A few years ago Hade and I visited the Czech Republic. It was in some ways a big trip, not least because it was while there that I decided to start writing this blog. But we had a terrific time in so many other ways.
One of the best nights was an evening spent watching Slavia Prague play, a cracking game played in a thunder storm in a small stadium that nevertheless contained an athletics track (it can be done). I really enjoyed the match, played by two teams of very skinny but technically excellent players. This lack of physicality has been a big part of Czech football in recent times. True, they’ve come up with ‘big’ players here and there, but your average Czech footballer is more Rosicky than Koller. Small, very good on the ball, pleasing to watch.
So I’ve always had a soft spot for the national team and for any players from that part of the world (I still have a ‘Sivok’ Sparta shirt – if he does sign for us as rumoured it’ll be on my back for the first game of the season). When we signed Marcel Gecov I was very happy. First impressions were that he conformed to type: neat, nimble, a good passer and team player. Sadly he never really did get much time on the pitch, and as such it was difficult to get a feel for what he might become one way or another. It seems that he turned down a loan move to Sheffield Wednesday last year, which in retrospect might have been a mistake for him – game time is all important, after all.
Now he’s off to Belgium, where I’m sure he’ll do well enough. The way he plays I doubt we’ll hear too much more of him – that quiet, unobtrusive style means he’ll always be a ‘bubbling under’ type – but hopefully he’ll contribute and make himself useful.
My lasting memory of Gecov will, incidentally, be of him as a sub: we sit near the warming up area and nobody watched the game as intently as Gecov; he’d sit or kneel or whatever, zen-like, staring into space, perhaps wondering how we might unlock a tight defence; perhaps wondering what to make for dinner that evening. In this way he very closely resembled a meerkat (see above). I’ll miss him.
Not leaving us is famous right back Steve Kelly. Kelly – like almost every player who isn’t obviously very gifted, it seems – has had to win the crowd over, and in truth has been a bit unfortunate in this regard. I don’t know what the benchmark for right-backs is but the skills many seem to expect of them are held by very few: “he doesn’t cross well” is one thing you hear, but if you can give me a pacy right back who is solid at the back and crosses well I’ll look at you and say “okay, but where are we going to find one of those?” (It feels like we have one on the left flank, but signing players of Riise’s pedigree is exceptional, not normal; usually we must accept some form of compromise.) Kelly is not perfect, but the same might be said of any number of his teammates, past and present. What he did do is make massive contributions to our Europa League final run, something that the naysayers seem happy to overlook. Kelly seems to be one of those players that people wait on for a mistake. He can have a perfectly good game, but if, in the 54th minute he slices a cross into the stand, boom, there we are: proof of his ordinariness! Chris Baird had to deal with all this, Philippe Senderos, too. It’s the way things are.
As long as I’ve been playing and watching football, right backs have been quiet, reliable types, not prone to outbursts of any kind, just simple players who get on with it and don’t let you down. Stephen Kelly fits that description perfectly, is a good player to have about the place, and well deserves his extension.