After suffering a cardiac arrest while out jogging on 20 December, on Tuesday afternoon the former football goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek died. He had been taken to a hospital in his hometown of Ostrava, Czech Republic, and placed in an induced coma, but brain scans showed irreversible damage and the decision was ultimately taken to switch off his life support. He was forty-seven years old.
The son of a woodcutter, after serving in the Czech army Srnicek began his professional football career at the age of twenty-one, playing 30 games for Banik Ostrava in the Czechoslovak First League between 1989-90 and 1990-91. In January 1991 manager Jim Smith signed him for Newcastle United, at a cost of £350,000 following a successful trial. Srnicek was introduced under Smith’s successor Ossie Ardiles, but by the time Kevin Keegan arrived in February 1992 – with the side battling against relegation to the third tier – Tommy Wright had been restored as the first choice between the sticks.
The body of Pav’s career at Newcastle therefore coincided with the greatest period in the modern history of the club – and with the onset of my term as a Newcastle supporter. I first began attending games as a six year old during the unforgettable 1992-93 season which saw the side promoted to the Premier League; and it was after fourteen games of this season that Srnicek replaced Tommy Wright in goal, thereafter remaining Keegan’s number one as Newcastle swept to the First Division title.
In Newcastle’s debut season in the Premier League, they finished third, and two seasons later narrowly missed out on being crowned Premier League champions, succumbing to second place in the final game of 1995-96 having led the title race for much of the campaign. Inexperience, the form of Manchester United’s Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel, a last-gasp defeat against Liverpool, and wonder goals from Graham Fenton and Ian Woan made the side and their supporters suffer, but these were wonderful years for Newcastle all the same, enough to mould an appreciation for the game and sustain a level of support through much of the mire that has followed.
Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’ – with a side that variously comprised Andy Cole, Peter Beardsley, Les Ferdinand, David Ginola, Rob Lee, Faustino Asprilla, and later Alan Shearer – were admired throughout England for their free-flowing attacking style, but pundits wishing to prove their worth were equally quick to criticise the team’s perceived weaknesses in defence. A look at the goals conceded column for the seasons at hand suggests the need for a more nuanced analysis: this was a superbly functional defence, but certainly like the rest of the team it was one built with attacking play in mind.
Pav kept goal behind a back four, with Darren Peacock or else Steve Howey providing the last and sometimes the only barrier for keeping at bay opposition attacks. Alongside Peacock or Howey, Philippe Albert remains the most stylish ball-playing centre back ever to have graced the Premier League, while John Beresford, Robbie Elliott, Warren Barton, and Steve Watson all achieved hardworking roles getting up and down the flanks.
Like several of his successors in the Newcastle goal – notably Shay Given and Tim Krul – Pav was a shot stopper first and foremost, with an impressive physique and excellent reflexes, although never as comfortable coming out for crosses. He also possessed a good throw, and while he would have been loved regardless for his saves and his palpable commitment to the club and the surrounding city, the fans responded to him with rarely seen fervour owing to his habit of dribbling round opposition forwards with the ball at his feet.
Pav undoubtedly encouraged an unusual number of Newcastle youngsters to play the part of goalkeeper at home and at school. He would always warmly engage with the fans at the old Maiden Castle, Durham training ground, when the squad under Keegan warmed up, took drills, and played five-a-side all to an audience of thousands. There was hardly a shortage of great players then, but Pav was one of everybody’s favourites.
Srnicek saw off the challenge of ‘Super Duper’ Mike Hooper, who arrived at the club as competition in 1993, but Shaka Hislop, who signed in the summer of 1995 for £1.575 million, proved a sterner test. Newcastle were subsequently spoilt for choice in goal, with Hislop a more rounded keeper but lacking some of Pav’s instincts and his value as sheer fun. Srnicek kept goal for the second half of 1995-96, and for the first half of 1996-97, but the following season he was sidelined as Shay Given made the goalkeeper’s jersey his own.
In 1998 Srnicek moved briefly back to Banik Ostrava, before spells at Sheffield Wednesday, Brescia, Cosenza, Portsmouth, West Ham, and Beira-Mar. Between 1994 and 2001, he was capped 49 times by his country. Then during 2006-07, he returned to Newcastle initially as short-term cover for Given, in the end remaining until the close of the season, making two additional appearances for the club. He was given a tremendous reception when – with Given having injured his groin – he made his return to the first team in December in the 87th minute of a 3-1 home victory against Tottenham.
Several chants had been devised in his honour – one simply repeating his name with an emphasis on the final syllable of ‘Srnicek’ – but the one that stuck was ‘Pavel is a Geordie’. Newcastle supporters sang this once more in full voice during the 0-1 Boxing Day defeat against Everton on Saturday, with their sound recorded and meant to be played beside Pav’s hospital bed. He had recently been on Tyneside to promote his autobiography, while serving as the goalkeeping coach at Sparta Prague. In all he played 190 times for Newcastle, and will not be forgotten.