Young players in Blšany had three practices a day. Two with the other guys and one last training session in the evening, before dark fell, to help us get to the professional level as quickly as possible. So I watched and learned. What else was there to do?
In Žinkovy, I shared the room with Aleš Majer, who wasn’t completely unknown at that time. We met at the UEFA Under-16 European Championship that spring. Aleš was a forward, a really good striker with great instincts. But he wasn’t offered a contract at his home club Sparta, so he also came to Blšany – same story as me. We were the greenhorns, the youngest guys on the team, and as such we had to work: collect the balls, bring out cones and markers, help the coaches whenever there was something that needed to be done. We had to arrive early to every practice and make sure that the balls were inflated enough. If they weren’t, we’d hurry to the compressor and inflate them to the correct pressure.
I’m not complaining; this is how it is for the youngest players. Or is it not anymore? I don’t know. I’ve heard what happened when the Dutch defender Johnny Heitinga came to his first Ajax Amsterdam practice. He was sixteen and he immediately let everybody know that he wasn’t going to be anybody’s bitch. He’s thirty-five now, but I think most of his then-teammates still remember that particular practice.
“Gudjohnsen and Heitinga! Pick up the balls!”
Eidur Gudjohnsen, from Iceland, who later played with me in Chelsea, didn’t say a word, took a sack and went about gathering balls from all over the pitch. Heitinga, meanwhile, started shouting: “Are you kidding me? I’m not a ball boy! I came to Ajax to play football, not pick up balls.”
I would never have dared to behave like that. Not even today, and much less back then, when I was still a rookie. It’s all part of growing up, developing: young players need to learn, get used to the team’s hierarchy.
And by the way, Blšany greenhorns had one more duty at the training camp: waking everybody up.
Everyone needed to be up by half past seven, so we went knocking from door to door, waking up one sleeping prince after another. Me and Aleš Majer split the rooms in half, but there were two doors we just shyly stood in front of, shuffling our feet: the rooms occupied by the duos Obermajer – Bittengel and Vrabec – Hogen.
They were the stars. The seasoned players, the old hands we admired. We wouldn’t even dream of calling them by their first names! These were the thirty-something masters that have travelled the world playing football, we had utmost respect for them.
At first we were afraid they would be angry with us for waking them up, and they would toss cold water at us or throw us into the pond right by the sports centre. So we sent a little prayer to the skies above and then timidly knocked on the door.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re up,” a raspy voice replied.
It felt like waking my own dad when he just wants to sleep in. That’s not a task you’d gladly do. Me, shaking like a leaf, born in 1982. On the other side of the door: the sleepy Petr “Béda” Vrabec, born in 1962. A bloke twenty years older than me!
When I saw Béda for the first time, my jaw dropped. That’s him! The captain! Mr Petr Vrabec, nicknamed Béda, with a musketeer-like moustache and receding hairline. A former national team player who used to play for Sparta and scored against FC Barcelona in Champions League. And now I’m here in Žinkovy, waking him up, eating breakfast with him, training together twice a day.
How am I, a rookie goalkeeper, supposed to direct such a football whizz? Oh my God, what advice am I supposed to give him from the goal, when he’s seen and done absolutely everything? How do I address him, what tone of voice do I use? Won’t he think I’m too brazen and insolent and think too much of myself?
P.S. The following chapter coming up next week!
My beginnings with coach Sedláček. …
Why am I suddenly taping my fingertips and my wrists? …