In a way, Patrik Berger is the quintessential 90s player. Flowing hair, boyish good looks and an explosive left foot, Berger quickly became a Liverpool fan favourite after arriving on Merseyside in 1996. The Czech winger was, of course, fresh off the greatest two months of his life. Having helped Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Borussia Dortmund to the Bundesliga title in May, Berger offered flashes of brilliance at the European Championship in England; part of the Czech side that came agonisingly close to doing what Denmark had done four years earlier in defying the odds to win the whole damn thing.
Berger was in and out of that Czech side – he started the quarter and semi-finals on the bench – but scored a penalty in the final against Germany and clearly had done enough to alert Liverpool to his burgeoning potential. In fact, as he recently revealed, Berger was made aware of Liverpool’s interest on the eve of the final. He joined the Reds a month later while Karel Poborský, his friend and international teammate, opted for Manchester United.
But whereas Poborský – who rocked up at Old Trafford looking like an estranged member of Grand Funk Railroad – struggled in England, leaving after 18 months, Berger quickly garnered hero status among the Kop, who in turn came up with a great song that encapsulated everything great about him; well, hair and goals, mostly). To the tune of The Kinks’ ‘Lola’ they sang: “He’s got long hair and he’s strong as an ox / And he scores great goals from the edge of the box / His name is Berger / Whoa, whoa, Patrik Berger!” Berger started with a bang, too.
After making his debut as a late substitute in a 2-1 win over Southampton, the stylish Prague-born playmaker replaced an ineffective Stan Collymore at half-time during Liverpool’s trip to Filbert Street to face Leicester. Curiously deployed as a holding midfielder by Hitzfeld, Berger found himself in a more suitable attacking berth for Roy Evans’ Liverpool.
Berger flourished where the previous season’s 55-goal duo of Collymore and Robbie Fowler had flopped – in opening up the Foxes’ defence. The Czech’s introduction injected urgency into Liverpool’s play and, with thanks to both an instant understanding with Steve McManaman and Leicester’s crumbling defence, he ended the day with two goals.
Berger breathed new life into Liverpool’s attack. For all their predatory instincts, Collymore and Fowler seemed to be on different wavelengths. The new recruit offered a different dimension, adept at both stretching the opponent’s defence with his elegant runs and shaking things up by dropping deep. His reward was a place in the starting XI for Chelsea’s visit to Anfield.
Ruud Gullit’s Blues strolled onto Merseyside with an unbeaten record but were soon reduced to quivering wrecks, battered by a Berger-inspired Liverpool. Fowler’s thumping header opened the scoring. The winger then took charge, rounding Kevin Hitchcock for his first before coolly sweeping home a second shortly after the restart. The game finished 5-1 and the majority of those who filled Anfield left that afternoon dreaming of the title. Indeed, with the likes of McManaman, Berger and Fowler dictating attacking matters, Evans’ side was an intoxicating blend of speed and precision. For posterity, the Independent called their Chelsea rout a “Double Berger with Relish”.
After Manchester United’s dominance during the Premier League’s early years, Liverpool finally seemed equipped to have their say in the title race. But Berger’s form cooled after that exhilarating initiation into English football, having to wait six months for his next league goal, which arrived in the 4-3 win over Newcastle United in March ‘97, a virtual shot-for-shot remake of their famous seven-goal thriller a year earlier.
The following campaign, Berger again offered a hit of pure, uncut genius against Chelsea, his hat-trick again tormenting the Blues defence in a performance of furious, unrelenting virtuosity. Remarkably, they were Berger’s only goals that season. He would improve on that tally in time and proceeded to score some truly spectacular strikes, including a 35-yard bullet free-kick at Old Trafford, in March 2000, that left the seven-year-old version of this writer both distraught and amazed.
The problem with Berger was his attitude. Blessed with exquisite technique and a rocket of a left foot, he struggled with injuries before his frosty relationship with Evans plunged his Anfield future into doubt at the end of the 1997/98 campaign. His hat-trick heroics against Chelsea had seemed to instil in him a sense of entitlement, a trait destined to draw ire from most managers, especially an old-fashioned Boot Room remnant like Evans.
After netting that treble, Berger was visibly displeased with Evans’ decision to withdraw him after 56 minutes during the Merseyside derby defeat to Everton the following week. But Evans did what any manager would have done. The 22-year-old wandered anonymously around Goodison Park before being subbed off. From there, his relationship with Evans deteriorated.
He managed three minutes across the next three games before, in March ‘98, he refused to be named among the substitutes for a clash with Bolton. Berger soon demanded a move to Benfica, before Gérard Houllier’s arrival as co-manager in 1998 changed the Czech’s outlook.
As the Frenchman’s influence grew – assuming sole command following Evans’ resignation in November – Berger re-dedicated himself to Liverpool and improved as a player. Houllier’s rebuild involved selling several established first-teamers – including Paul Ince, David James and Jason McAteer – and casting the scouting net far and wide, bringing in the likes of Sami Hyypia, Dietmar Hamann and Berger’s compatriot Vladimír Šmicer from Holland, Germany and France. The club’s Melwood training facility was also given a much-needed facelift. This pleased Berger, who was appalled at the standard and intensity of training under Evans, a drastic step down what he had been used to at Dortmund.
Under Houllier, Berger enjoyed his best run with the Reds. During the 1999/2000 season, he started 34 league games and his return of nine goals was a personal best during his time in England. The following campaign was not nearly as fruitful, having already missed two months through injury; a twisted knee, sustained during Leeds United’s memorable 4-3 win over Liverpool in November, which left Berger on the sidelines for four months.
He returned in time to play a part in the club’s treble, assisting Michael Owen’s winner in the FA Cup final against Arsenal before helping the Reds overcome Alavés in extra-time to clinch the UEFA Cup. But injuries continued to ravage him. The 20001/02 campaign was regularly interrupted while his involvement during 2002/03, his last year at Anfield, amounted to 37 minutes of Premier League action.
Without a place at the Reds, Berger joined Harry Redknapp’s newly-promoted Portsmouth for free. There were glimpses of vintage Berger, like his breathtaking turn-and-hit from 40 yards against Charlton, but while he struck a friendly rapport with ‘Arry through their fondness for golf, Berger’s powers were waning during his time at Fratton Park. He moved to Aston Villa in 2005 before returning to his home country with Sparta Prague in 2008 and was forced to retire in January 2010, when persistent knee troubles had taken their toll.
Berger is fondly remembered by Liverpool fans. But perhaps his talent warranted more than just warm memories. Whatever way you look at it, he was desperately unlucky. Arrogant and conceited when he arrived, Berger’s maturity under Houllier was no match for the relentlessness of his injuries, which condemned much of his career in England to the footballing wilderness.
Despite his problems, he was a true joy of a 1990s footballer. A man with a look that could kill, you could say. What I will definitely say is that few players, even now, could match the speed and accuracy with which he struck a ball on his left side. Whoa whoa, Patrik Berger.
By Matt Gault @MattGault11