The town of Bamber Bridge was the unlikely location for a sneak-peak of what was in-store for the unsuspecting observers-to-be of Euro 96. A beautifully warm Thursday evening at Irongate, the home of Bamber Bridge FC – the newly crowned champions of the Northern Premier League – was the surprise host venue for the Czech Republic’s last warm-up game prior to the start of the 1996 European Championship.
Located three miles south-east of the city centre of Preston, the request from the FACR to Bamber Bridge for a bit of a kickabout, to be played three days before the Czech Republic’s opening game of the tournament, was initially viewed through a hazy air of suspicion by the non-league Lanacshire outfit.
All fears of an elaborate prank eventually eased, Bamber Bridge embraced the game for all it was worth. A sell-out crowd of 2,500 descended upon Irongate, as did a bemused national and global media corp.
Regaled before kick-off by the brass-band stylings of the Brindle Prize Band, every member the Czech Republic squad were given a run-out against a Bamber Bridge side that had to agree to a non-combat footing for the game. While it would be a competitive encounter, Dušan Uhrin, the Czech Republic coach, was wanting to avoid any last-minute injuries, with Germany looming large at Old Trafford less than 72 hours later.
With a squad largely populated by players who were sat upon the eve of stardom, inclusive of the pre-Juventus Pavel Nedvěd, there was only one truly undisputed star attraction. Fresh off the back of winning the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, Patrik Berger was the Czech Republic’s man of the moment.
With long flowing hair and bestowed with the sort of looks that drove thousands of British men to jealously, thanks to the admiration with which their wives and girlfriends viewed Berger, he appeared a man who had it all. Skilful, comfortable on the ball and with a reassuring dip of the shoulder when breezing past his opponents, Berger appeared at Irongate as a second half substitute. Scoring within minutes of his introduction, it was clear that Dortmund had a special player on their hands. It was the first time I’d seen Berger play. It wouldn’t be the last.
By August, Berger was a Liverpool player. Signed by Roy Evans for £3.25m, it was a markup on the £2.75m Ottmar Hitzfeld had spent to sign him from Slavia Prague 12 months earlier. Before arriving at Liverpool, however, I saw him play a fascinating role in taking the Czech Republic to the final of Euro 96. I was lucky enough to be at Anfield – eight days after that peculiar evening at Bamber Bridge – when his nation stunned Italy with a 2-1 victory, on a day when Arrigo Sacchi massively underestimated his opponents.
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Making five changes to the side which had narrowly beaten Russia in the Azzurri’s opening game, and compounded by the early sending-off of Luigi Apolloni, Sacchi was left with an uphill struggle to reach the knockout stages after a game in which Berger had flattered to deceive, a game which he had flickered in and out of, before eventually being replaced by another image of Liverpool’s future, Vladimír Šmicer.
Five days later, I was again at Anfield – a half-full but still vibrant Anfield to watch the incredible game between the Czech Republic and Russia. With Italy simultaneously contriving to ease themselves to a goalless draw at Old Trafford, Berger was in a side which needed a win, or a high-scoring draw, to reach an unexpected quarter-final.
On an evening that felt like watching somebody you don’t know arrive at your house, only to subsequently throw one of the best parties you’ve ever been to, Berger was in marginally better form as he helped the Czech Republic race into an early 2-0 lead, before they seemingly threw it all away, trailing 3-2 as the game ticked towards the 90th minute. It was Šmicer who plundered the late equaliser that took the Czech Republic through.
It was with perhaps a portent of his future path that Berger showed only fleeting glimpses of his undeniable talents during the group stages. Bobbing along just below the surface of consistency, Berger would then burst into the most spectacular footballing life without warning, producing a goal or a pass of breathtaking skill and simplicity.
In today’s terms, with the general requirements for perpetual motion, there wouldn’t be one Premier League manager who’d be willing to take a chance on a player like Berger. While Berger didn’t necessarily go missing in games, he did have a natural resting point, in the same way players like Glenn Hoddle did.
Berger was one of the great assessors of a football pitch. He would stand back at times, studying the angles, waiting and watching for the gap to appear, and then he’d pounce, running off to the supporters with one arm raised and a smile that could melt glass.
Within this, it meant that there were games that he simply wasn’t the right man for. Certain styles of opponent frustrated not just him but the coaches he played under. It was a concept which ran throughout the entirety of his time at Anfield; it was a concept which ran throughout the entirety of his international career.
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At Euro 96, Uhrin left Berger out of his starting line-up for both the quarter-final against Portugal and the semi-final against France. Thrown into the action as a 90th-minute time-wasting exercise against Portugal, Uhrin turned to him at half-time against France, just as Les Bleus looked like taking a stranglehold on the game.
Berger successfully gave France enough to think about during the second half and extra time that it remained goalless for 120 minutes at Old Trafford. When the subsequent penalty shoot-out went the way of the Czech Republic, it provided Berger with the opportunity to deliver the sort of performance the tournament had been expecting of him.
Part of the reason for Berger’s sporadic form throughout Euro 96 had been due to an unexpected dose of flu, which had struck at the peak of a hot English summer. The reason for his recall to the starting line-up for the final was due to Šmicer heading back to the Czech Republic for his wedding – organised for the Friday before the final, which took place on Sunday.
While Šmicer would return in time for the final, his absence from the squad during the build-up cost him a place in the starting line-up. The door was left open for a fully recovered Berger to take centre-stage once again.
For 14 second-half minutes, it appeared that Berger had scored the winning goal – from the penalty spot – before the decisive intervention of Germany substitute Oliver Bierhoff, who grabbed the equaliser within four minutes of his arrival and went on to plunder the golden goal in extra time.
With the stock of the Czech Republic squad high, Berger was just one of seven members of the side that faced Germany in the final to embrace a lucrative summer transfer. Liverpool attempted to sign both Berger and Karel Proborský, but where success was achieved in their pursuit of the Liverpool-supporting former, the latter instead opted for Manchester United’s overtures.
Berger made an explosive start at Anfield. As Stan Collymore drifted into discord at the club, Berger soon eclipsed the troubled striker in the affections of both the supporters and the coaching staff, climbing from the bench at Filbert Street to score two stunning goals in a 3-0 victory over Leicester. This was soon followed by two more goals in a masterclass of a performance at Anfield in a 5-1 demolition of Ruud Gullit’s Chelsea.
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For an extended stretch of the 1996/97 season, Berger was part of a title-chasing Liverpool side, linking effortlessly with Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler, producing what was a breathtaking style of football.
Undone by a soft-centre in defence and lacking a midfield enforcer of substance, Liverpool ran out of steam in the race for the Premiership title and fell one step short of the Cup Winners’ Cup final, hitting the self-destruct button at the Parc des Princes against Paris Saint-Germain in the semi-finals.
With the brooding Collymore also casting a shadow over Evans’ side, it was the first of a series of near-misses on Liverpool claiming a first league title since 1990. Indeed, the summer of 1997 proved to be pivotal for Berger, Liverpool and Evans. A bid from Barcelona for the services of McManaman set in motion a two-year domino effect, which eventually led the talented Liverpudlian to a recently-introduced Bosman rule free-transfer to Real Madrid instead.
Used as a bargaining chip to force their way past a negotiating stalemate with Rivaldo and his agent, Barcelona left McManaman sat in a nearby hotel room. The Liverpool player would never meet with the hierarchy of the Catalan club. Returning to Anfield with two years remaining on his contract, and disappointed in the way the club had tried to cash-in on him, McManaman would refuse all overtures to renew. By the time his contract expired, Evans had departed as manager and the 1998/99 season had been one of disarray.
With Gérard Houllier now in charge and a bold plan to revolutionise the future of Liverpool, McManaman’s exit thrust Berger into centre-stage. And it would result in one of his finest seasons at Anfield.
Moving out of the shadow of McManaman, and with injury problems sporadically depriving the team of Fowler, Berger became the fulcrum to everything Liverpool did well on the pitch. Linking perfectly with the great new hope, Michael Owen, the jet-heeled striker thrived on the through-balls of Berger in a style of play that was reminiscent of Jan Mølby and Kenny Dalglish feeding Ian Rush.
With the added arrival of Šmicer, plus the astute signing of Dietmar Hamann, the building blocks of a side that would win the 2000/01 cup treble were cemented in place at unerring speed by Houllier. Unfortunately for Berger, after a promising start to the 2000/01 season, he was downed by a series of recurring knee injuries, eventually returning to make crucial cameo appearances in both the FA Cup and UEFA Cup finals.
Read | The unravelling of Gérard Houllier’s Liverpool
It was Berger’s searching pass that Owen latched on to at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff to so stunningly steal the FA Cup from the grasp of what had been a largely dominant Arsenal. With heavy shades of Euro 96, Berger’s role in Liverpool’s successes that season came in brilliant but often fleeting glimpses.
He would remain at Anfield for two more seasons, the first of those again disrupted by intermittent periods sat in the physio’s room, the second an almost complete write-off. In the summer of 2003, with Houllier desperately trying to undo the damage of the transfer mistakes of 2002, Berger left Liverpool to join Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth revolution.
At Fratton Park, Berger once again found form and fitness, even scoring a winning goal against Liverpool in the early months of his time on the south coast. Suitably rehabilitated, he accepted an offer to sign for David O’Leary’s Aston Villa in the summer of 2005. Rather than continue with the upward trajectory he had enjoyed at Portsmouth, however, his time at Villa Park was more akin to his last two years in a Liverpool shirt.
Over a three-season span with Aston Villa, Berger made less than 30 league appearances, even spending time on-loan in the Championship at Stoke City. By 2008, Berger had returned to Prague, this time to Sparta, the club he had spent his youth career with. Captaining the club to Champions League qualification in his first season back, injuries escalated once more during the 2009/10 season. At the end of the campaign, a 36-year-old Berger announced his retirement from football.
A supremely talented enigma, Berger was a complex union of bewitching skill and frustrating stoppages – the purveyor of a wider career that mirrored his efforts at Euro 96 in many ways. His international career remained an unfulfilled one beyond the stuttering heroics of the summer of 1996, resulting in the excellent goal return of 18 in a paltry 42 caps.
The failure to qualify for France 98 was followed by the Czech Republic being drawn into Euro 2000’s group of death along with the Netherlands, France and Denmark. Suspended for the first two games thanks to a red card picked up during qualifying, the Czech Republic were already out of the tournament by the time he returned to face Denmark. An ever-increasing feud with Uhrin ultimately led the midfielder into an early retirement from international football.
Whatever way you choose to approach his career, Patrick Berger was an exceptional player with the ball at his feet, capable of placing a bullet of a shot into the top corner as he was with deftly flicking it through for a striker. While he wouldn’t be afforded much leeway in today’s game, where results must be instant, he was the ideal player for his era, blending the moody, classic playmaker of the early 1990s with the prototype version of what an attacking midfielder would later become.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74