And you’d always get palmed off,
With a headless centre forward
Dukla Prague. Mention them to someone who a vague knowledge of European football, and they will try and impress you by informing you about the song All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Shirt. Oh, I haven’t heard that one before.
It feels rather predictable opening my entry about Dukla with the lyrics from this well known song. It even makes me feel a bit lazy. Exhaustingly, even the majority of articles about this historic club make reference to the catchy track by Birkenhead’s finest, Half Man Half Biscuit. There’s just no getting away from it.
Don’t get me wrong, I do really like the song. I think it is a cleverly written masterpiece and have fond memories of my Dad playing it to me numerous times when I was younger. However, the immediate mention of the song when talking about Dukla is almost as irritating as when you’re interrupted by someone shouting “Who are they?” when talking about Accrington Stanley.
On a bitterly cold afternoon I stood, looking rather confused peering into a wooden shed which acted as a Dukla’s club shop, the woman knew which piece of merchandise I was eyeing up. There it was, centre stage. Hanging up on a nail which had been hammered into the wall. Converting the price from the confusing Czech currency took me a while. It was a lot of money for a student to part with and they didn’t accept card. I settled for a bobble hat instead.
Ollie and I were making the most of our half-term, meeting up with Matt in the Czech capital. Our Welsh friend had made the train journey over the border from Trnava, his then home in Slovakia. During our fleeting visit we would watch three matches at Dukla, Slavia and one a couple of hours north in Dresden, Germany.
A concoction of strange drinks ensured that Ollie and I missed the Friday morning derby match between Meteor Prague and Motorlet Prague. On reflection, part of me wishes I had made the most of the glorious morning but I had made a hapless decision. During a stint in Illegal Bar I left Ollie in charge of getting the next round of drinks in . My body never fully recovered from a full pint of Triple Idiot IPA, which weighed in at 10.3%. What was he thinking?
Despite falling asleep in Illegal Bar (the IPA proving to be the final nail in the coffin) Matt had somehow made it to the Meteor match which kicked off at 10:15. He enjoyed himself but we enjoyed our lie in more.
In the sunshine of the early afternoon, we went in search of one of Prague’s many Pivovar’s and settled on Národní, which was one of the cities more modern breweries. Sat in a sun soaked beer garden, we sampled what the waiter recommended and form of goulash, with lots of bread to soak up the night before.
We headed on towards Charles Bridge, the cities most famous landmark. I didn’t get what all the fuss was about and found the nearby Ice Pub far more interesting and quieter. That was until we were joined by a rowdy group of lads from Newcastle, who provided some light entertainment before leaving as they felt too cold. A woman took payment at the desk and handed over a casino chip that you would then hand back upon entry. “Chip” asked the bouncer, to which one of the absolutely hammered Geordie lads replied, “I’ve not ordered any mate.”
Fresh from his fourth division game, we caught up with Matt later on in the day at U Dvou Koček which he kept referring to as “the cat bar” due to it housing a large painting of a feline being milked for beer.
Dukla’s stadium, the Juliska was to the north west of the city centre in the Dejvice district. To reach it, we had to navigate the local tram system up the steep, winding hills on the other side of the Vitava river. Through the middle of St. Wenceslas Square we headed before stopping at Staroměstská to wait for the number 8 tram which would take us over to the to the stop closest to the stadium; Nádraží Podbaba.
Stepping off the tram in a quiet part of town, I wasn’t quite ready for the steep ascent up to the stadium, or the flurry of activity halfway up the ridiculously steep hill. We passed a couple of Gurkhas who were having a rest before completing the rest of this treacherous and rarely travelled route.
On the right hand side, just below the stadium, the Juliska Sports Centre was as busy as Charles Bridge. It was the weekend of the annual Prague Handball Cup. 627 teams from 25 different countries around Europe had entered. Rather than resting, the athletes were running around the streets having practice matches. We dodged a number of head shots and were frowned at when we kicked a stray ball back to it’s respective owner. A lot of interest was centred on the tournament, with each team proudly dessed from head to toe in their teams bright colours. Dukla even entered a side.
Up a further flight of steps, an elevated statue of Josef Masupust greeted us at the small and quiet entrance of the stadium. Here, a couple of policemen stood around waiting for something to happen – nothing ever would. There seemed more chance of a riot at the handball cup. Dukla are the least well supported out of Prague’s four top division clubs, drawing very low crowds, due in part to a tumultuous history.
Masupust serves as a reminder to just how strong Dukla once were. It was needed, as this league fixture against Sigma Olomouc didn’t even threaten to disturb the locals who were blissfully unaware, tucked away in their high rise communist tower blocks. In 1962, Czechoslovakia reached the final of the World Cup in Chile. They would lose 3-1 to Brazil. Masupust scored and in the same year, the midfielder won football’s most prestigious award for an individual; the Ballon d’Or.
For a generation, Dukla’s physically robust players formed the backbone of this successful Czechoslovakia side. You would be mistaken in thinking that this would make them well respected but that was far from the truth. Dukla, were a military club and were allowed by those in political power to select the best players in the Czech army.
This didn’t go down well with other football fans. Even members of the Communist Party showed their disapproval of what was going on. They were allowed to continue, with the aim of creating a football team that was a flagship for the state. By 1967, Dukla had wrapped up numerous league titles and made it to the semi-finals of the European Cup where they met Celtic at the Stadion Juliska.
In front of an enormous grass embankment, which now houses the stadium’s main stand, Jock Stein’s men earned a 0-0 draw to become the first British side to reach a European Cup final. Masupust was that disappointed, he refused to shake hands with the victorious Scotsmen.
Dukla would suffer a catastrophic fall from their previous dizzying heights, almost disappearing from the face of football forever. In 1994, their association with the military that they had so heavily depended on came to an end and they suffered relegation, dropping down two divisions.
Three years later, unable to even pay their membership fee to the league, the club merged with another struggling club, 1.FK Pribam. As part of this deal, they moved away from the capital and became FC Dukla Príbram.
The famous name, kidnapped and held hostage 60 km away from home was used for four seasons before it was unceremoniously dropped. Dukla had disappeared from football. A new incarnation was set up at the Juliska and started life in the sixth tier of Czech football. It was that form of Dukla Prague that had risen up to the top flight that we were watching on this occasion.
An old yet assertive man stood outside the sole turnstile being used. He was persistent in shoving a bundle of tickets in our face, trying to sell them. He understood no English and we spoke no Czech; the transaction was never likely to happen. I also questioned his motives. Why was he so keen to sell so many tickets to a match that had an attendance of just over 1,700? He took great exception to us ignoring him, deciding instead to pay 160czk (around £5) at the gate.
One advantage of having already climbed up to the top of the stadium, was that the view we were presented with once in the stadium was truly spectacular.
The players appeared to be nothing more than little dots on the pitch but I didn’t mind too much. We were won over by this colossal main stand which held over 8,000, dwarfing the rest of the complex. Above all of the seating was a large platform, where a lot of supporters opted to stand. Here they had the best of all worlds. Panoramic views across the local vicinity, a birds-eye view of the match and more importantly quick access to the bar behind them.
By the time kick off arrived at 17:00, we had already drank our way through a couple of pints of Gambrinus and ate our klobása. Dukla for some reason, emerged in their full yellow away kit – much to the delight of Half Man Half Biscuit fans everywhere – while Sigma Olomouc were in their away strip of dark red.
The game was a tight but lively encounter and the first goal arrived in the 27th minute when Dukla took the lead. Ivan Schranz, a Slovakian forward who had joined the club from Matt’s adopted Spartak Trnava, headed in at the back post. By half time, Olomouc would be level thanks to a blunder from the Dukla goalkeeper, passing a clearance to Jakub Řezníček who was left with the simple task of passing into an empty net.
During the break, we made the calculated decision to watch the second half from pitch level, on the other side of the stadium. The careful walk down involved tackling the steepest flight of stairs that I had ever seen, so we stocked up on essentials from the bar before the descent. We didn’t want to have to return. Despite lots of other supporters having the same idea, a total jobsworth of a steward wouldn’t let us three go any further than the corner flag. He informed us that the other side of the stadium was for journalists only, barking the term at us every time we attempted to ask a question.
Not fans of other side, or being lied to, we didn’t care for rules. We were determined to get past him. If we received banning orders from Czech football, I could happily live the rest of my life in the relative comfort of knowing I would never have to watch this atrocious standard of football ever again. Matt toyed with the idea of charging at him and dumping him in a heap on the floor. I suggested we could attempt to distract him by leaving the delights of a warm klobása within his radius of smell.
Unable to agree on a plan of attack, we had to settle for watching the match from a space on the empty terrace by the corner flag. It was a bit lonely. We weren’t going to move though because that would have meant that the steward had won. Eventually, we would return up the main stand for more beer but only after he had switched duty. In a petty attempt to get one over on us, he made sure to highlight us as trouble makers to his colleague. Our cards were marked; perhaps our trip to Slavia Prague a couple of days later would never happen.
The second half would bring much more entertainment and importantly goals. The visitors raced into a 3-1 lead, the next goal a well-placed tap-in at the near post – again it was Řezníček. He would get his hat-trick ten minutes later with another header.
Having vacated our strategic outpost by the corner flag, we were now back in the stand, opting to mingle amongst the more vocal Dukla fans. They sounded mightily loud from our new vantage point but their chants were simply lost in the vast chasm that is the Juliska.
The match threatened to have a grandstand finish when on 71 minutes, Ondřej Kušnír pulled the scoreline back to 3-2 with with a free-kick. We had been teased thoug. Further entertainment never quite transpired, no hotly disputed penalties would occur and the visitors held out for a key win in their chase for a European place.
As the minutes ticked down on the old clock behind the goal, we headed for the exit. Our mate, the steward, couldn’t stop us from venturing over to that side of the stadium now and we were finally rewarded with a beautiful view of the main stand, just as the sun was setting.
Fluttering on the wall, opposite the statue of Masupust, match posters began to freeze in the stiff breeze. Smartly designed like film posters that you would see at the cinema, they were surely destined for the bin. My bedroom benefited from a further splash of colour, albeit slightly creased after being taken on a tour of the cities bars for the remainder of the night.
A tram rattled us back along to the Old Town and we started the spontaneous pub crawl towards the main square. In one of the more traditional breweries that we ended up in, they were showing Baník Ostrava play against league strugglers Vysočina Jihlava on a small television in the corner. Former Liverpool striker Milan Baroš, in his fourth spell at Ostrava bossed the game and helped himself to the first goal.
My education in Czech football would have to continue another time. It was time for an early night, as the following morning we would be up early, ready to make the trip north into Germany for Dynamo Dresden v FC Nürnberg. We wandered past the tourists who were enjoying the Easter markets in the Old Town Square. It’s famous Astronomical Clock was covered due to maintenance works but at least the Sex Machines Museum seemed busy.
The end to the 2017/18 season would be an immensely tight one. At the bottom end of the table only four points separated 15th placed Vysočina Jihlava (who would be relegated) and 8th placed Zlin. Dukla Prague would finish in the relative comfort of 11th place.
Sigma Olomouc qualified for the Europa League by claiming fourth spot, finishing two points ahead of Sparta Prague. They would beat Kazakhstani side Kairat over two legs before losing 4-0 on aggregate to Sevilla.