It is 20 years since football came home at Euro 96. The Czech Republic squad set up base in Preston for the three weeks of competition as the tournament’s dark horses and Mike Hill looks back at how the visitors from eastern Europe wowed Lancashire and went so close to winning the trophy.
The summer of 1996 saw the nation gripped by football fever as the 16 best sides in Europe converged on the country for the first major tournament to be held on English soil for three decades.
With the Russia team down the road in Wrightington the Czech Republic set up camp at the Preston Marriott Hotel bringing a 50-strong delegation of players, coaching staff and officials over to Lancashire with them.
The side chose Preston after being drawn in Group C with Italy, Russia and eventual winners Germany which saw them play their first round games at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium and the Old Trafford home of Manchester United.
The Czechs took over 60 rooms at the luxury four star hotel, on Garstang Road, Broughton, and brought their own chef to work alongside the Marriott’s own kitchen staff.
The hotel provided the team with special food requests which one night meant an order going out for 50 rabbits for their favourite stew.
Soups, pasta, Pot Noodles, venison and, for the team doctor, a lobster was ordered which is a delicacy in the Czech Republic.
They also had 80 barrels of beer on tap from their Czech brewery sponsors but reportedly only drank still bottled water with meals.
Although the party did enjoy a tipple during their stay at the nearby Golden Ball.
Then manager Lyn McIndoe, told the Evening Post: “Members of the Czech Republic team did drink in here regularly during Euro’96 and they were a pleasure to serve.
“Their favourite tipple was Becks and Guinness, which they drank with the locals, but whether it helped their success I don’t know!
“They were always very friendly and before they left they swapped T-shirts with some of my regulars. We were all sorry to see them go.”
At the time the Marriott’s general manager Paul Le Roi said: “It is quite an accolade for us that they are staying here when you consider there are only four teams playing in the North West and they have chosen to stay here.
“I think they chose us because we are near enough to the two cities where they will be playing but far enough from the supporters and I just hope they are successful.
“It is a difficult group they are in but I think they might just turn out to be the dark horses of the tournament.”
During their stay the Czech team ventured out and about visiting the shops in Preston and Blackpool where they strolled along the Golden Mile and bought Kiss Me Quick hats with rumours surfacing of the players even enjoying an evening at a Preston nightclub.
Meanwhile, many of the their supporters stayed at Cockerham Sands Caravan Park, near Lancaster, while several hundred German and Russian followers headed to Blackpool for the duration of the tournament.
The Czechs arranged to use Preston Grasshoppers Rugby Club, in Lightfoot Lane, Fulwoood, and the playing fields of Broughton-in-Amounderness Primary School, for their training sessions.
And one of the highlights of their stay was a friendly match with Bamber Bridge at their Irongate ground.
Recently retired Preston North End kitman Russ Rigby was groundsman, football secretary and kitman at Bamber Bridge when a chance telephone call landed the non-league side the star-studded friendly.
He later recalled: “I took a call from the manager at the Marriott Hotel in Preston where the Czech Republic based themselves in the build-up and during the European Championships.
“His words were, ‘Do you fancy playing the Czech Republic’? It was safe to say I nearly dropped the phone in surprise. He explained that Preston North End had put him in touch with me. They had been offered the game but did not want it for whatever reason.
“We agreed to play them and there was a visit from officials of the Czech FA, with faxes and phone calls to sort everything out.
“On the night of the game the ground was packed solid and it was a great occasion.
“People who weren’t there phoned me up later to see what the score was. When I told them 9-1 they asked, ‘Who to?’ and my answer was, ‘Who do you think?’
“Czech Republic might have scored nine but our goal was an absolute belter.”
Despite entering the competition as 66-1 outsiders after a poor qualifying campaign the Czechs emerged from the group as runner up to Germany after beating Italy 2-1 and drawing with Russia 3-3.
With their place in the knock out rounds secured they took up the option to prolong their stay in Preston.
Next up they beat Portugal 1-0 at Villa Park, in Birmingham, before defeating France on penalties at Old Trafford in the semi-final.
As they packed up to head to Wembley the Czech party received a special visit from pupils at Holy Family RC Primary School, in Ingol, which was linked to the town of Kutna Hora, east of Prague.
The youngsters were invited to the Marriott to meet the players and collect autographs before presenting Newcastle United goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek with a bouquet of flowers to wish them well.
While Fulwood tailors Debonair International Menswear presented manager Dusan Uhrin with a new suit for the big day.
And although they eventually lost the final 2-1 to old foes Germany in extra time the Czech Republic left behind a host of happy memories of a successful stay in Lancashire, a team spokesman telling the Evening Post: “We are very happy to be in Lancashire. The hotel has been brilliant and the service we have received at the Grasshoppers and everywhere else has been wonderful. We have seen Blackpool and Preston and parts of Manchester and Liverpool from the coach.
“The best bits have been when we are driving through Preston and everyone waves at us. We find it very friendly here in Lancashire and when we played Bamber Bridge the audience was brilliant. They kept clapping and cheering.”
Read the Bamber Bridge vs Czech Republic match report here: