Date: 22 August 2020 / League: Polish fifth tier
Final Score: 1-3 / Attendance: approx. 350
Tarnow might not be good at playing football, but the town’s teams are good at playing up at football. The two main clubs, Unia and Tarnovia, aren’t shy in making the wrong kind of splash when it comes to football headlines, and matches between the two fall just short of a localized civil war.
This match was not a derby, but it did pitch Unia against a smaller side that, in the past, has enjoyed a friendship with Tarnovia. With away fans now often banned from derbies, it’s therefore fixtures like this that allow the two foes a chance to meet via their support of outside forces. Confused? So Am I.
Anyway, this match was given added meaning through the fact that one faction of Unia’s ultras, the WBF, were celebrating their fifth anniversary of formation; with all that to digest, I had high hopes that this could turn out to be one of those matches that goes unexpectedly mental.
It’s with great fondness I remember growing up visiting places like The Manor Ground, Griffin Park, Gay Meadow and The Den. Their names alone were enough to conjure and capture the magic of football. And young as I was, even then I realized that a good stadium demanded a good name.
So welcome to Poland, a country where many football grounds are titled after their sponsor – the Polsat Arena Plus and suchlike. Even more though have just given up entirely on the creative process to simply follow domestic protocol and tag themselves as being MOSiR (in English: Municipal Recreation & Sports Stadium). With that in mind, damn right my ears wiggled when I heard that Unia played their games in a place called The Swallow’s Nest.
Bad news: it definitely was not the tight, intimate ground the name suggested – used primarily as a motocross venue, it’s actually a vast oval megalith separated from the pitch by a muddy, sandy track.
But that’s not to say that the Swallow’s Nest isn’t short of character. Straight away you notice the floodlights, immense giants that totter over the rest of the ground like a supermodel in heels. Coloured in a smart navy blue from the outside, from the inside the ground opens up like a peacock’s feathers to show its true immensity. Though officially holding 15,000, it easily feels three or four times more.
Inconsistent in its height, for the most part the stadium has been left open. The remaining bit, incongruously, is an odd collection of covered wooden benches, steps and wobbles – and the occasional discarded can of tinned peas and carrots.
If at first the size is disconcerting given the gaping gaps between spectators, the ground did grow on me. If anything, the under-used capacity amplifies the details in a way that leads you to notice discarded tins of peas and carrots, ginger cats sunning their belly, and intriguing billboards that could be easily confused as adverts for brothels.
Low-key, mostly. This was just after the first lockdown, but not only did it coincide with the general depression of the time, but also that two-week gap when Poles shut up everything to go on holiday to the seaside, the mountains or the country. Not helping anything was a blistering heatwave – ill-prepared as ever, I rocked up with a hammering hangover and the kind of desperate thirst that had me thinking of doing a Bear Grills and drinking my own piss.
Everyone else must have been in similar pain as for the whole of the first half the atmosphere was diabolical (oh yeah, I forgot to say, away fans had been banned). Second half: weird. More silence followed by an atomic-powered explosion of flares, colours, flags and banners. Then, after ten minutes of unbridled pandemonium, it went back to zero. Odd, weird, surreal, etc.
I like Tarnow, but I wasn’t hanging around. The nearest station is right outside the ground, Moscice, but although this was once regarded as a pearl of Polish post-war modernist architecture, today the station is such a battered and derelict wreck that I actually though it was no longer operational. I was just leaving it, literally scrabbling over mounds of debris, when a train pulled up and took me back to Krakow. Whether or not you’ll be so lucky, I’ve really no idea.