole team: Szatmári, [Botond] Király, Ádi [Ádám Balajti], we know each other’s thinking. I don’t have to shout or call for the ball from them, I just go and know the ball is coming. I’ve assisted 14 this year and they’ve helped me in return with assists.
Balajti’s a great penalty taker. He reminds me of a Yakubu, just rolling it in after a lazy run-up.
He’s the best. Last season I scored 6 out of 7 penalties [at Békéscsaba] but here…every Saturday we practice with the three keepers and even though they know him he still scores, so he’s always going to be first choice. For me he reminds me of Mendieta. Same technique.
He played for us too!
Yeah, this is why I know you! When he was at Valencia he was one of my favourites.
He still lived near Middlesbrough after he retired. I think he played for Sunday League teams or pub teams or something.
*laughs* But he’s from Spain, why?
I honestly don’t know. I think he just felt at home there. *laughs* – So what kind of penalty taker are you?
I like to go for the centre.
Like Panenka style?
Haha, no! But I like to give the keeper the eyes and wait for him. But as I said to Ádi, if I tried to shoot like you I’d miss. I like to wait, but not as long as he does. If I tried his way I’d get afraid and knock it wide.
So speaking of you and Balajti. After last year’s relegation you’re the senior players in a very young team now. A lot of the older players moved on and the team relies a lot on youth. How do you deal with that responsibility?
We’ve got a good balance here between the old and younger players. Old meaning like 30 years old – *laughs* – sometimes of course younger players make mistakes, but this is the youngest team in the league and we came 4th. With younger players like [goalkeeper] Bese for example – he has a lot of talent but the expectation is a bit lower. If they have a bad match every four games it’s ok. For us it’s more pressure. Around one bad game in ten is the most people expect. It takes time to reach that level though.
I like how [midfielder] Milan Kovacs has developed this year.
Yeah and it’s good he’ll still be young next year.
What do you mean?
We have a rule here that you have to play two young players and he’ll still be under that age next year. I think it’s players born in 98/99 at the moment. It’s great for him because it means he has a good chance to get game time next year instead of another young player coming in and taking his place because he’s too old for the rule. Plus he’s already got some confidence from this year so he can grow.
You must feel you have a good chance next year of going up. Is the team going to stay together?
I hope so. I’m definitely staying and I’ve heard that the spine of the team will stay together. We’re top of the form table from when Szanyó took over until now so we have a good chance.
What do you need to strengthen next year?
Of course we want to add a few players because a few loan players may return to their clubs this summer. But if most players stay we have a strong chance for promotion.
It must be a big boost coming back to Angyalföld next year and the new stadium. It’s a bit odd for me as I’ve only seen you play in Ujpest.
You came to the stadium tour though?
Yeah but I’ve never seen a game here.
Ujpest was a good stadium but more people will come here because it’s local. It’s our place, our stadium and that’s important. You look around and you see this is a fantastic, beautiful ground. You come here and it’s like playing in England. With many of the stadiums we play in there’s a big difference between England and here; There’s a lot of small, old stadiums. In football the feeling and atmosphere is very important.
I know what you mean, I went to some of the older stadiums like in Budafok and they’re quite dated.
Yeah, and you come here and you feel it. It feels like a top division team.
You must be eager to score that first goal in the new stadium right?
I thought about this and thought, “What’s the first goal?” – in the friendly against DAC? Or the first league game.
Just score in both.
Yeah, to be sure.
Speaking of memorable moments, what’s your biggest one in football?
When I played for Békéscsaba I scored a scorpion-kick from 20 metres.
Yeah, it was a big deal. I was on the Metro website in the UK, all the news here. It changed everything. It was four years ago and after I scored it – it was lucky I know – but after I felt – hey – I’m lucky, I can do anything. There was a little change in my belief.
Speaking of which, do you have any pre-match routine or superstitions?
Sometimes I don’t score for five matches then I score five in the next two. And I always think – what’s changed? I don’t know! This year I started with six games and only one goal. Then later we had games like the 7-4 against Vác…
That was amazing. I’ve never seen so many goals in a game.
I know! Anyway before that game…I’ve always liked basketball, when I was young it was always football and basketball. So I called my brother on Sunday morning – hey Balázs, come and play basketball with me for a while, and in the game later that day I scored two. So now I try to play a little in the morning before the games. It worked against Dorog and Soroksár.
I’m no footballer but I imagine many of you guys are superstitious.
Because you have to believe something. It gives you more power and control.
Quick questions: Does Ádám Balajti wear shin pads?
Haha! Little ones. He’s bigger than me but I don’t understand how he can play like that. And the referee always says, “Ádám, come on, you’ll get injured”.
Who’s the best player you’ve ever played with or against?
At Sopron I played with [Giuseppe] Signori when I was 16. I don’t know how! He lived here for a year. He was the best, of course he was 36 and getting old but his left-foot was still fantastic and he was still a wonderful player. As for Hungarian – [Zoltan] Gera. Definitely.
Yeah, he’s probably the most famous recent Hungarian player in England. He was great at West Brom.
And Ádám Bogdán at Liverpool too. I know him because he started at Vasas too.
Ready to get promoted and test yourself in NBi?
Definitely. We had a call last year from a top division team about me but I said that when I play in that league again, I want it to be for Vasas.
Who’s going to win the Champions League?
I wanted Barcelona in the semis! Incredible game. I think Liverpool will get it. Barcelona’s problem is playing away. When Messi gets on an airplane…nothing. Klopp and the whole Liverpool team are fantastic.