Football: Wish you were here: You'd love the footy

Kosice: United's brush with history; Guy Hodgson watches the unknown charm the visitors from the new red army
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The Independent Online
It is a great thing to be a footballer on a trip into Europe. Pampered, given preferential treatment, the airlines could not do more for you, right? Not in Manchester United's case.

The voice of an embarrassed pilot came over the intercom as the team waited to start the trip into the unknown - Kosice to be precise, which is what the cabin crew were not. "I'm afraid we have missed the take-off slot because no one informed us we had it," the voice said. "Our next is in either 10 minutes or an hour." You guessed it, the plane left the tarmac 75 minutes after the published time of departure.

Not that the ranks further down the line were any better briefed. "The temperature in Katowice is..." a stewardess said. Which was lovely if you wanted a thermo-guide to Europe. What about Kosice, you know, the place we were going to?

Undeterred, she announced on touchdown: "Welcome to Slovenia." By then it would not have been a surprise if the delights of Slough greeted the passengers when the doors were thrown open. But the navigator knew what he was doing even if others were a little hazy and sunlight shone on Slovakia as disorientated multi-million-pound footballers disembarked.

Football and Slovakia go together - it is one of those places in central Europe which has been kicked from power to power like an old tin can. Bouncing between the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires for centuries, it formed part of Czechoslovakia until the country split four years ago.

FC Kosice, the main team in the country's second city, could embody the nation's story. Their roots lie in both the Slovak-Carpathian and the Hungarian Leagues but they were formed only in 1992 when two clubs joined together. Unfortunately the mood of union did not last until Wednesday's match because as United touched down, Kosice's coach was taking off, throwing "someone inside the club is against me" behind him.

The air of disharmony, however, did not extend to the town, whose elegant 18th-century centre embraced even the most malevolent-looking of the 500 to 800 Manchester United supporters. "A lovely place," one said, to which the travelling police officers replied that beauty is in the eye of the law upholder. "Too many nooks and crannies," he responded, worried that thuggery might be going on down the picturesque alleys.

Instead most people were so disarmed by the welcome they received they did tourist things. In Kosice's cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece, Brian McClair was seen, a sole culture vulture in the United party. The rumour goes round that Andy Cole also tried to make it to the church but he missed the crosses.

So pleasant was the atmosphere that the first jarring note was hit halfway through the match, and it was hardly earth-shattering. "We're in because we won the League," the United fans chanted, the point of qualification pedantics lost on Kosice, who are the Slovakian champions. The explanation: "It makes the blood boil in Newcastle," cut little ice with the locals.

As did the referee who missed a shirt tug by Gary Pallister in the area which, if it had been more blatant, would have left the Slovakian substitute topless. Kosice, known as the Tigers, sometimes have a live animal parade round the perimeter track and on Wednesday, the supporters would gladly have supplied Mr Sundell for the mascot's supper.

A score of 3-0 did not do the home team justice but as United found when they re-entered Europe, naivety is usually punished at this level. Welcome to the Champions' League, Kosice, and probably "Welcome to Manchuria" for the return match in November.