Karel Poborsky - Manchester United's Euro 96 Signing That Didn't Go To Plan

It's a risky business signing a player after an impressive tournament performances. Karel Poborsky never set the world on fire at Manchester United, but maybe he should have done.
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It's a risky business signing a player after an impressive tournament performances. Karel Poborsky never set the world on fire at Manchester United, but maybe he should have done.

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Performances in international tournaments can be misleading and signing a player based on his performances in one tournament fraught with disappointment. Outstanding performances at previous Euro’s have been responsible for John Jensen, Thomas Brolin and Milan Baros appearing briefly to be emergent European greats before spending the rest of their careers proving otherwise. For Manchester United there was Karel Poborsky.

As a Manchester United supporter I recall going into the Euro 96 tournament in England eager to see more of the clubs anticipated new big-money buy Karel Poborsky. (Poborsky didn’t actually sign for the reds until after the tournament but the word was a deal had been done with United before it kicked-off. And so it proved).

I knew nothing of Poborsky save what I’d read on the back of the Manchester Evening news. Nowadays someone would’ve tweeted a link to his Wiki-page and Youtube account within minutes of anyone at Old Trafford breathing the first two syllables of his name but in 1996 it was three days before the M.E.N. could even come up with a photo. (And what a photo it was).

Emerging from a resurgent Slavia Prague team and clearly a highly-rated talent, yet unknown by most in England, Poborsky carried the whiff of foreign glamour and sense of the unknown with him. Most United supporters were keen to see him in action and have a look what the fuss was about and the European championships were bringing him and his Czech Republic team to Manchester.

Every photograph of him looked like a mid-period Lucien Freud painting. When they’re feeling depressed, Hangdogs describe each other as having a Poborsky expression

What had been noticed about him before he kicked a ball was his somewhat individual look. It was immediately clear that Karel hadn’t been blessed with the looks of a film-star. Every photograph of him looked like a mid-period Lucien Freud painting. When they’re feeling depressed, Hangdogs describe each other as having a Poborsky expression. His countryman Václav Bělohradský was once moved to describe Karel’s face as “The very essence of Bohemian melancholy” and suggested mirrors could be suicidal. He wasn’t even a Nicky Butt never mind a David Beckham.

For reasons known only to himself, Karel chose to compound his singular looks with the hair of a 12th century Norse king. His literal crowning glory was a cascade of curls and tangles halfway down his back giving him the appearance of someone who should be on horseback in The Lord of the Rings. His wild looks merely added to his ‘foreigness’ and I was genuinely intrigued by him.

He arrived at Euro 96 with the eyes on him as part of a recently -formed Czech Republic team containing a number of young players such as Nedved, Smicer and Berger. From his first game it was clear Poborsky was a talent. In an enterprising and skilful Czech side he was one of the stand-out players. He had pace, strength, could beat his man and deliver a killer ball. He looked the business. I watched him play against France in the semi-final at Old Trafford where he ran Bixente Lizarazu ragged and tormented Blanc with is runs in-field. The game was a tactical stalemate decided on penalties in the Czech’s favour but Karel gave a commanding display against a strong French side that would win the world cup two years later. It was the second time I’d seen him in the flesh and both times he’d been his team’s best player.

His countryman Václav Bělohradský was once moved to describe Karel’s face as “The very essence of Bohemian melancholy” and suggested mirrors could be suicidal. He wasn’t even a Nicky Butt never mind a David Beckham.

He truly autographed the tournament during the quarter-final win over Portugal when he scored his famous lob over Vitor Baia. The Czech’s disciplined, skilful and well-blended team saw them progress all the way to the final before losing to Bertie Vogts German side and Karel was voted into the team of the tournament. His future success seemed assured and United looked forward to seeing him produce the same displays in a red shirt.

Karel signed for United at the same time as a whole raft of foreign players including Jordi Cruyff (who was the only one I’d heard of), Ronny Johnsen, Raimond van der Gouw and an unknown Norwegian child called Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. However, despite his Euro-displays and him being the most high-profile and expensive member of this group, curly Karel endured a difficult time at Old Trafford and the Euro 96 magic never resurfaced during his performances in red.

He ran around a fair bit (in a Ji Sung Park style), showed some glimpses of his trickery and weighed-in with a few goals but for the most-part he simply struggled to get into the team. His way into the side was usually blocked by someone who would develop a far more varied yet equally risible series of hairstyles, the aforementioned David Beckham. The fast-rising Becks had scored that goal against Wimbledon just a month after Karel’s arrival and he was rapidly sewing-up his place in the team and history, ultimately at Karel’s expense.

He ran around a fair bit (in a Ji Sung Park style), showed some glimpses of his trickery and weighed-in with a few goals but for the most-part he simply struggled to get into the team.

In the end Karel only turned-out for the reds about 30 times in a year-and-half before moving on to Benfica. He never let United down when he played, weighed in with a few goals and was a (small) part of a very successful team but there was no Euro 96 magic from him. I remember he scored the 7th in a 7-0 win over Barnsley after coming on as a sub which kind of sums up his time at United. Unfortunately for United, the best performance he ever put in at Old Trafford ended-up being that semi-final display against France. In the end no-one was glad to see him go, but no one was sad. He was unnecessary. He was handy to have around but in the end we didn’t need him.

He was too good a player to spend the amount of time on the bench that he did at Old Trafford. He went on to have a long, successful career with Benfica and Lazio before going back to Prague for four years, this time with Sparta. He played in numerous other championships both at European and world level and currently tops the all-time appearances list for his country but his time at United was a disappointing let down.

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