Will a stadium gamble pay off for the fallen giant of the Hungarian game?
Hungary’s most famous football club, Ferencvaros, will be transformed if ambitious plans to build a new £50million stadium complex at Nepliget succeed. But as the spring season resumes in February, the club continue to flounder in mid-table following three seasons in the second tier.
The man behind the project is British property tycoon Kevin McCabe – the chairman of Sheffield United who also has interests in China’s Chengdu Blades. The English Championship club also have partner arrangements with Central Coast Mariners of Australia, Sao Paulo of Brazil and White Star Woluwe of Belgium to develop young talent from each other’s nurseries.
McCabe’s Hungarian firm, Esplanade Kft, bought Hungary’s most-titled football club – plus its stadium, real estate and debts – for £8.6m in early 2008. It was estimated that the debts amounted to more than half of that total, with financial mismanagement the reason why “Fradi” were forcibly relegated for the first time in their illustrious history in the summer of 2006.
Promotion arrived – eventually – in the summer of 2009 but success was short-lived. Poor form saw the removal of English coach Bobby Davison, to be replaced by former Everton and Blackburn Rovers defender Craig Short, who had been working with the club’s reserve and youth teams.
“For me it’s been a steep learning curve but a great opportunity,” says Short. “The players have responded well. Technically, they are very adept – and a British coach should add steel and mental attitude.”
Soon after Short took over, Fradi were losing 3-1 at home to lowly Diosgyor when a pitch invasion stopped play and focus turned once more to the club’s notorious hard-core following, the so-called B-Kozep.
“Ironically, it’s been easier for the players to perform in a relaxed fashion behind closed doors,” admits Short of the games that followed. “Now I have to get them to do the same in front of 10,000 people.”
Perhaps Short is being generous with his crowd estimates. The club from Budapest, who have been league champions a record 28 times, have an average home gate of just 5,000 – which is still more than city rivals Vasas, Ujpest and Honved. As for MTK, a recent cup tie against champions Debrecen attracted just 300 people.
Despite this, McCabe’s blueprint for the new stadium complex is being put into practice. Alexander Gerstl, the director in charge of the project, has recently stated that, with preliminary planning permission, work can begin this summer and is timed for a 2012 opening. As well as a new 21,000-seat multifunctional stadium, the plans call for a hotel, shopping centre, fitness centre, restaurants, bars and offices, plus a club museum.
The new ground, to be named the Albert Arena after 1960s star Florian Albert, will be rotated 90 degrees so that the afternoon sun does not interfere with the goalkeeper’s vision (which is a UEFA directive). Already Fradi are thinking ahead to Europe and lucrative TV fees.
Last autumn, partly thanks to Michel Platini’s new minnow-friendly format for qualification, Debrecen became the first Hungarian side to take part in the Champions League group stage since Ferencvaros in 1995.
But before Fradi can once again think of such adventures they must first win some domestic silverware.
Following the success here of Arsenal-trainee turned journeyman striker Paul Shaw and former Barnsley man Istvan Ferenczi, Fradi have just signed Anthony Elding and Sam Stockley, from Crewe Alexandra and Port Vale respectively, both of whom have years of experience in England’s lower leagues. Veteran club captain Peter Lipcsei – though now rarely fit – played under Bobby Robson at Porto, while 33-year-old midfielder Denes Rosa turned out for Wolverhampton Wanderers and Scottish side Hibernian.
“We tried bringing youngsters over but they seemed a bit overawed,” reveals Short. “The difference isn’t so great between clubs in this division.
“For this season we should achieve a top-six finish. Then, who knows?”