When Bamber Bridge played the Czech Republic
Memories from 20 years ago today when the surprise stars of Euro 96 warmed up for the tournament with a 9-1 win against the non league minnows of Bamber Bridge
The Czech Republic’s first - and probably only - visit to Irongate was totally predictable.
As was expected, the visitors stroked the ball about with elegant comfort and although they scored nine times, it could easily have been 15 or 16.
The result was never in doubt, but it was a splendid occasion which brought nothing but credit to the Unibond League champions and the 2,300 fans who watched a unique evening of football.
There was so much interest in this almost surreal friendly that top television commentators were in town, all the tickets were sold in advance and the kick off had to be put back by 10 minutes to ease congestion.
Balmy conditions added a wonderful final touch to the event which was the Czechs final warm-up before their European Championship opener against Germany .
The fans set a fine example for the Euro 96 supporters to follow. They gave due respect to the Czech national anthem and applauded good play from both teams. Such was the level of sportsmanship it was like being transported back to Victorian times.
Bridge must have wished they could engage in some time travel after the first five minutes when they trailed to goals from the talented Karel Poborsky and Pavel Nedved.
But the response was dogged from a side who are not know for throwing in the towel.
Yet Bridge struck by their pre-game non-aggression pact and it was intriguing to see a non-league side trying to pass their way out of trouble.
One of the highlights of a memorable game was Mark Edwards crossfield ball for Steve O’Neill who then forced Newcastle’s Pavel Srnicek to make a good save.
Just as the Czechs were in danger of slacking they stepped up a gear and substitute Vladimir Smicer cheekily beat Stuart Barton with a back heel to make it 3-0.
The Bridge keeper may have conceded three goals but he also pulled off a string of fine saves and no-one complained when he was named man of the match for the home side.
Both sides rang the changes and of the 22 who finished the first half only eight remained on the pitch at the start of the second period. The good news for the fans was the arrival of the
Czechs’ golden boy Patrik Berger, of Borussia Dortmund, who made it 4-0 with a brilliantly placed drive.
Berger was the Czechs’ top scorer in the Euro qualifiers and he looks a genuine class act. Watch out for him in the tournament.
Irongate erupted on 52 minutes when Bridge got their diplomatic consolation through Steve Denny, a striker who made only three starts in Bridge’s championship campaign.
He will never forget the moment he drilled the ball past Srnicek and it was great for the player and the home club that they managed a goal against international opposition.
The inevitable backlash came as the Czechs, no doubt fearful of a rollicking from their stern coach Dusan Uhrin, scored four goals in eight minutes, Radel Drulak made it 5-1 before Vaclav Nemecek found the net wit two spectacular shots from the edge of the area.
They were enough to earn him the sponsors’ other man of the match award.
There was just time for Smicer to complete his hat-trick with two late goals before the Czechs trotted off, signed a few autographs and headed back to their base at the Marriott Hotel, in Broughton.
To put this David and Goliath affair in perspective, the Czech Republic has 237,000 registered players and the 22 on duty had a total of 422 international caps between them.
In contrast Bamber Bridge was a village with a population of 12,000 and while the ground was deemed fit to stage an international it did not meet with the approval of the Vauxhall Conference ground graders of the time.
But if the Czechs handed out the football masterclass, the locals needed no lessons in hospitality and some enduring friendships were made.