By Rhys Hartley
There are a few grounds that make it onto the bucket list. La BomboÃ±era, the Azteca, the Centenario. Actually, Iâ€™m not sure there are any on my list that are in Europe.
However, when you live in a country for long enough, you find that some grounds most people will have never heard of come to the top of your list. That was the case with me and the TvrÄ‘ava (Fortress) in Smederevo.
This charming town lies around an hour along the Danube from Belgrade, where Iâ€™ve been living for the past few years. Their football team languish in mid-table in the third tier of Serbian football (somehow in the west section despite clearly being in the east of the country). But it wasnâ€™t always doom and gloom.
The glory days
British readers may remember their heyday â€“ when they were then known as Sartid â€“ knocking Dundee out of the Intertoto Cup in 2001. Or beating Bangor City from Wales in the 2002 UEFA Cup. In fact, their 2002 run saw them take on the might of Ipswich Town in a tie that lives famously in the minds of Smederevo citizens and football lovers across Serbia!
The â€˜Despotiâ€™ (yep, Despots, nicknamed on account of the fortress built on the Danube by one of Serbiaâ€™s medieval despots, a good guy, honestly, as the city became Serbiaâ€™s capital) headed into their second-leg tie with the Tractor Boys at home with a draw and an away goal from their trip to England.
On the same night that a certain Cristiano Ronaldo was playing in front of no fans up the road (Partizan supporters were banned from watching their triumph over Sporting Lisbon), over 10,000 fans packed the ground on Smederevoâ€™s outskirts to witness what they hoped would be a famous victory. Alas, it wasnâ€™t to be, as a Marcus Bent penalty early on saw the visitors head into the next round of Europeâ€™s second competition.
Things didnâ€™t immediately go south (or west!) for Sartid from there. They won the domestic cup the following year, defeating giants Red Star in extra-time. And defeat at the same stage of the UEFA Cup the next year to Slavia Prague was by no means an embarrassment.
To bankruptcy and beyond
First-round Intertoto defeats to Dinamo Minsk in 2004 and Macedonian outfit, Pobeda, in 2005 signalled that they would no longer be able to compete at the top, and they were relegated to the second tier of Serbian football in 2008.
They bounced back at the first time of asking but were never able to rebuild that successful squad from the previous few years. They struggled in lower mid-table and lost their financial backers â€“ US Steel Serbia who owned the former Sartid Factory â€“ in 2011, with the local municipality stepping in.
Things went from bad to worse, despite the authorities insisting that the club was now in the hands of people who would do what was right for the club and town. They suffered back-to-back relegations in 2013 and 2014 and were forced to shut down completely after relegation to the third tier.
The club rose from the ashes thanks to a merger, although many people see it as an enforced takeover, with local village side Seljak Mihajlovac.
Enter Smederevo 1924
Actually, the club was named Semendrija for a brief season but weâ€™ll skip over that and get to the here and now.
The new club found success again in 2019 as they were finally promoted back to the second flight. However, they suffered relegation back down to the third, regional division right away, and thatâ€™s where they play today.
The bucket list?
With such a rich and interesting recent history, Iâ€™d been interested to see for myself what this place was like. Pictures of the ground always intrigued me. It didnâ€™t have a running track like many of the other grounds in Serbia. And it even had four sides!
However, the two times Iâ€™d previously visited Smederevo, there was no game. Being within an hourâ€™s reach of Belgrade itâ€™s one of those ‘too close for a weekend, a bit of a pain for the day’ type of places. Iâ€™d passed the crumbling concrete bowl both times, but had to look on wistfully from the bus, wondering whether Iâ€™d ever make my pilgrimage.
This summer I got myself a car and nothing could now stop me from visiting this famous, if derelict, ground. Oh wait, COVID hit!
Most grounds in the third division are lucky to have one stand. But they usually have a cafe or traditional kafana (Serbian restaurant) attached, so you can often make it in or watch from the car park. Not Smederevo, though. This was a proper ground.
Watching a match during COVID?
When a mate called me up on a Friday and suggested we try and do it, I was sceptical. We agreed that we needed a backup plan in case we werenâ€™t let into the ‘big’ ground, and quickly scoured the internet in search of somewhere between Smederevo and Belgrade that looked more like a parkâ€™s pitch.
We found FK VinÄa, and agreed to set off in time to arrive 30 minutes before both matches kicked off, to make sure we could get to the backup ground.
But we neednâ€™t have worried. As we turned into the car park of the towering stadium and spotted a plump man in a stewardâ€™s vest, my mate exclaimed: â€œSpeak English and ask!â€ For possibly the first time in years that Iâ€™ve spoken English to a Serb, I asked if we could get in to write something about the match, and the steward duly called over an old man.
Even less chance of him speaking English, but he seemed completely unperturbed and I heard him say in Serbian â€œOf course, we can put them up in the stand.â€ A younger chap came over and was very friendly in English to us and we were led in through the giant gates along pitchside to climb up a ladder and into the stand.
Weâ€™d made it. Just the 30 minutes to go, though.
We wandered around the stand and wondered when the gates were actually open for the last time. The rust coming off in our hands as we peered out through the bars towards the Danube.
We took our places in the dirty seats, and looked around. The â€œDespotiâ€ and â€œFKSâ€ etched into the seats on the left and opposing sides looked relatively new, but then we spotted the Cyrillic â€œÐ¡ÐÐ Ð¢Ð˜Ð”â€ (Sartid) peeking out from behind the new seats. Faded glory, literally?
I had a glance at the warm-up routines, sourcing some inspiration for my own team. My mate tried to find a toilet, but â€œthere was shit on the floor,â€ was all I got from him.
And then the action began.
Smederevo 1924 v Sloga PoÅ¾ega
The blue and blacks of Smederevo hosted top-of-the-table PoÅ¾ega in, what looked on paper like, a mismatch from the start. The visitors had made the long trip cross-country on the back of three straight wins, scoring 10 in the process and conceding none.
And so it turned out to be. Slogaâ€™s defenders cleaning up all of the long balls the hosts put their way, creating a few chances in the process. They got their break mid-way inside the half, when one of the tall centre-halves was left unmarked in the box from a corner to head home.
The visitors doubled their lead just before half-time, after the home teamâ€™s â€˜keeper parried the ball from a low shot straight into the path of the oncoming striker. And it was almost three immediately, as two defenders slid in, missed the ball, and left the attacker one-on-one with the â€˜keeper. An attempted chip went horribly wrong and wide â€“ that opened the door for Smederevo.
In the last attack of the half they broke quickly down the left â€“ the winger confusing the defender who was left searching for the ball as it somehow trickled through to the forward. A clumsy knock forward saw the winger back on it, but his attempt to fool the â€˜keeper at the near post could only hit the outside of the post.
Half time, and without any entertainment or refreshments, we wandered the stand again, tried counting the number of spectators. 12 had made it into the stand opposite and there were at least 50 in the â€œboxesâ€ above, along with us and some parents of players in the main stand.
It wasnâ€™t long after the restart before the visitors made sure of the game. A flowing move on the far side ended with a thundering shot that almost broke the net, and saw the stuffing knocked out of the hosts.
There was still time for some handbags, as a late tackle from the visiting winger brought an incensed reaction from the fouled full-back, who rugby tackled him to the ground in retaliation. A certain red, I thought, but the ref kept a lid on it and issued a yellow apiece.
That fired up the home contingent in the box to the right of us, who now took every opportunity to insult the referee, linesman, and opposition players. Attempts at â€œWheys!â€ from the visiting delegation as they comfortably kept the ball across the back didnâ€™t go down too well.
But it was Sloga who were to have the last laugh, too. Smederevo gifted the ball away from the throw-in, a heavy touch wasnâ€™t dealt with, and the substitute striker was able to wrap up the game and make it 14 goals in the last four matches for the visitors.
The full-time whistle blew and we climbed down the ladder and onto the pitch. We noticed that the 12 on the far side had actually been kids, and there seemed to be no regard for the Corona restrictions that we had so feared before the match!
However, down the tunnel, the players went and my expectation that we could see an ending like a rugby match where the kids are all vying for their idolsâ€™ shirts was short-lived.
We wandered out and basked in the faded glory of this impressive stadium. Above the playerâ€™s entrance graffiti warned that the Smederevo boys were ‘here to break your legs’ and some impressive murals and a statue also pointed to the more intense atmosphere that could have been.
This ground was used when Serbia hosted the 2011 UEFA Under 17’s Championships, but those glory days look a long way off now. With new stadiums being built in numerous cities around the country, thereâ€™s no sign of any finance coming Smederevoâ€™s way.
As for the team? Well, theyâ€™re probably out of the running for promotion this season already. And me? I may just be tempted to groundhop at PoÅ¾ega. Or VinÄa at least!