THE first time is always the sweetest, or so the old saying goes. It is also something that is unlikely to be forgotten.
For the 600 or so Hull City fans who ventured to Slovakia for the club’s maiden voyage in Europe, this sentiment is likely to ring true this morning after an enjoyable first foray on to the continent to watch their side in competitive action.
Okay, the Tigers may have been held to a goalless draw by a team they were expected to beat comfortably in the quest to book a place in the Europa League play-off round.
But the locals were also hospitable – if a little curious about the noisy amber and black clad interlopers in their midst – everyone was in good humour and, possibly best of all, beer cost just 80p a pint.
No wonder, therefore, that those Hull fans who will have woken up at home this morning after a whirlwind one-day trip behind the old Iron Curtain and those who stayed behind for another night will have done so with a smile on their face.
And, it has to be said, with a host of cherished memories to relay to the folks back home.
The excitement had been mounting from the moment Hull were paired with either FK AS Trencin or Serbian side FK Vojodina in the third qualifying round draw.
The planning began in earnest straight away. How you getting there? What’s the best route? And what are we going to do about tickets? All these questions and more dominated the build-up to departure-day.
For some, preparations went better than others. One Hull fan flying out of Manchester on Wednesday morning bound for Brussels and then Vienna could be heard complaining: “But you told me to get Hungarian money, so I did.”
His friend’s response of, ‘That was when the draw was made, these flights were cheaper than going via Budapest so we changed route’ cut little ice as the fan, pockets bulging with Hungarian Forint, trudged off to the bureau de change.
Flying to Vienna and catching the train to northern Slovakia via the capital Slovakia was just one of many ingenious routes taken by Hull fans travelling independently of the club.
Kosice, in the far east of the country and close to the border with Hungary, was another popular destination, not least once the 20 or so fans who had flown there on Wednesday morning from Luton discovered that a pint of Staropramen was even cheaper at less than 50p.
As for those on the official flights, supporters staying one night flew into Piestany, an airport so tiny that it made Blackpool International look like Heathrow, while those flying in and out yesterday landed at Bratislava after leaving Humberside Airport in the early hours. They arrived in Zilina, a touch bleary-eyed, at 2pm.
Regardless of the route, every man, woman and child was in agreement that following Hull in Europe was darn good fun.
Certainly, the bars that line Zilina’s pleasant Marianske square did a roaring trade yesterday afternoon as the locals were treated to a medley of the Tigers’ back catalogue of songs as flags of all shapes and sizes were hung on any available vantage point.
‘From Boothferry to Zilina’ may not have quite the ring of the original about going to Wembley but the good people of Slovakia’s third biggest city will be in no doubt this morning about how their visitors from England will remain ‘City’ until they die.
‘You’re being mauled by the Tigers’ also had a couple of airings around town, though the reaction this time was more one of bemusement at the sight of grown men acting out the mauling with hand actions.
Once inside the stadium, the noise levels, if anything, rose even higher as Hull fans continued to revel in their new-found status as European football tourists and the Tencin ultras at the opposite end made their voices heard amid some frenetic flag-waving.
Some of those who made the trip may have been veterans of England trips abroad in the past. But this was Hull City, their Hull City, and therefore things were different as ‘We’re all going on a European tour’ was belted out with even more gusto than during the afternoon.
The stadium itself, home to ZSK Zilina, was a neat, tidy affair. Four, largely identical, stands gave Stadion Pod Dubnom a uniform look and while the facilities were largely basic it was easy to see why the Slovakian national team have played here recently while Bratislava’s Tehelne Pole stadium was redeveloped.
One jarring aspect, however, was the presence of steep fences with spikes in part of the stand that housed the travelling fans. The image provided something of a throwback to the Eighties, a decade when English football was dogged by hooliganism. Mind, with beer prices also at a level not seen for 30 years there weren’t too many in the Hull seats protesting at such an ugly sight.
Nor were they unduly upset by the official matchday programme welcoming ‘Hull City Tigers’, the memo from the FA over the rejection of the proposed name change having clearly got lost in the post to Slovakia.
All in all, therefore, a trip to savour and, with the tie level ahead of next Thursday’s return at the KC Stadium, the very real prospect of more to come.