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Czech star Patrik Berger reflects on his nation's heroics at Euro 96

  /  autty

It is towards the end of the conversation when, for the only time, Patrik Berger hesitates and his words tail off.

We have been discussing how he used to beat Harry Redknapp on the golf course and how he has now become a competent ice hockey player, but the overriding topic of this phone call to Prague is 1996 and the summer when everything changed.

‘Crazy!’ Berger exclaims, when reminded that 23 years have passed since Euro 96. ‘It feels like last week! What an unbelievable time we had; what an unbelievable experience. It was the tournament that opened doors for most of us.’

The Czech Republic arrived in England with a squad of relatively unknown, young players, but they were soon household names thanks to the dashing, inventive way they played football.

To see the Czechs returning to Wembley on Friday, then, stirs memories of that golden generation. Berger was a poster boy for a team that included the future Ballon D’Or winner Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Vladimir Smicer.

They dramatically squeezed out of a group that contained Italy, Russia and Germany, stunned Portugal in the last eight then upset France in the semi-finals until they lost the final 2-1 against Germany in the cruellest fashion.

Golden Goals were used to settle matches at Euro 96 and mention of Oliver Bierhoff’s strike, which squirmed through the fingers of Czech goalkeeper Petr Kouba, is the signal for Berger’s tone to change. ‘I cannot watch the match back,’ he says. ‘I am a person who would rather look forward and for that reason, I don’t watch it.

‘People will tell me when it is replayed on Eurosport, but I cannot watch it again. We were all so disappointed.

‘When we returned to Prague, the party was incredible. Our people made us feel like champions. The silver medal was like winning.’

They nearly struck gold. Berger, then of Borussia Dortmund, had opened the scoring with a penalty and he knew it was not going to be his last goal on English soil.

‘I knew some of my team-mates would be moving,’ Berger explains — Nedved was joining Lazio, Poborsky was going to Manchester United and Smicer would sign a deal with Lens.

‘I thought I would go back to Dortmund. But the night before the final, we trained at Wembley. My agent told me as I came off the pitch. “I have some news — Liverpool want to sign you.” I couldn’t believe it. It was such a massive boost.

‘I was playing in Dortmund with world class players such as Julio Cesar, Matthias Sammer and Andreas Moller and had just won the league, but as soon as my agent said “Liverpool” that was it.

‘I told him to do everything that was possible. Moving to Liverpool was my dream come true.’

The £3.25million move was completed four weeks later and Berger went on to become an Anfield favourite. He had a left foot like a jack-hammer and his first two goals, from outside the area against Leicester, set the tone.

He spent seven years at Liverpool, playing 196 games and collecting five trophies, and he will be back at Anfield on Saturday as part of the legends team who will tackle Milan Glorie, AC’s old boys.

That he says ‘awesome’ four times to describe the occasion gives you an insight of the affection he holds for the club. But ask him who was his best manager during the 12 years he spent in England — there were also spells at Stoke and Aston Villa — and the answer may surprise.

‘I have to say Harry,’ he says, explaining how Redknapp revitalised him when signing him as free agent for Portsmouth in 2003.

‘He was a great manager, but also a great person, who made you enjoy every training session.

‘He was such a funny guy and we played a lot of golf. Playing for Portsmouth was a completely different pressure from Liverpool but I loved it. I had some great times in England and there is a part of me that feels English.’

But not on Friday. He will watch his country, who are now managed by old Slavia Prague team-mate Jaroslav Silhavy, and hope they can make waves once more. ‘The problem is that not enough of our players are in the top European leagues,’ says Berger. ‘It has not been good, but this manager has changed the atmosphere.

‘The Euros are the aim again.’

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