A Scottish man walked out of a bar…

Bring up the topic of football stadiums in Hungary and you’re guaranteed eyes will roll. So many have been built in recent years it’s laughable. The Field of Dreams approach of build it and they will come hasn’t quite worked out. These magnificent edifices stand against a backdrop of somewhat mediocre football in a country that is waiting (im)patiently for the second coming of the Aranycsapat (the Golden Team) of the 1950s.

Mention football to me and you’re guaranteed my eyes will glaze over. My passion for soccer waned when Jack Charlton left the Boys in Green to fend for themselves. While I have fond memories of Italia ’90 when the boys did Ireland proud, I prefer rugby.

But when I ran into the new Business Development Director for Vác FC the other day, I was surprised at how excited I became at the thoughts of having a Hungarian team I could support. One whose values I shared. One whose colours I could wear with pride.  Scottish-born Patrick McMenamin pulled his last pint in 2017 after a 12-year run in The Caledonia Scottish Pub in Budapest and now he’s landed his dream job. He gets to talk football all day, every day.

The second division team is currently playing in the TVE stadium in Budapest’s third district while their own is being renovated: cue eye roll. But it’s a necessary renovation to comply with the new requirement that clubs must have 600 covered seats for their viewing public. When Phase 1 of the development is finished, Vác FC will have an overall capacity of just 1350, and given that the biggest crowd in recent years numbered some 1100, this plan would seem to be based on logic rather than a pipe dream.

But Chairman John Marshall, Head Coach Zoran Spisljak, and McMenamin himself see Vác FC as more than a football stadium. In fact, the S word is an unmentionable one. What the boys are building is a facility that will be open for community use. Think meeting rooms and conference space. Think garden fetes and BBQs. Think workshops and skills sessions. The new and improved Vác FC will be heavily focused on the local community. The players, too, will benefit as schemes like Investors in People are initiated and each footballer is recognised as more than simply a fast pair of legs.

‘Football in Hungary’, says McMenamin, ‘doesn’t have enough good stories. We’re going to write a great one.’ The team is lucky, he says, in that Marshall isn’t chasing promotion. They’re aiming for a top-six finish this year, taking it one goal at a time. With the recent addition of Spisljak as Head Coach, the emphasis is now on more than simply football skills. At the cutting edge of sports coaching, Spisljak is well-regarded for his holistic approach. He recognises the importance of developing his players as people. Their working lives are short. They need to be able to do something when they retire. Any decent FC should help prepare them for life off the pitch while simultaneously developing their prowess on the pitch. And Vác FC seems to have all the hallmarks of a decent club.

I’ve been a fan of Spisljak for a number of years since seeing him work his magic with the players atBékéscsaba (I interviewed one of them for this column some years back). Couple this with Marshall’s pragmatism and McMenamin’s enthusiasm and Vác FC could well become a template for community-focused football clubs.

McMenamin’s mandate is to develop business relationships and attract investors. He’s touting the Társasági Adókedvezmény (TAO) programme whereby 50% of corporate taxes can be diverted to the club of your choice and in addition, your business will receive a 6.5% rebate on the other 50%. And yes, no doubt some eyes will be rolling at the thoughts of even more stadiums being built on the back of these diverted tax forints, but Vác is keeping it simple. ‘Fit for purpose’ was the term used. A club that develops young players, builds on their strengths, and prepares them for their post-football future. A club that works co-operatively with the local community. A club that leverages corporate social opportunity and gives businesses a reason to invest.

The more McMenamin talked about their plans, the more enthusiastic he became. He’s not a one for negativity, preferring to surround himself with positive people who believe in a shared tomorrow. A chat with Spisljak over a cup of coffee about the future of Hungarian football, led to a second coffee with Marshall and the offer of a job.

McMenamin, himself a player with the Budapest Old Boys Club, has been kicking a ball since he was seven when he played Right Wing for St Cuthbert’s RC Primary School back in his native Scotland. What he likes about the Hungarian set up is the Football Association’s commitment to developing home-grown talent. Players in the Second Division aren’t blinded by big money and fast cars; they’re honest, decent young men who wear their jerseys with pride and play their hearts out for their teams. That’s something to be nurtured.

Me? I don’t care a whit for soccer, but I was completely caught up in what this club could be. Many expats struggle to find a local team to support when they relocate. They’re not bound by club politics or traditional loyalties and the choice can be difficult if nothing is ruled out. If McMenamin has his way, busloads of us will be visiting Vác on a regular basis to support our new team and experience the local hospitality. There is life outside of Budapest, he said. It’s just waiting to be discovered.

And, were we to sit down in three years’ time, what would you be telling me, I asked. He thought for a minute and then said: I’d tell you that the city of Vác has a football club they’re extraordinarily proud of. Enough said.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 September 2018

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