A Czech star who caught the eye in European Championship action admits a surprise switch to England did not play out as planned
Karel Poborsky admits that a young David Beckham contributed to his struggles at Manchester United, while Jordi Cruyff did his cause few favours by refusing to play for the club’s reserve side.
A Czech Republic international earned himself a shock switch to Old Trafford on the back of his efforts at Euro ’96.
That competition took place in England, allowing Sir Alex Ferguson to get a good look at any potential hidden gems.
Poborsky was considered to fit the mould – with one memorable goal against Portugal seeing his stock rise considerably – and he was snapped up from Slavia Prague.
Just two years and 438 appearances would be taken in with United, with fierce competition for places working against those who found themselves on the fringes of the fold.
Poborsky found himself in that category, as future England captain Beckham started to nail down a regular role, while Cruyff – the son of Dutch legend Johan – was also frozen out on a regular basis.
“Moving from Slavia to United in the mid-90s, it was like two different worlds,” Poborsky told FourFourTwo of an experience that proved testing for plenty at the height of United’s domestic dominance.
“It was a massive step in my career, and in my life. United had a great squad, but I didn’t speak English and the language barrier was the biggest issue. Growing up in Czechoslovakia under the communist regime, English wasn’t taught in grammar schools – we only learned Russian. It was easier for players who arrived from other countries and could speak English.
“That was the case for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who joined United that same summer. When you go somewhere new, the first two or three months are so important to make a good impression. It’s not ideal when you can’t communicate properly.
“Ole was friendly, and many of the players were helpful. Eric Cantona was one of them – a cool guy, and very calm in the dressing room. He always told me that if I needed something, he’d help me. Sometimes the better the player, the more normal the person – and what a player he was. A genius.
“In the end, I was there for just 18 months. It was almost impossible for me to secure a regular place in the starting line-up ahead of David Beckham, at the beginning of his amazing career. But I don’t feel any bitterness.
“The players accepted me and I always tried my best, even though I only came on for the last 20 minutes of games. I didn’t have a problem playing for the reserve team – Jordi Cruyff refused to.
“When I got a chance to play for the first team, I tried to convince the manager of my qualities. My best match was probably against Leeds – I scored one goal, later voted goal of the month, and set up a couple. But every match at Old Trafford was special. We won the league title and I loved the celebrations. Newcastle gave us a guard of honour and Pavel Srnicek, my international team-mate, congratulated me.
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“But I wanted to play regular football. There was massive expectation on me when I played for the Czech Republic. People expected miracles from me, because I was playing for one of the best clubs in the world, but I lost my rhythm and my performances weren’t at the same level. We didn’t qualify for the 1998 World Cup.
“I sat down with Ferguson and told him that even though I was at the best club in the world, it didn’t make me completely happy – I longed to play regularly. He understood and tried to find me an English club on loan – like Leeds or Sheffield Wednesday – but I signed for Benfica.”
Poborsky hung up his boots in 2007 and has since had to overcome a serious brain infection that left him in a medically-induced coma.