Oct 05 2010

Pavel Vrba: Zilina legend, Plzeň legend ??

Published by at 11:56 pm under Czech Republic,Domestic and tagged: , ,

Apologies in advance for the long introduction – this article deserves it.

The original intention of the Britski Belasi blog was to provide an outlet for myself to share a few stories from the football terraces in a lesser-known footballing region, but this has been massively surpassed already. We now find ourselves covering all aspects of Slovak football; from the National team to the League, the Cup, Ultra fans groups, Division 1, Slovak players abroad and much more – we’ve even been known to discuss tactics!   Quite frankly, it’s a fascinating journey.

I’ve been massively lucky to establish contact with James Baxter, a writer of top quality who, unlike myself, is based permanently in Slovakia.  James writes original stories which expertly combine journalistic neutrality with the passion of a true Slovak football fan.  This gives a unique angle to the articles and I am very proud to post the following piece on this website.

While we concentrate primarily on Slovakia, we keep more than half an eye on our neighbours, the Czech Republic. Honestly – we’re dreaming about a merger of the leagues.  Anyone who’s glanced at the Czech League this season couldn’t help but notice a new name at the top – Viktoria Plzeň – 9 points clear after 11 games – are playing a wonderful brand of attacking football which is bringing back the fondest of memories to MSK Zilina fans, like James.

Now it’s high time I handed over to James to tell us about Pavel Vrba, the man at the helm in Plzeň, clearly a coach worth knowing about:

Viktoria Plzeň are not a club I would normally pay much attention to. I lived in the Czech Republic for five years – between 1998 and 2003 – but in North Moravia, and Sigma Olomouc were my local team. Plzeň, coming from West Bohemia, were physically remote. They were also fairly non-descript ; my only real memories of them are that they kept yo-yoing between the top two divisions of the Czech League, playing fairly colourless football in the process. They were to me what Birmingham City probably are to a Newcastle fan.

Plzeň coach Pavel Vrba

But it’s getting harder not to notice Plzeň now, when they are a remarkable nine points clear at the top of the Gambrinus Liga. I take a certain distant pleasure in this run of success as the mastermind of it, coach Pavel Vrba, is perhaps the best-loved of the men to have had charge of MŠK Žilina, my current local club, during my time in Slovakia. Vrba not only won great affection during his 28 months or so at Žilina but also led the side through 2006/2007, the most enjoyable of their recent Slovak league championship campaigns.

Vrba arrived at Žilina in June 2006. His credentials did not look great ; he had been sacked by Puchov, Žilina’s near neighbours and a relatively small club, the year before. Žilina, meanwhile, had had a disappointing 2005/2006, idiosyncratic Croatian coach Marian Vlak losing his job as the season meandered to its end.

With Žilina having failed to qualify for European competition, Vrba’s arrival was not accompanied by the signing of any new players. However, he did have talent to work with. Dušan Kuciak, Peter Pekarík, Tomáš Hubočan, Zdeno Strba and Stanislav Sešták, all now Slovakia internationals, were at the club. So were current captain Robert Jež and enigmatic Slovenian playmaker Dare Vršič. After an opening day defeat at Banská Bystrica, the side began to click. They lost only two more games all season, dropped just two points at home (against Nitra) and scored, on average, three goals per game.

It wasn’t just the results, it was the style of play. Full of players who were comfortable on the ball and loved going forward, Žilina were simply irresistible. Other sides tried various tactics against them ; several packed the defence, one fielded three left-sided defensive players in the belief that Pekarík and Sešták on Zilina’s right were the principle threat, one or two others decided they’d probably lose anyway so might as well try to attack. Hardly any caused real inconvenience. Only Artmedia Petržalka were remotely in the title-race by  Spring 2007 but when they visited Žilina in April, hoping for a win that would maintain at least the appearance that they were serious contenders, they were blown away 6-1. ‘We were made to look like puppets,’ one of the Artmedia players said afterwards. A couple of weeks later, needing three points to mathematically secure the title, Žilina were 5-0 up against Banská Bystrica by half-time.

Things could never be quite so good again. Žilina’s Champions League campaign the following season ended in an unfortunate qualifying defeat to Slavia Prague, on penalties after a goal-less 210 minutes. Their hopes of domestic honours to mark their centenary year were terminated in both league and cup by an Artmedia side now managed by Vladimir Weiss. Vrba’s preferred style of football was certainly more aesthetically pleasing than Weiss’s but proved less effective, perhaps even a little naive, in the crucial games. The season ended on an especially sour note as Andrej Porazík and Pavel Devátý, both of whom had played vital roles in 2006-2007, together with Mario Breška (signed to replace the Bochum-bound Sešták), had their contracts cancelled by the club.

Finishing second meant Vrba still had a UEFA Cup campaign to tackle in 2008/2009. His side came through the first two qualifying rounds safely enough but then a 1-1 home draw with Levski Sofia, together with a couple of poor league results, saw the Žilina board run out of patience. Just days ahead of the return leg in Sofia, to the dismay of the supporters, Vrba was sacked. His successor Dušan Radolský oversaw a surprise win in Bulgaria, followed by a fine group stage effort that included a famous victory away to Aston Villa. When Radolský moved on, Pavel Hapal came in and led Žilina to the 2009/2010 championship, then to qualification for the Champions League group stage this season.

Yet neither Radolský or Hapal have been as popular at Žilina as Vrba was. After the 2008 win in Sofia, Žilina fans were not hailing new coach Radolský, they were unveiling banners reading ‘Thank You Pavel’. Even as last seasons Slovak league campaign was drawing to its victorious conclusion, there were as many chants of Vrba’s name at home games as there were of Hapal’s.

Several factors account for the esteem in which Vrba is still held in Žilina. For a start, he seems to be a genuinely nice man, always coming across well in interviews. He is also one of the few Czech coaches in Slovakia to have come up with a decent answer to the familiar question of whether he would ever be prepared to speak Slovak : ‘No,’ he said, ‘the language deserves better than an assault from the likes of me.’ The football itself, of course, is crucial. Fans of many clubs are able to name a favourite season and some are so lucky that they can cite one where what their side produced on the field came close to perfection. For many Žilina followers, 2006/2007 really was that good. Clearly, Vrba, rather like Arsene Wenger minus the histrionic victim complex, had a vision of how he wanted the game played and the players revelled in their attempts to enact it. It might even be the case that relative failure in 2007/2008 and early 2008/2009 made him seem all the more human and his achievement in 2006/2007, therefore, that bit more special.

Whatever the answer, Žilina fans will be delighted to see Plzeň doing so well now. They will also hope that Pavel Vrba is as appreciated over in West Bohemia as he was during his time at MŠK.


6 responses so far




6 Responses to “Pavel Vrba: Zilina legend, Plzeň legend ??”

  1.   Ben Formelaon 06 Oct 2010 at 1:17 pm

    Hello,

    thank you for the interesting article. Given Vrba’s success do you think he’ll remain at Plzen during the winter break and guide them to the Gambrinus Liga title? I would have thought the likes of Slavia would be sniffing around given their plight…

  2.   britskibelasion 06 Oct 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Personally I’d like to believe he will at least see the season through. Obviously given the start he’s made at Plzen you would think his stock would increase significantly if he can repeat the Zilina feat with a club like Plzen. Looking further ahead, who knows what the future might hold for Vrba. As demonstrated by Weiss in Slovakia, a top coach at club level in this area will surely have various offers to consider ..

    It would be a real pity if he left mid-season for what would presumably be money-oriented reasons, although to be honest I’m not too up on the relative finances of a club like Plzen compared to the big boys from Prague. From what I’ve read here though I’d also be very surprised if that were to happen .. not sure what James thinks ..

  3.   James Baxteron 06 Oct 2010 at 4:42 pm

    I’ve thougt about this too. Like Dan, I’m not sure of the relative appeal of Slavia etc so decided to leave the whole issue out of the article. Longer term, perhaps the Czech national team job might appeal(?) He did have a short spell assisting Jan Kocian with the Slovak national team so has a bit of that kind of experience. Thanks for the comments and interesting questions anyway.

  4.   britskibelasion 06 Oct 2010 at 5:12 pm

    Maybe he’d be up for a spell with Slovan Bratislava??

  5.   Rob Marrson 22 Oct 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Thank you very much for this – a really interesting piece.

    RCM

  6. [...] +63, scoring 80 goals. James Baxter has written a brilliant piece on Pavel Vrba’s MSK Zilina side here, its well worth a [...]

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