He cannot recall who the opponent was. But that doesn’t matter. In the spring of 1999, Plzeň youth team won 2-0 and Jan Říčka, then assistant coach at Blšany and nowadays football scout for Manchester City, discovered a boy who soon started changing history.
Can you remember the first time?
I was working in Blšany, which is basically a small village, but with a rich footballing history. The club was in regional league and the greatest legends of the region, misters Sedláček, Melichar or Rosa, were part of the team. Once the club started advancing, we got older players with great CVs, Juraško, Rada, Kostelník in the goal. But it was the owner of the club František Chvalovský who always had the main say. The same František Chvalovský who was the boss of the Czech football association since 1993.
You’re certainly very thorough.
Yes, I need to, so that you get an idea and understand why Petr Čech came here. Our head coach Miroslav Beránek knew the team needed new impulses, new drive, new blood. If you’re in top flight you can’t play with a side made up of veteran players.
So that’s why you chose Petr?
Just wait a minute. I was used to driving around, checking out different leagues, from the top flight to the lowest tiers, including youth leagues. And in Plzeň youth team we were eyeing Jaroslav Šedivec, a left-footed striker. I used to go there to watch him specifically.
Šedivec never went to Blšany, he went from Plzeň straight to Italy. Is this part of the story?
The kick-off at the Luční compound was at 10:15, but the traffic was bad on the D5 highway from Prague to Plzeň, so I almost didn’t make it. I ran to the pitch just as the referee blew the whistle. I had just enough time to say hello to the unforgettable Plzeň icon Jiří Sloup, who used to come to all the youth team games, and the moment he saw me, he said: “Honza, I was beginning to think you decided to ditch us when I didn’t see that shiny Rolls-Royce of yours in the parking lot!”
What car did you drive back then?
A Peugeot 205, tiny white car with low fuel consumption; it always managed to take me where I needed to go. Only this one time I was running a little bit late.
Are we getting to Petr now?
Almost there! So I hurried to the side of the pitch where Jarda Šedivec was playing, so that I could watch him closely, but a skinny tall guy I didn’t know caught my eye on the other side of the pitch. “Why isn’t Martin Ticháček, Plzeň’s star who played for the U18 national team, in the goal?” I thought. The visual difference between Martin and Petr was striking. Martin did athletics, he was well-built, fast, fierce.
What about Petr caught your attention?
I didn’t even know his name back then, I had no idea who he was. But I saw how he confident he was, how masterfully he directed his teammates. When Plzeň lost the ball, he immediately started shouting orders, to concrete players no less, telling them what to do, where to move, what to look out for. Each part of his advice fitted perfectly into the picture I was watching.
Do you have any other memories?
Plzeň used mainly the left side of the pitch for attacking, that’s where Šedivec was drawn as well, but more often they managed to threaten from the right. And this young goalie saw that! He saw this paradox, he noticed the opponent was more vulnerable on the right and he kept telling his teammates. I admit, I seldom hear something like that from goalkeepers. And never from goalkeepers in youth teams.
What about his goalkeeping skills?
You know what? I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. There were a couple of shots at goal, and after the interval Petr made some decent saves, but nothing more. However, my instincts told me he was different than his peers. I waited for him after the match, introduced myself, congratulated him on his performance and told him: “I hope you play at least as well as you did today for the rest of your career.” Petr was very humble, he thanked me and said he had to go because his parents were waiting for him.
What happened next?
In a hurry, I drove from Plzeň to Blšany so I wouldn’t be late for our pre-match training session. I sat down in my tiny office with Míra Beránek, the goalkeepers’ coach Sedláček and Zdeněk Kovář, the director who was always so relaxed we all felt at ease. He asked me: “So, my faithful and trusty advisers, have you found the princess we are looking for?”
That’s a quote from a famous Czech fairy-tale.
Exactly. And the conversation continued in the same style. I said: “Yes, yes, we found her, my king, she’s young, tall and left-footed.” Everybody still thought I was talking about Šedivec.
When did they catch wind of what was happening?
Once Mr Kovář asked: “And did our princess score any goals?” “No, she did not, because she never took a shot at goal!”
Were they shocked?
Not yet, I had to keep talking. “So what did the princess do so well that we’re so ecstatic about her?” So I said: “She’s two years younger than all the others.” That was when I told them I was talking about a goalkeeper, not a striker. And that his name was Petr Čech.
How did they react?
“You’ve never been in a goal; how can you tell he’s a good goalkeeper?” Jirka Sedláček switched to his professional mode, asking how Petr covered each angle, how he reacted to long shots, how he cleared the ball, what he did in one-on-one situations. I must admit it wasn’t easy for me to assess his goalkeeping skills, but leaving that aside, it was very clear to me: Petr was exceptional, the confidence and precision with which he directed the whole team was amazing. Thanks to that, he actually had very little to do during the match.
Was the Blšany goalkeepers’ coach impressed?
Yes, right away. He used to do that himself. When he was a bit older and he didn’t want to jump so much anymore, he had to start giving emphatic orders. “If I didn’t want to sweat, I had to direct,” he used to tell me, smiling. This is something goalkeepers learn with age, as they get more experienced, but Petr was sixteen and already knew how to be the boss. He was confident, natural, he wasn’t overly respectful towards older players, yet still managed to be humble. He was so much ahead of everyone else.
And what happened then?
Director Kovář, who later unfortunately passed away, found out that Petr Čech didn’t have a professional contract at Plzeň, and they started working on the transfer. But I wasn’t involved in that.
So it was your eye that decided?
It was a coincidence that decided. And three weeks later, when Petr did an outstandingly good job at the U16 Euro in Lanžhot, it was definitive.
He almost got a clean sheet against Germany, didn’t he?
Even though Czechs lost 0-1 in the end, Petr was unbelievably good. And coach Beránek and club owner Chvalovský, who used to be a goalkeeper gimself, saw it too. They agreed: “We need to get this kid!”
Did it ever cross your mind that he might one day play for Chelsea and Arsenal?
He was so much better than other guys his age. Straightforward, intelligent, confident, never made errors in judgement or in the goal. After some time had passed, I asked him: “So what is it you want to achieve?” And he replied: “I think I could do well in the Italian or the Spanish league.” I pressed on: “What if you could choose one club?”
What did he say?
FC Barcelona. Just goes on to show how ambitious he was. And seeing his verve and enthusiasm, it was immediately clear to me that he could make it in a big club. I couldn’t help but pick at him a little: “What about languages, Petr?” You see, there’s a lot of players who join a foreign cub and start crying the moment they cross the border because they can’t talk to anybody. Petr didn’t even blink. “I speak English and I’m about to take a final exam in German,” he said. A couple of years later he transferred to Rennes, I congratulated him: “A great move, Petr, too bad it wasn’t England or Germany.”
What was his reaction?
“No,” he said, “you’re wrong, this is great for me, because now I have to learn French as fast as I can.” He was never deterred by obstacles; for him, everything was motivation, an opportunity to improve.
Looking back now, do you still see the kid in a Plzeň shirt?
I see a man with a strong personality who achieved exactly what he wanted to achieve. Petr had great family who supported him, and that’s the most important part. He also had great goalkeeping coaches, Čaloun and Krbeček in Plzeň, Jirka Sedláček in Blšany. He was lucky to play under coach Beránek who wasn’t afraid to take a risk on young footballers and let them play. I remember when Petr was the back-up goalie for Blšany, and he also played for the youth team. He didn’t think it degrading in any way. He wanted to play, he begged for the opportunity to get on the pitch, and Luboš Trnka, the then youth coach, was always happy to let him. He used to say: “When I have Petr in the goal, it’s like I have a completely different squad. Just having him there means there’s a real player in the goal.”
The first time he played for the first team was on the 30 of October 1999. He was seventeen.
And we played away at Sparta, one of the biggest Czech clubs! Petr was the only uninjured keeper we had, so he had to go into the goal. Míra Beránek went to talk to his parents to inform them, and Petr’s dad got nervous. “That’s nice,” he said, “but even Mr Čaloun, a great goalkeeper, conceded some nine goals at Sparta one time.” He was afraid it would end badly for his son. But Petr’s mom said: “Petr has no fear, it will end well.”
Blšany lost 1-3, but Petr was solid in the goal.
Yes, and he immediately wanted to get to practice again. He was exceptional in that way too. He always wanted to train more. His attitude was similar to the attitude our two-time Olympic gold medallist Ester Ledecká has: She never wants to get off the slope, she just wants to train all the time, practice and get better.
Can you give an example?
The best motivation for a professional footballer are days off. I’m saying this ironically. I remember once we won an away match and the players stood behind the bus discussing how to convince the coach to reward them with a free Sunday and postpone the planned practice until Monday afternoon. They were debating who to send as emissary to the coach, and I heard: “Just don’t send Čech, he’d probably just ask for two training sessions on Sunday and two more on Monday. “
P.S. The following chapter coming up next week!