English football has been graced by some high-quality imports from the Czech Republic, with Petr Čech, Tomáš Rosický, Milan Baroš and Patrik Berger all gracing the Premier League. Despite the frequent class with which these names operated, perhaps no Czech international has enjoyed greater acclaim, and cult status, at their club than that which is offered towards Liverpool’s once number seven, Vladimir Šmicer. It is a number associated with stardom at Liverpool, having adorned the backs of Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan and Graeme Souness amongst others, and Smicer was a name who, despite not having the quality of those great names, etched himself into Anfield folklore.
Breaking through at his beloved Slavia Prague, Šmicer’s early career saw him continuously overachieve with his clubs and national team. Living in the shadow of more illustrious city neighbours Sparta Prague, life was always difficult for Slavia, but during the 1995-96 season, Europe’s eyes focused on the smaller of the Prague clubs as they went on an improbable run to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. It was the beginning of a string of over achievements for Šmicer’s sides, with the Czech national team reaching the final of Euro 1996, ultimately falling short to Germany, and the Lens side he joined prior to that tournament going on to win the French league in 1997, their first, and only, title.
Ahead of the 1999 season, as part of the effort to replace Real Madrid-bound Steve McManaman, Šmicer was brought to English shores to be a part of the revolution that Gérard Houllier was trying to build. As a slight player whose game was built on finesse, the Czech international struggled to adapt to the more physical English game, finding himself spending more time with the medical staff than the playing staff. As Steven Gerrard outlined in his autobiography, Šmicer often struggled to translate his form on the training pitch to the Anfield turf, showing flashes of brilliance in training but failing to keep fit enough for prolonged spells in the first team.
During his first season in England, the player could only manage a total of 1,171 minutes on the pitch, enough for an average of a meagre 55 minutes a game, with Šmicer only lasting the full 90 minutes on 17 of his 121 Premier League appearances. Much like Harry Kewell and “next Zidane” Bruno Cheyrou, many of the signings that were brought in under Houllier struggled to retain their fitness levels long enough to replicate their impact previously and on the training pitch to the match day experience. The injuries which Šmicer suffered, often to his knees, seriously hampered his potential growth, but his career was one for any professional to be proud of.
Šmicer helped Liverpool to a cup treble in 2001, featuring in the runs to FA Cup, UEFA Cup and League Cup successes, but his true legacy comes from the final time he wore a Liverpool shirt on a competitive occasion. With Rafa Benítez attempting to mark his own influence on the Liverpool side he had taken over, Šmicer was not offered a new contract once his had run out and he missed the final home match of the season, unable to say his goodbye in front of the Anfield crowd. Fittingly, however, his last match for Liverpool would turn out to be the Champions League final, with the diminutive playmaker appearing from the bench in the first-half to replace the injured Kewell, another oft-injured Liverpool number seven.
With the Reds trailing 3-0 to a star-studded AC Milan side, all hope appeared lost for the thousands of travelling fans. Even once Gerrard had headed a goal back for the Merseyside club, it appeared too big of a task. But once Šmicer, upon collecting a simple lay-off from Xabi Alonso, arrowed a low, driven shot past Dida to bring the score to 3-2 with just over ten minutes of the second half played, the travelling Kop believed the impossible was, in fact, possible. Šmicer was the measure of composure in the ensuing penalty shootout, sending Dida the wrong way to negate the effect of John Arne Riise’s earlier miss.
The penalty was the last time Šmicer would kick a football for Liverpool and the fist pump and badge kiss with which he celebrated only served to further fuel the fast growing love affair between player and fans. Šmicer may not be the most storied name on the list of players to have worn the number seven shirt for Liverpool, but few have changed the course of such an important match so quickly, and the Czech international finally became more than ‘Paddy Berger’s mate’ as the fans used to sing.