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“The best left-footed striker of a ball I have ever seen!” It’s a quote from Steven Gerrard and reflects the time when Berger was at the height of his powers, playing alongside the Anfield legend where he enjoyed FA Cup and UEFA Cup glory, but his footballing career began back in his native Prague.
Berger joined Sparta Prague as a youth player in 1989, but it would be with cross-city rival club, Slavia Prague where he would make his professional debut two years later. He quickly became a regular, playing in midfield but always likely to chip in with goals, especially in the big matches. It was a talent recognised by the national team and was granted his Czech debut in 1993. This would lead to a move to English football three years later.
In the summer of 1995, Ottmar Hitzfeld persuaded the hierarchy at Borussia Dortmund to layout some £500,000 to bring the player to the Bundesliga. The astute German manager sought to reform the emerging skills of Berger, deploying him as a defensive midfielder, rather than in the free-flowing adventurous midfield role he had enjoyed with Slavia. Although it was hardly a personal success, with many of Berger’s appearances in front of the Yellow Wall coming from the bench, he did pick up a winner’s medal as Dortmund secured the Bundesliga title.
The following summer, the European Championships was played in England and Berger starred for the Czech team that fought its way to the final before losing out to Germany. A penalty from Berger had put the Czechs ahead but an equaliser from substitute Oliver Bierhoff was followed up with another strike from the same player in extra time. The ‘Golden Goal’ was the first time a major championship had been decided in that way.
Despite the bitter disappointment of defeat, there was ample compensation for Berger when an impressed Roy Evans and Liverpool agreed a £3.25 million deal with Dortmund to sign him. The German club were more than happy to take the huge profit offered for a player who had hardly been a regular starter. However, the deal worked out well for all parties, as the following seasons saw Berger produce the best football of his career and the player himself described the signing as “the greatest day in my football life.”
It would be September before Berger could get into his stride at Anfield, with injury delaying his debut. Once up and running, he quickly proved his worth. Two goals against Leicester served to open his account for the club and his first start saw another brace, this time against Chelsea. In his first month of playing action, he was named as Player of the Month.
Although Hitzfeld had played Berger in a more defensive role during his time in Germany, for Evans, the Czech was very much a forward and placed in competition with the incumbent Stan Collymore. His first term as a Liverpool player saw a worthy nine goals and promised much for the future. The following season he would be less prolific as he settled into a more regular and deeper role, but a hat-trick against Chelsea provided a highpoint of the season.
The arrival of Gerard Houllier did little to upset the rhythm Berger had now established and as he played more regularly, a penchant for spectacular goals developed, deploying that left-foot so admired by skipper Gerrard. Outstanding strikes against Leeds, Tottenham and Wimbledon were prominent illustrations of his talent but the one netted against Manchester United is probably the sweetest for the Koppites.
The 2000-01 season was the zenith of his time with the club, as Liverpool collected a treble of trophies. It was Houllier’s third term in the post, and by now Berger was a key element in the squad. Victories over Arsenal in the FA Cup Final and Alaves in the UEFA Cup Final would both feature Berger, although injury put him out of the triumph over Birmingham City to win the League Cup. Liverpool also finished in third place in the league but the injury was a sad portent of things to come. After playing in 32 and 34 league fixtures across the previous two seasons, the total fell to 14, and his last three seasons at Anfield would only see him accumulate a total of 37. Injuries bit deep into his career, and a consequential loss of confidence eroded his worth.
In 2003, Harry Redknapp took Berger to the south coast to join newly promoted Portsmouth on a free transfer. Initially, things went well and Berger looked an astute acquisition by the wily Redknapp. Regular appearances and a few not inconsiderable goals followed over the next seasons but knee surgery early in 2004 dented his progress. A downturn in the club’s fortunes saw Redknapp replaced by Alain Perrin, and although the club successfully avoided relegation at the end of the 2004-05 season, his now expired contract was not renewed and he moved to Aston Villa, signing a two-year deal.
It was hardly a glowing success with Martin O’Neill apparently less convinced of Berger’s qualities than the signing would suggest. A mere nine appearances for the club in his first term spoke of little future under the Northern Irish manager, and a season-long loan to Stoke City followed for the next term, but even in the Championship, infrequent appearances were the order of the day. In somewhat strange circumstances, an extension of the contract was agreed with his parent club, but another season back at Villa Park produced little difference. Altogether, his three years signed to Villa had brought 36 league appearances and just two goals. A return to Prague with Sparta in 2008 completed his time in English football.
Although Berger would continue to play for another two seasons, it was clear that the accumulation of injuries had curtailed much of the pace and power that had been a key part of his skill set, and marked him out as a player of great worth. It’s somewhat difficult to say that any player who made 460 league appearances was robbed by injury. It’s worth consideration however as to how many that could have been had he not suffered as many setbacks. What else could have been achieved by the best left-footed striker of a ball Steven Gerrard had ever seen?