Hidegkuti Nándor | “Now we’re cooking, chef!”

MTK Budapest 0-3 Gyirmót FC

📍 Hidegkuti Nándor | Budapest, HU
🏆 OTP Bank Liga
⚽ Hungary (Tier 1)
📅 Fri 5 Nov 21 | 8.00pm
🎟️ €7 | Att: 1,545

I ’m in the iconic city of Budapest because it’s soon to be my 33rd birthday, and Mrs Bore Draw has joined me for a romantic weekend getaway. This, as you may have guessed, can only mean three things: wistful walks along the Danube, authentic blood-red Hungarian goulash, and – of course – some hardcore Friday-night NB I action at the Hidegkuti Nándor Stadium.

Before we go on, I should submit my case for the defence; Mrs Bore Draw has previous for enabling my footballing addictions. Many moons ago, she postponed our first date because it clashed with the Champions League final, and she has long since learnt to “give me an hour” following Cardiff City’s latest inevitable disaster show. That said, MTK Budapest v Gyirmót is not an easy sell for anyone (especially given each club’s league position), and our attendance at the match is based on the carefully negotiated agreement that we’ll give Ferencváros II a miss on Sunday morning. The sacrifices I make, eh?

With that, we brave all 3°C of the numbing central European cold, and head out to the Józsefváros district, a 10-minute drive from the city centre.

As with my visit to the Generali Arena in Vienna last month, the pre-match culinary festivities take place in a petrol station-based McDonald’s (who said romance is dead), although this allows me to siphon the WiFi and regale Mrs BD with the remarkable tribulations of MTK’s storied history.

MTK: A Fallen Giant

Founded by Jewish businessmen in the late 19th century (and thus known as the city’s “Jewish club”), MTK attracted enormous success during Hungary’s amateur era in the 1920s and 30s. Following Soviet occupation, the club was then “adopted” by the country’s secret police – the notorious ÁVH – resulting (unsurprisingly) in further domestic dominance in the early 1950s.

It was during this period, of course, that Hungarian football was radically changing the entire face of the game on an international scale. Yet while the Army team, Honvéd, yielded the nucleus of the famous “Mighty Magyars” side, it was MTK that provided one of its most important components: the deep-lying forward, Nándor Hidegkuti.

Following Hidegkuti’s death in 2002, MTK (operating, at the time, under the guise of MTK Hungária) renamed their stadium after England’s one-time tormentor, and this posthumous honour was kept intact when the club moved to their new home in 2016.

Exterior of the Hidegkuti Nándor stadium in Budapest, Hungary.

Despite their historic standing, however, MTK have had little to shout about in recent years. Since their last title win in 2008, they have been relegated from the Hungarian top flight twice, and look set to struggle again this year; as a result, average attendances have dipped significantly, especially when compared with city rivals Honvéd and Ferencváros.

This is actually evident as I queue for my pre-match beer, with many of the evening’s attendees clearly not local. Behind me, for instance, are two Germans gravely concerned that their bank card will be declined and beer service refused (upon seeing that my own card has been accepted, the taller of the two excitedly grabs me and declares “now we are cooking, chef!”), while behind them an excitable stag do from Manchester fail in their attempts to (a) get the “Allez Allez Allez” chant going and (b) ingratiate themselves to the few regulars who are in attendance. As I head out back to the stand, I also spot several Celtic fans, stragglers, no doubt, from their club’s Europa League clash with Ferencváros the previous evening.

Opponents Gyirmót, meanwhile, are considerably younger, having been founded as recently as 1993. Based in the historically significant county town of Győr (Ottoman War buffs will be familiar), they have risen slowly but steadily through the ranks of Hungarian football, and were promoted to the top flight for the second time in their history last season.

It’s fair to say, then, that consolidation is the club’s primary objective this season, positioning tonight’s clash as a potential relegation six-pointer.

Walls Caving In at the Hidegkuti Nándor

The ground itself is, as mentioned, a new build, located in a quiet residential area a mile or so from the impressive Puskás Aréna (home of the Hungarian national team). It’s so striking, in fact, that when we drive past it, our Bolt driver attempts to taper my subsequent expectations for the Hidegkuti Nándor with a sheepish apology.

This is unwarranted, though; while the stadium is indeed small and lacking in punch from the outside, there’s enough going on inside it to differentiate it from the norm. Like Selhurst Park in Croydon, it’s deceptively well-hidden and could easily be mistaken for a leisure centre at first glance, but it’s also a modern and sleek 4* production, fully compliant with UEFA’s notorious administrative standards.

There are some obvious design flaws from a supporter’s point of view; while the MTK ultras group together in Block 1 of the Hungária stand, for instance, the away fans are located at the far end of the same stand. This creates a distinct lack of atmosphere, with the two most vocal sets of supporters inside the ground unable to even see each other, let alone riff and compete in displays of visual and auditory superiority.

Of course, it’s also impossible to talk about the aesthetics of the Hidegkuti Nándor without mentioning those walls. Brutalist and uncompromising at both ends of the field, they are striking in their suddenness; for the attacking side, it must feel like bearing down on the ultra-fortified concrete tapestry of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, rather than the opposition goal.

Strangely, this was actually a conscious design decision by the club, who, in the initial blueprints, opted to rotate the field to accommodate more corporate boxes. According to StadiumDB, this has created the largest box-to-seat ratio in any stadium globally, with fans – perhaps in a nod to their Jewish history (or simply out of exasperation for their team’s miserable performances) – designating the resulting anomalies the “Wailing Walls”.

If such attempts to inject a faith-based slant are understandable, it’s hard to say it works; in a recent blog post, the Budapest-based groundhopper Kevin McLuskie noted that the walls conjure up “the air of a prison yard”, and this is a more agreeable take. Indeed, as the game starts, I half expect Mean Machine‘s The Monk, shaven-headed and deranged, to race out of goal at any moment and hack down an unsuspecting centre forward.

Crimes against stadium design? Or a sign of character?

Unfortunately, Jason Statham has since moved onto bigger and better things (well, bigger, anyway), and the walls themselves act as nothing more than a cushion for most of the early attempts on goal. MTK do fashion themselves into several good areas (primarily through the attacking willingness of Colombian left back Sebastián Herrera), but the end product inevitably errs on the wilder side of the composure scale.

Gyirmót, for the most part, are happy to soak up this pressure and half-threaten on the counter, with MTK giving the impression that their clearly frangible confidence is there to be shattered. It’s no surprise, then, that this is exactly what happens in the 42nd minute, when Hungarian left back Vince Szegi arrows a fierce half volley into the top right corner, catching MTK keeper Milan Mijatović unawares.

On the stroke of half-time Gyirmót miss a glorious chance to double their lead, Mijatović saving well from point-blank range, but the respite of half time clearly has little effect; first András Simon, and then namesake András Csonka seal the points in the second half. It may be as a result of the biting cold, but as Mrs BD calls time and we make our exit, the mood in the stadium seems to be one of resigned apathy rather than anything approaching disappointment, frustration, or even anger.

The disposition of the 30 or so Gyirmót fans that have braved the cold is in stark contrast, of course, with their enthusiastic drummer taking home not just the glow of 3 points, but the distinction of being the least rhythmic percussionist I’ve ever encountered. Not that he will care; tonight’s result sees them draw level on points with MTK and, indeed, overtake them into 10th place, ensuring a happy trip back east.

Next up for MTK is a Budapest derby against fellow strugglers Honvéd, while Gyirmót host Kisvárda.

It would be remiss of me to write about football in Budapest and not mention the wonderful Derby Football Shop, a small, independent labour of love located in a small courtyard off Váci utca (the city’s main shopping throughfare).

The owner – a Vasas SC fan – has amassed an incredible inventory of modern and historical pennants, pins, shirts, photographs, magazines, and other memorabilia, with many of the items in the store acquired through trades and donations from fans across the world. The result is more akin to a museum than a shop, and if we hadn’t been in a rush to get to the airport, I genuinely could have spent a whole afternoon scanning through the many wares on offer – particularly the extensive collection of Soviet-era badges and pennants.

If you’re ever in Budapest, I heartily recommend checking out the store (you can also follow it on Instagram and Facebook).

Postscript: This was as good as it got for Gyirmót, while there was no improvement for MTK either; both sides were eventually relegated and will play second tier football in the 2022-23 season. They can both feel free to blame my wife.