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Lubomir Moravcik: Celtic’s bona fide Czech legend

Lubomir Moravcik silenced the doubters in his first game. By the time he left Celtic four years later, the goal-scoring creative midfielder was a genuine club great.

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This article first appeared in Issue 16 which was published in June 2020.

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He (Jozef Venglos) is the best coach in my football life because he trusted me when I was young and I played for a small club in Czechoslovakia. He gave me a chance to play for the national team and he also brought me to Celtic, which was a perfect end to my career.
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The supporters didn’t know exactly what to expect of me. I think it was a surprise for them that someone came at 33 years old, with the media speaking negatively about me. At the end of the day, everybody saw that I was a normal player who was able to play good quality football.

Football has always fetishised youth and potential but there’s something to be said for experience. Lubomir Moravcik was 33 when he arrived at Celtic in a move widely derided by sections of the Scottish press. He was said to be too old and too slow. Recruited by Jozef Venglos, with whom he had previously worked at international level, his signing was held up as an egregious example of nepotism. A favour for an ageing friend. This characterisation of Moravcik – as a player who was supposedly past his best and had little to offer his new club – didn’t last long.

He made his debut in a 6-1 win over Dundee on November 7, 1998. General manager Jock Brown, who was held responsible for Wim Jansen’s resignation and the delay in replacing him with Venglos, had resigned on the morning of the game. While Moravcik played well that day, it was two weeks later, during his first Old Firm derby, that he would decisively eradicate any doubts about his ability.

There was a typically febrile atmosphere at Celtic Park for the second meeting of the season between Celtic and Rangers. The first had ended in a goalless draw at Ibrox. Celtic were the reigning champions, with Jansen having ended Rangers’ hopes of 10 consecutive titles before an acrimonious exit, but they already trailed their great rivals by 10 points just 14 games into the new campaign. The pressure was on.

Moravcik broke the deadlock after 11 minutes. Simon Donnelly pulled the ball back across the edge of the box, Henrik Larsson dummied it and Moravcik swept home with his left foot to set Celtic on their way to a famous win. He received some rough treatment from the Rangers defence but kept coming back for more. At the start of the second half, he doubled Celtic’s lead with a powerful header from Tom Boyd’s cross. Venglos’ faith in his fellow countryman had already been vindicated.

Hailing a new hero

Moravick continued to toy with the opposition as Celtic racked up the goals. He was withdrawn with the score at 4-1, the crowd rising to their feet to honour a new hero as he left the field. His replacement, Mark Burchill, completed the rout but the day belonged to Moravcik. It was an ideal start to his Celtic career.

“I was lucky because I scored two goals,” laughs Moravcik. “The atmosphere before the game was very electric. It’s not easy to play a game like that because everybody expects you to win, especially when you’re at home. We faced a very, very strong team. The level is higher than a normal Scottish game. You have to be very strong, mentally, to play that game, especially when it’s your first one.

“The supporters didn’t know exactly what to expect of me. I think it was a surprise for them that someone came at 33 years old, with the media speaking negatively about me. At the end of the day, everybody saw that I was a normal player who was able to play good quality football. To score two goals in an important game, especially the first and second goals, was absolute satisfaction.”

In truth, there was little reason to question Moravcik’s ability, particularly not in the derisive tone that some journalists had done. He had a wealth of international experience, including helping Czechoslovakia to the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup, where they narrowly lost to eventual champions West Germany. At club level he had been a consistently creative and probing presence for Saint-Etienne and Bastia during a period of great strength for French football.

Then came a short and unhappy spell at MSV Duisburg. Moravcik signed in the summer of 1998 but made just five appearances for them. His role wasn’t what had been promised, and he looked to move on as soon as possible and start playing regularly once more. Venglos was integral in completing a £300,000 deal to take him to Celtic, which would prove to be a tremendous bargain.

“It was a little bit strange because I was under contract with Duisburg, a German Bundesliga team. I didn’t want to stay and Celtic gave me the opportunity to move. Mr Venglos was the most important person in this transaction,” explains Moravcik. “I didn’t want to stay because I wasn’t happy with my role in the team. Mr Venglos knew that I wanted to move. He came to see me play for the national team with the sporting director and everything happened quickly.”

Moravcik remains loyal to Venglos, who played an important role in shaping his career, and is complimentary about his managerial skills. Although he achieved great success in eastern Europe, perceptions of his ability in the UK have been coloured by short and disappointing stints in charge of Aston Villa and Celtic.

“Mr Venglos is a very respected coach in Europe. Before he moved to Scotland, he twice led the national team to the World Cup and finished third in the European Championship. He’s one of the best coaches in the history of European football. There’s no doubt about his quality,” says the former midfielder.

‘Celtic a perfect end to my career’

“Sometimes the coach or the manager depends on the quality of the team. He only stayed for one year and maybe he needed more seasons to win the league. But for me, to be honest, he is the best coach in my football life because he trusted me when I was young and I played for a small club in Czechoslovakia. He gave me a chance to play for the national team and he also brought me to Celtic, which was a perfect end to my career.”

If Moravcik shared a close bond with Venglos off the pitch, it was clear from their first few matches together that a partnership was blossoming between him and Larsson on it. The team’s two most talented players, they understood each other and operated on the same wavelength. They took Celtic’s attacking play to a new level.

“If you play with players like Henrik it’s easy because he knows everything about football. He knows his job. He knows when to make a run and he’s always in a good position in the penalty box. He could score a header or a volley. He’s a very intelligent player. Outside of football, in the dressing room, he’s a very quiet guy. It’s very easy to speak to him and also easy to play with him on the pitch. It’s not complicated.”

Larsson regularly profited from Moravcik’s unrivalled creativity. A classic playmaker with a desire to entertain the crowd and carve open defences, he often made the difference in tight matches. He was comfortable using both feet, finding angles and openings that others couldn’t even conceive of. With a limited grasp of English when he first arrived at Celtic, Moravcik simply let his football do the talking instead.

“My role was simple. Mr Venglos brought me as an attacking midfielder, something like a playmaker, and I played behind [Harald] Brattbakk and Larsson. That was my favourite position. I always had this role in the team, playing behind the strikers, and making the final pass or scoring goals. I think, from beginning to end, my role didn’t really change.”

Doctor’s parting gifts

The identity of the team’s manager, however, did. Whether unfortunate or not, Venglos’ reign ended after one season. Although he had failed to inspire supporters or deliver silverware – Celtic finished second in the league and lost to Rangers in the Scottish Cup final – he left behind some shrewd signings who would play their part in future successes. Johan Mjallby and Mark Viduka also proved to be valuable additions. They were inherited by John Barnes, who took on his first managerial role with the support of Kenny Dalglish as director of football. A promising start faded after Larsson succumbed to a broken leg in a UEFA Cup defeat to Lyon. Barnes was sacked in February 2000, following an infamous loss to Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and Celtic limped to the finishing line 21 points adrift of Rangers. Winning the Scottish League Cup was small comfort.

Moravcik is sympathetic to Barnes’ plight having enjoyed his attacking style of football. “John Barnes was a very respected player. He had a big career. I think he was a very good coach, a very intelligent guy but he was unlucky because we lost three games in a row, in a bad situation. He was a nice guy. In training he always liked to play a short game – technically good, lots of combinations. “In football sometimes you have to be lucky. It’s not only because you’re good or bad. Sometimes you hit the crossbar and sometimes you score a goal. That’s football. That’s life,” he says.

More change was afoot with the appointment of Martin O’Neill. The former Leicester City manager had established the club in the Premier League while working to a tight budget, harnessing a camaraderie and togetherness that took them to three League Cup finals in four years. Much more pragmatic than his predecessor, Moravcik also credits O’Neill with instilling greater resilience into the Celtic team.

“Martin brought a little bit of a different mentality compared to John Barnes. His game was a lot of passes – one, two touches. Martin was more effective, more direct. He didn’t want to combine too much. He wanted to get the ball wide and put it in front of goal because we had Chris Sutton and Henrik Larsson up front. We played very simple but very effective.”

In theory, a combination of O’Neill and Moravcik shouldn’t have worked but it did. O’Neill liked structure, diligence, physicality and a touch of devilment. Neil Lennon, whom he recruited from his former club for £5.75 million, embodied these characteristics, becoming his leader and lieutenant. Moravcik was a very different kind of player. Approaching the end of his career he couldn’t go charging around the pitch, not that he ever had, and had a subtle, creative influence rather than a thunderously destructive one.

But any successful team requires a mix of different, and often conflicting, qualities, and Moravcik continued to entertain supporters and illuminate a league not known for its artistry. Many neutrals weren’t immune to his charm. The 2000/01 season was to be his most productive, with 14 goals in all competitions and plenty of assists for the prolific strike partnership of Henrik Larsson and Chris Sutton as Celtic won a first domestic treble for 32 years.

“That team was very strong because the guys who were very important came at the beginning of that first season: Sutton, Lennon, Thompson, Agathe. It was a mix of players. They were very strong individually but very good as a team. Different types of players but very good players. That’s important,” says Moravcik.

“After we won the cup it was easier because you have a good atmosphere in the team. You have good form. The players are all really happy. The dressing room is close and it brings happiness. It’s a mix of things. Combined together, it’s very good.”

The title was already won by the time Celtic travelled to Ibrox with four games remaining, but O’Neill’s side were keen to put on a show. They wanted to assert their new-found supremacy on Rangers’ turf and Moravcik made it happen. He picked up Larsson’s pass and held off the challenge of Barry Ferguson to slot home the opener. His second was even better. Shaun Maloney flicked the ball into space on the left to set Moravcik scampering forward. He then cut inside Fernando Ricksen and beat Stefan Klos at his near post. Larsson capped off the win with his 50th goal of the season.

“I didn’t expect to play that game. We had already won the league and Martin gave me the chance to play. It was an important game because even though we dominated in the league, it’s never easy against Rangers. You need good team-mates to score goals. Henrik gave me a good ball, I got through the centre-backs and I scored. The second goal again, I had the ball in open space,” he recalls. “That game was at the end of the season when everything was done. We went into it with a lot of confidence and that makes things easier.”

At home against Europe’s best

The next season would be Moravcik’s last in a Celtic shirt. Although he was playing less, as O’Neill looked to manage his game time, he still made some vital contributions. There were impressive goals, including a thumping strike against Hibernian and a well-taken brace in a 3-1 win over Dunfermline, and unforgettable moments on his farewell tour. Beating Juventus in the Champions League was a belated but enduring reminder of Moravcik’s ability. He shone against some of Europe’s best players in a thrilling game that ended 4-3 to Celtic.

Coming into the side for a rare start, Moravcik provided the composure and control needed in a frenetic game played in front of a capacity crowd. Juventus had already qualified for the second group stage so elected to rest some players, but still fielded Edgar Davids, Pavel Nedved and Alessandro Del Piero. Moravcik looked at home in their company. After Celtic had fallen behind to Del Piero’s free kick, his glorious assist brought them level. He teased veteran defender Michele Paramatti, turning him this way and that, working the space to provide a perfect in-swinging cross for Joos Valgaeren to head home the equaliser.

The two sides continued to exchange blows. Sutton powered in a Moravcik corner, which was cancelled out by a clinical finish from substitute David Trezeguet. It was a pulsating encounter that went down to the wire. Larsson put Celtic back in front from the penalty spot. Their fourth goal once more stemmed from Moravcik’s delivery, his free kick flicked on to Sutton, who thumped home his second of the night. Another smart finish from Trezeguet made for a tense conclusion but Celtic held out against a late onslaught, with a goal ruled out for offside deep in injury time.

Although Celtic went out, they had demonstrated that they could hold their own against elite opposition, and so could their midfield maverick, even at such a late stage in his career. That match understandably meant a lot to both player and club.

Good times

“I had a good relationship with Martin. He was nice to me and he gave me the chance to play the last game in the Champions League. We won and the crowd was very happy. For me, it was the last important game I played for Celtic,”
says Moravcik.

“I came too late to Celtic to stay a long time. Four seasons was perfect. At the end of the season I was 37 and I felt that it was the best time to go. Instead of staying one more year, and spending more time on the bench, I took the decision to move. I had an opportunity to go to Japan and rejoin Mr Venglos, which I took.”

Moravcik departed having won a second SPL title, his fifth and final trophy at the club. Although his J. League adventure didn’t go to plan, as injury soon forced him to stop playing, he was proud to have spent two decades at the top of the game. At 54, he is enjoying his retirement.

“I tried to be a coach, but I wasn’t so successful. Now I’m retired and I live an easy life in my country, with my family. It’s obviously easier when you have a good career as a professional footballer. Later on, it’s easier. It’s logical.”

Wizard. Magician. Genius. Pundits, teammates and supporters would often describe Moravcik’s influence in these terms. They implied that there was something otherworldly about his ability, a trickery and cunning that left people spellbound. He did things with the ball that didn’t seem possible. He made it dance to his own tune.

Moravcik arrived in Glasgow as a relative unknown, someone who had thrived away from the spotlight, but left as a bona fide club legend. His balance, vision and awareness were impeccable. Even now, nobody is quite sure which foot was his strongest as he scored 16 goals with his left and 16 with his right for Celtic. He would take free kicks and corners with whichever suited the situation.

Adored for his improvisational brilliance, which once saw him control the ball with his backside against Hearts, Moravcik was a star turn in Celtic’s wilderness years, and central to their revival under O’Neill. Although he now lives in Slovakia, he makes sure to visit the club where he cemented his legacy and is idolised like nowhere else.

“A player like me who tries to play technical football is always appreciated by the supporters. I think I was lucky because at the end of my four years we played very well under Martin O’Neill. That team was very respected by supporters. I had an important role in this team, especially for the offensive part of the game,” says Moravcik.

“Every year I go once or twice to see the fans for some evening or event. Sometimes for the charity games that Celtic organise. Every year I go back to Scotland. I’m a big supporter of Celtic. I follow the results, but I don’t have the opportunity to watch many games. I know that Celtic are top of the league again and I wish the best for my friend Neil Lennon.”

This article first appeared in Issue 16 which was published in June 2020.

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