In May of 1999 I got a promotion of sorts: my first invitation to join the U17 national team. “It’s going to be great. Lisbon, what an experience. And we’ll both get to play in the goal,” my friend, colleague and competitor Martin Ticháček said. And it was great, we got to practice on beautiful stadiums and play three tough matches: against Portugal, the home side, then Spain and Scotland. Nobody knew I was going to pursue a league stint.
Do you remember that I had to keep quiet about everything happening “backstage”? So I went to practices and kept my mouth shut. I trained and trained and said nothing. Until I got word from Blšany: “It’s done, you’re ours now.”
My friend and rival Martin “Tichy” Ticháček was the first to know. Plzeň bought him as a young teenager from Domažlice and we immediately hit it off. It was great, because we could help each other get better, in Portugal we took turns in the goal. But only one of us could be first choice goalkeeper in Plzeň… That’s how it is for goalkeepers, that’s life.
The worst part came when I had to tell my coach at the club who relied on me. Ivan Kovács was working as assistant coach with the U17 national team, and so the day before we were leaving I asked him if we could talk in private. We were staying in bungalows outside the city, we could see the Atlantic coast from our windows. The sky was dark red with sunset and my voice was trembling. We went to walk along the beach and I hesitated, swallowing hard and trying to come up with the words in my head: “I’m sorry coach, I’m not going to do the summer training with the club. I got an offer from Blšany and I decided to accept it.”
I was trying to be firm and resolute, but there was guilt in my voice.
Mr Kovács was taken aback, he’d had different plans for me.
I couldn’t lie to him. “I’ve already signed. I know Tichy is going to start training with the first team and I don’t want to wait anymore. A door has opened for me, I need to get in there and see where it leads.”
He didn’t try to persuade me to stay, he just asked if I would reconsider and change my mind if Plzeň offered me a contract under the same conditions. I know he probably didn’t sleep that night. We returned home on Monday night and Tuesday morning he came barging in the club management’s offices. He was at Miloš Paul’s office at half past seven, shuffling his feet: “It’s bad, boss. Blšany are trying to poach Čechíno from us.”
Back then I didn’t feel like the bosses were trying too hard to persuade me to stay. They didn’t call me into the office, they didn’t insist. I ran into Mr Paul in the stadium hallway and all I got was: “I’d appreciate it if you reconsidered. Come on, you’re a Plzeň chap, you’ll get your chance for sure.”
Yes, I was a Plzeň chap, born and bred. But once I give my word, I don’t take it back. And it was true that I didn’t want to keep waiting anymore. One more year? Why?
Plzeň lost a lot of money because they never signed a contract with me. Yeah, well, but who could have known back then how far I was going to get? It could have just as well gone the other way, I could have left for a lower division team within five years for almost no fee and no one would be the wiser.
Since then, they offer contracts to young perspective players in Plzeň. There isn’t big money involved, but still. And I’m glad I helped pave the way for younger players.
When the last game of the junior league came about, I could only watch from the stands: I was already a Blšany player.
And within three days I had to report for practice.
P.S. Next week? Suprise!