Thursday, January 7, 2010
Patrik Berger: Euro star
The summer of 1996 was an exciting one for the Premier League. With money to burn, England's elite clubs accelerated their importation of foreign talents with the ever more cosmopolitan top flight welcoming star names such as Fabrizio Ravanelli, Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo and Patrick Vieira to English shores.
Though not initially one of the leading lights in this exotic and talented collective, in his 12 years in the Premier League - encompassing spells with Liverpool, Portsmouth and Aston Villa - Patrik Berger earned a reputation as a stylish and dangerous midfielder before injuries began to take their toll.
On January 6, 2010, Berger announced his retirement from the game at the age of 36 having failed to recover from a knee problem. But in England, he will forever be remembered as the dashing playmaker with an alice band who used his explosive left foot to devastating effect.
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1973, Berger started his career with hometown club Sparta Prague before joining their rivals, Slavia, at the age of 18. After scoring 24 goals in 89 league appearances, he earned a move to Borussia Dortmund in 1995 but struggled to replicate his success in his only season in Germany, despite winning the Bundesliga title.
The advent of Euro '96 in England was to change the course of Berger's career forever as he played a starring role in Czech Republic's run to the final, and scored from the penalty spot against Germany before Olivier Bierhoff turned the game on its head with two goals at Wembley. But despite suffering such aching disappointment, Berger's dynamism from midfield had caught the eye of Roy Evans at Liverpool and while his compatriot Karel Poborsky joined Manchester United, Berger headed to Merseyside in a deal worth £3.25 million.
In what was a sign of things to come, Berger struggled with a calf problem after arriving at Anfield but was fit for purpose at the start of September and in only in his second appearance, made a stunning impression. Coming on as a substitute against Leicester, he rifled home two left-footed efforts in a 3-0 win and earned a starting place for Liverpool's next fixture - a home game against Chelsea. Two more goals followed as Liverpool thumped the London side 5-1 and Berger was soon named Premier League Player of the Month.
He would only score two more league goals in the remainder of the season as Liverpool finished fourth in the table but Berger had already announced himself as a dangerous prospect for any opposing side and it was Chelsea, again, who were to feel his full force in the 1997-98 season when Berger smashed a wonderful hat-trick against the Blues in a 4-2 victory at Anfield.
But they were to be his only league goals of the season and, with Berger relegated to the bench for much of the campaign, trouble was brewing with manager Roy Evans. Berger would later lambast Evans and the way he ran the club, claiming: "There was no discipline here. We were like a Third or Second Division club - not like the Liverpool I expected. I was disappointed with the training, with everything."
The midfielder contemplated leaving Anfield in the summer of 1998 after Roma showed a strong interest but news of Gerard Houllier's arrival on Merseyside convinced him to remain at the club and the Frenchman moved him into a central role, rejuvenating his Liverpool career. In the first two seasons under Houllier, Berger scored seven and then nine league goals as he became a central figure in the side, scoring memorable goals against Manchester United, Tottenham and Leeds, amongst others.
While Liverpool's quest for league success continued to prove exasperating, the 2000-01 season witnessed unparalled success in cup competitions. For Berger, though, it was a testing time as he suffered a serious knee injury in a game against Leeds United in November. A trip to famed specialist Dr Richard Steadman in America helped put Berger on the road to recovery and he made his return in March, giving him plenty of time to set up Michael Owen's winning goal in the FA Cup final and appearing as a substitute in a 5-4 victory over Alaves in the Uefa Cup final. Those two games in four days were the pinnacle of the midfielder's career.
In the next two seasons he was dogged by injury problems and having made just one start in all competitions in the 2002-03 campaign, Berger left Liverpool to join newly-promoted Portsmouth on a free transfer. He departed Anfield having scored 35 goals in 196 appearances.
Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp had proved adept at getting the best out of mercurial talents such as Robert Prosinecki and Paul Merson on the South Coast and when Berger arrived at Fratton Park, he made an immediate impression when scoring on his debut in a 2-1 win over Aston Villa. In October he scored the only goal of the game against former club Liverpool and went on to net a further three times in the league before once again requiring treatment on a knee injury, surgery ruling him out for the remainder of the season.
Though he made 30 starts the following season as Portsmouth maintained their top-flight status, scoring one of the great Premier League goals when flicking the ball up and scoring a screaming volley against Charlton, doubts persisted over his fitness and he moved on once more in the summer of 2005 when joining Aston Villa on a free transfer. His injury problems continued and he was restricted to just eight league starts in three seasons at Villa, while a further seven appearances came during a loan spell with Stoke City in the Championship.
The end of his career in English football was hastened in May 2008 when he broke ranks to recommend that his Villa team-mate, Gareth Barry, should accept the persistent advances of his former club Liverpool. Martin O'Neill, unsurprisingly, was furious and declared: "We are paying Patrik's wages for him to recommend one of our players to another football club. It's ludicrous. He said he didn't mean a great deal of harm but the harm has been done and he won't be playing any part in proceedings from here on in."
And so, after 12 years, 229 appearances and 38 goals in the Premier League, Berger departed for his native Czech Republic and joined up with his first club, Sparta Prague, at the age of 34. The midfielder who won over 40 caps for his country, scoring 18 goals, suffered yet another injury and after undergoing knee surgery for the eighth time, his body finally capitulated and retirement was inevitable.
It is certain that his persistent fitness problems prevented Berger from fulfilling the potential he showed in those halcyon days of Euro '96, but for Liverpool fans of a certain age, the memory of a long-haired maverick unleashing one of those trademark left-foot shots is one that will linger for some time.