It wasn’t so much the Czechs who were dodgy, just the deal and the story behind it.
This is the story of when Derby County ‘signed’ two Czechoslovakian players who never kicked a ball for them.
This is the late eighties when Derby County were owned by the controversial Robert Maxwell. A colourful character, he also owned a number of publishing companies including The Mirror Group. Indirectly he also owned Oxford United, putting one of his sons in charge.
Controversy seemed to follow Maxwell everywhere and it’s only since his death we’ve discovered most of this was of his own making.
These were the days of the Soviet Union, with Eastern Europe under communist rule after the continent was divided up following the Second World War. Czechoslovakia was created with the dissolution of Austro-Hungarian empire after the First World War. The country was occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War and Adolf Hitler granted a separate Slovak Republic as many Slovaks wanted independence. But occupation by the Soviet Union after the War resulted in reunification to Czechoslovakia. The communist grip was such people had to get permission to travel to the West.
Maxwell was born in Slatinske Doly, or Solotvyno as it is now known. It was initially in Czechoslovakia and is now part of Ukraine. He was born into a poor Jewish family and much was made of his rise to become one of the most prominent media barons of his time.
During the Second World War, the area was claimed by Hungary and eventually occupied by Nazi Germany. Maxwell lost many of his family in Auschwitz, but he escaped to France and joined the Czechoslovak Army. By 1945 he was fighting for the British Army, earning the Military Cross.
During the sixties, he served as an MP for the Labour Party. This would later count against him when he tried to buy the News of the World. The owners did not want to sell to a Czech immigrant with socialist sympathies. In 1984 he bought Mirror Group Newspapers.
Outspoken, flamboyant, often controversial, Maxwell didn’t care who he stepped on, on his way to the top and as many have known, if you own the media you control the output. Thereby, halting dissension. He generally attempted to bully people to get his own way.
Maxwell first burst onto the football scene when he saved Oxford United from bankruptcy in 1982. He was appointed Chairman and after gaining promotion to the First Division for the only time in their history, they also won the League Cup. An unprecedented level of success for a club more familiar with the lower throes of English football’s pyramid.
In 1987 he bought into Derby County, saving them from a possible bankruptcy too. Three years earlier they were a Third Division side but back-to-back promotions saw them return to the top flight, thirteen years after they were League Champions. Maxwell’s money helped buy players such as Peter Shilton, Mark Wright and Dean Saunders. In 1989 they finished fifth in the table.
Derby were managed by Arthur Cox. Cox had brought Kevin Keegan to Tyneside when he was in charge of Newcastle. He also brought through Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle, as well as signing Terry McDermott for an iconic period in Newcastle football, surpassed only by Keegan’s return as manager a decade later.
Cox oversaw two promotions as County manager and his stock was high. In January 1989 Maxwell announced the signing of two Czechoslovak players who were going to enhance the current squad
Throughout the years after the Second World War, many people ‘defected’ to the West. In Berlin, those in the East needed to gain permission to travel to the West of the city, and this was rarely granted. Some attempted to climb over the Berlin Wall but were shot for doing so. On other occasions, this was simply going missing on a trip to Western Europe. Each time Eastern European nations competed in sporting tournaments such as the Olympics, World Cup, European Championships or even just competition against western nations, there was strict control by their communist governments on their movements. Occasionally some would slip the net and turn up at an Embassy desperate to claim they’d defected.
In 1961 the world famous Russian dancer, Rudolf Nureyev defected while in Paris touring with the Kirov Ballet. In 1989 the Romanian Gymnast, Nadia Comaneci defected to the United States.
Eastern Europe, sometimes referred to as the “Eastern Bloc” or “Soviet Bloc”, created a tough regime which convinced the local population they were better off where they were. Dissension was cracked down on, people would ‘disappear’. The ‘border’ between the East and West was referred to as “The Iron Curtain”. The authorities in the Soviet Union and East Germany found the whole process of defection as embarrassing and generally clamped down on the whole thing. There were often consequences.
Kubik and Knoflicek
Lubos Kubik and Ivo Knoflicek were playing their football in Czechoslovakia with Slavia Prague. During a pre-season training camp, they absconded and spent five months fleeing the authorities through West Germany, Spain, Belgium and Netherlands.
The story Maxwell told was these two were amateur footballers and having fled their regime, they were genuine refugees, desperate to escape from “a life of drudgery”. The pair declared they had left their club and had been followed through France by the KGB. They took refuge in religious houses in Spain and often “lived like gypsies”. They said the only thing which kept them going was the dream of coming to England and playing for Derby County. Perhaps had they mentioned a desire to visit the world famous Salisbury Cathedral and its impressive spire, then they might’ve been believed.
Derby County had been drawn at home to Southampton for an FA Cup Third Round tie. Maxwell saw his opportunity to unveil the players to the watching crowd. Foreign players were still somewhat of a novelty in English football and after the success of the likes of Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa at Tottenham or Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen at Ipswich, Derby fans were only too pleased to get on the bandwagon. The fact these two were refugees from a vicious communist regime enhanced Maxwell’s claims of philanthropy.
But the truth was far from the story he was putting about.
There were also rumours of forged documents. This was all so typical of the chaos Maxwell could create.
Kubik and Knoflicek were not free agents, they were not amateurs. They were professionals contracted to Slavia Prague and before they could play for Derby, needed the necessary permissions to turn out for another club.
Knoflicek, a striker, had played over one hundred and twenty times for Slavia in two separate spells. The 27-year-old had even been an international since 1983.
Kubik, a midfield player, was two years younger and made his debut for his country two years after Knoflicek. They were far from amateurs.
Nothing’s for free
Derby’s owner had already spent money on getting these two to England and putting them up in hotels. He believed he could get these players for free. But Slavia were having none of it.
Understandably, they wanted a transfer fee. Manager, Arthur Cox wanted less of the whole business than Slavia did. He knew they’d never sanction the deal, neither would the FA, UEFA or FIFA. But Maxwell just believed he could bully people into accepting his way.
Years later Stuart Webb, a director of the club at the time, revealed:
“He (Maxwell) failed to totally appreciate that, while you are perfectly at liberty to take on the Government, you can’t seriously expect to win in a situation such as this, and neither will you beat The FA, UEFA and FIFA when the rules are unambiguous in matters of players registered in another country with another club.”
In an interview when Maxwell unveiled the two players, through an interpreter they revealed their love of all things Derby County.
Now that may not be as far-fetched as it seems. When they were league champions, Derby competed in the European Cup during the 1972-73 season. In the quarter-finals, they were up against Czech champions, Spartak Trnava. Spartak won the first leg, 1-0 but two Kevin Hector goals in the return leg won the tie for Derby. Three years later their next entry into the competition saw them drawn against Slovan Bratislava in the first round. Slovan also won the home leg, only to be knocked out after the return match. Both players would have been teenagers and it’s conceivable they were attracted to the champions of England, particularly as they were defeated both times in Czechoslovakia.
Farthest thing from my mind
It was clear Arthur Cox wanted to distance himself from the whole affair. So much so he couldn’t even hide it in public. During an interview before the cup tie he said;
“Genuinely, they are the farthest thing from my mind at the moment. I mean that with the utmost respect to them, as the only thing I’m concerned with is the Southampton match tomorrow”
This immediately conflicted with what Maxwell had claimed;
“Mr Cox, our manager, hopes to play them as soon as possible and I think they will fit in very well”
But FIFA weren’t in any hurry either to have them in a Derby kit. They said they would discuss it in their next meeting but this wouldn’t be until March, two months after the Southampton match. As it turned out, Knoflicek was banned for a year.
Saturday 7th January at The Baseball Ground the two were paraded in front of just over 17,000. The match was drawn but goals from Nigel Callaghan and Ted McMinn won it for Derby in the replay
Derby fans never got to see the two in Derby shirts. They had no option but to return to Prague to face the music. By the summer Fiorentina paid the rights for Kubik and Knoflicek went to St. Pauli in West Germany.
Interestingly enough both players returned to Slavia. Knoflicek in 1994 and Kubik a season later. Kubik then finished his career in the MLS.
Both players continued to play for Czechoslovakia with both in the squad for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Kubik went onto represent Czech Republic after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and was also part of the Euro 1996 squad. In 2006 he was appointed coach of Torquay United, then a League Two side. He lasted three months, won two of his fifteen games in charge and then returned to Czech Republic.
I said at the beginning Robert Maxwell was controversial. Controversy would suggest there may be some who think he was good and others think he was bad. After his death, it emerged he was more of a crook than anyone really knew at the time. Probably the only things he was good for was to get the laws changed for pensions and football club ownership. Business owners cannot now strip pension funds for their own purposes and people cannot own more than one football club at a time.
This was not the first time he was embellishing the truth. Summer 1987 he sat in his London offices and announced Derby had signed England international, Peter Shilton from Southampton. He said it was a £1m deal. In reality, less than £100k went to Southampton. The rest was covered by salary and incentives over a three year period. It would’ve needed Derby to win everything to reach £1m.
Oxford United fans may dispute the fact he was no good for football ownership as their greatest ever period following their club was under his stewardship. Derby County fans were also happy with their return to the big time under Maxwell, but how many of them would rather he wasn’t involved?
What isn’t particularly clear with this whole episode involving the Czechs was why them and why then? Some of the many questions left unanswered.