By Bernard Thompson
Published in Nutmeg Magazine, Issue 6
On the fourth of July, this year, Celtic played out a 0-0 draw with Slavia Prague at the Czech club’s Eden Arena. Arguably, the most remarkable on-field event in the pre-season friendly was a knee injury to Dedryck Boyata that would keep the Belgian defender out of competitive action for three months.
Eden is a neat, modern stadium in the Vršovice area of Prague, holding only 21,000 spectators – about the size of Pittodrie – though Slavia is one of the biggest clubs in a country with a population roughly double that of Scotland’s.
The Czech capital dwarfs Glasgow and Edinburgh with a population of around 1.25 million in the city and more than two million in the metropolitan area and yet, even the biggest clubs can only look on with envy at the crowds routinely attracted to Scottish football venues.
That may surprise some, considering the fact that Czechoslovakia were European Champions in 1976 and the Czech Republic were runners-up in Euro ‘96 with the country’s famed “Golden Generation” including the likes of Petr Čech, Pavel Nedvěd, Karel Poborský, Jan Koller and Vladimír Šmicer.
The relative lack of popularity of football in the Czech Republic can be attributed to a passion for ice hockey and 40 years of Communism, during which period the notion of loyalties and affinities of every form were re-evaluated.
The prevailing regime decided, for example, that footballers playing for clubs would surely prefer to represent their workplace or factory teams, instead of carrying on age-old traditions related to tribal affiliations that pre-dated the Socialist utopia.
It may jar with some Scottish football enthusiasts that a country of similar land mass and whose national team has achieved considerably more than that of the land that “gave football to the world” should largely see the beautiful game as a secondary pursuit.
But it was not always this way.
Once, in fact, Czechs were not only full participants in the tidal wave of European enthusiasm for the game – there was a consciousness of the sport as something more. A vehicle on which to advance sporting, cultural and nationalistic ideals.
Regardless of the wider modern understanding of Czech and Slovak, even the word “Czech” does not fully denote the country now technically (though rarely in practice) known as “Czechia”. To people in Moravia and Silesia, “Czech” refers specifically to the Bohemian part of the country.
But, historically, Slavia had always represented something different.
In the late-19th century, when Slavia was formed – 1892, to be precise – the Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
German-speaking Austrian-Hungary may already have been an anachronism to many by the end of the 19th century, but Slavia represented a symbol of a distinct culture within an empire fused from two foreign neighbouring lands.
Founded by university students, the name, Slavia, evoked Slavonic and Bohemian tradition not assimilated into the imperial identity of the occupiers of the Czech lands.
The club was to be a touchstone for Bohemian and Slavonic pride, wearing red and white – the colours of Bohemia – to denote the passion of their hearts and the purity of their ideals. Their badge would be a five-pointed star, not grounded but with two points towards the heavens denoting the desire to dream.
And yet, despite the potent nationalism that Slavia evoked, in 1905 it turned to a foreigner in its pursuit of greatness, who was honoured with a stand in his name on that day in July.
That foreigner was a Dumbarton-born Scot. And his name was Johnny Madden.
The son of Irish immigrants who had fled the Great Hunger in Ireland, Madden was born to Edward and Agnes (nee MacIlvenney) Madden on 11th June 1865 at 71 High Street (an address now occupied by Boots the Chemist) and would be one of nine children to whom Agnes gave birth.
It is not necessary to wax lyrical with tales of the poverty endured by the Maddens and those like them in the ship-building town. And, indeed, to do so through a 21st-century lens could be considered an injustice to Agnes and Edward.
They had braved the unknown so that their families might have a chance to at least survive, if not prosper, and they might justifiably have considered their courage to have been rewarded with success.
In his early teens, Johnny was already employed as a riveter’s boy and then a riveter at the local shipyards, work which involved swinging a heavy hammer at pins of red-hot iron, to fabricate hulls in the building of the West-of-Scotland ships which would be famed the world over for their excellence.
But, however thankful those employed were to have good, regular employment, no one would say that the work was easy. It was relentless, strenuous and dangerous.
Without trade unions, sick pay or a National Health Service, the options were to keep working, through fatigue, pain, injury and distress – or to founder.
The latter, while unthinkable, would be the ultimate fate of many men lacking the physical or mental fortitude to constantly plough on. They may have succumbed to any of a plurality of frailties; bad health, bad luck or quite often the perils of drink.
But we might speculate on the physical and mental qualities of those, like Madden, who consistently withstood the rigours of shipyard work. And that may even, in some part, explain the early success of Dumbarton FC, Scottish Cup-Winners in 1863, later the same year defeating Blackburn Olympic (6-1) to be hailed as the champions of Britain.
The following year, Johnny Madden would sign for Dumbarton Albion and, in 1866, would be described as Dumbarton FC’s first Catholic footballer. (One newspaper reported that Dumbarton was one of the first teams to play Catholics, so some forward-looking selection policies may also have contributed to the club’s early strength).
He made his debut in January 1887, scoring in a 3-1 win over Hurlford in the second replay of a Scottish Cup quarter-final tie. He would also play in the semi-final victory over Queens Park.
A few weeks later, Madden would play for Dumbarton on the losing side, “grazing the left upright”, in the Scottish Cup Final, with Hibernian winning 2-1 on what would be a highly-controversial occasion.
Dumbarton protested over the second Hibs goal, which was scored as the defending team had stopped playing, so convinced were they that there would be a call for offside.
But, worse, while the Scottish game was supposedly strictly amateur, damaging accusations were levelled against Hibs. It was said that the club was treating its players to daily steak dinners and compensating them for lost wages of up to a week, to encourage them to train for major games.
If paid training, while opponents swung picks, hammers or shovels, and providing a high-quality diet when most considered meat to be an occasional luxury wasn’t professionalism, some may have asked what the amateur ethos was really about.
We don’t know what effect, if any, this disappointment may have had on Madden; only that Hibs sailed very close to expulsion from Scottish football competition but survived. It is also said that Madden was often known to use a word that he may or may not have coined – “shamateurism”.
And there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that he may have taken some of the lessons learned to the – strictly amateur – Slavia.
One of his few remaining relatives in Prague, a Czech TV personality and food-writer, Roman Vaněk, has described sheets in his possession of recipes compiled by Madden, including how to make broth from bones. It is said, that Madden brought the female relatives of his players together to teach them how to cook food that was suitably nourishing for players, he can be said to have been ahead of his time in recognising the value of nutrition to athletic performance.
From Dumbarton, he went on to Gainsborough Trinity – a power in the English game in those days – working in the docks during the week before travelling almost 300 miles south, by train on the Friday.
He would play on the Saturday, coach the team the following day and travel north again for his work. While that is remarkable by today’s standards, the prospect of leaving heavy industry to play football was only beginning to become a reality in those days.
Madden was earning between £1 and £1 10s for a week's work as a riveter but £2 to £2 10s plus travelling expenses as Trinity coach, making the journey worthwhile.
When he signed for Trinity, FA rules prohibited the club from offering him a professional playing contract, as he hadn't lived locally for two years. (This was apparently partly to dissuade clubs from raiding players from other associations.)
Gainsborough’s solution was to ask Madden to sign as an amateur player but a professional coach, to get around the issue, seeing this as merely a device. However, Madden quickly made it clear that he intended to fulfil the role of coach, as agreed, and the club acquiesced.
As author Clive Nicholson says: “Rather than lose him, Madden was allowed free rein. This proved to be an inspired decision. He quickly impressed on his new charges the need to pass the ball along the ground and retain possession. He was an expert in coaching the art of movement off the ball and creating space. He tailored skill sessions to suit each player's role within the team. Madden himself could shoot with great power and a back heel manoeuvre he perfected was pure genius. In addition to being a fine masseur and fitness trainer, he impressed on players the need to prepare mentally for a game, to eat properly and restrict their alcohol consumption. Madden was a man way ahead of his time.”
He won his first game as player-coach against local rivals Lincoln City and would be top scorer at the club in his first season, also winning a dribbling competition, which says something about his ball control to match his undoubted physical and shooting power. (One of the nicknames he would earn was “Rooter”, which was, according to some, a reflection of his having such a powerful shot that it could threaten to uproot goalposts. However, it might conceivably have been a corruption of the word, “riveter”.)
But perhaps his most significant achievement at Trinity was his coaching of Fred Spiksley, widely considered to be the best English footballer of his time and, by some, thought the greatest player in the world.
When Spiksley signed for Trinity at the same time as Madden, he was considered, by the club’s directors, too slight of build to warrant a professional contract. Madden, however, took a special interest in his development, in particular working on his physical condition.
As Nicholson says in his biography of Spiksley Flying Over an Olive Grove: “Despite a formidable goalscoring record for the Jubilee Swifts in the Lincolnshire Junior Cup that year, where he scored 31 goals in 6 games, Spiksley’s light build meant that it took a little time for the Trinity committee to truly believe that the 17 year old was ready for the rigours of playing for the town’s premier club.
“With the help of Jack Madden, ... Fred Spiksley was able to prove his doubters wrong; scoring 31 goals in 29 games during his first season and creating many goals for his team-mates.”
Spiksley scored 131 goals in 126 games for Trinity and went on to play 293 times for Sheffield Wednesday, scoring 100 goals. (There is video footage on YouTube of an elderly Spiksley showing some training techniques, including the back-heel, attributed to Madden.)
Already one of the outstanding players of his day it is therefore no surprise that he should have been approached by Celtic for their inaugural match against Rangers Swifts. Presumably, his Irish Catholic background and the fact that the club was founded to assist people very much like his parents when they had first arrived in Scotland convinced Celtic that Madden’s sentiments would be sympathetic to the new club.
Though he did not score that day, Madden played centre-forward, quite literally at the vanguard of the first Celtic team. In 118 appearances for Celtic, he scored 49 goals and won three league titles between 1892 and 1896. He was also with the club when they won the Scottish Cup in 1892 but he never had the satisfaction of exorcising the ghost of that defeat by Hibs, as he did not play in the final.
One of the most frustrating things for those interested in Madden is the relative lack of newspaper reports about his life. A contemporary of the likes of Dan Doyle, Johnny Divers and Barney Battles, whose clashes with authority prompted newspaper comment, Madden seems to have done little to court attention to anything other than his on-field performances.
Yet, he was said to have been sufficiently strong-willed to have had a somewhat fractious relationship with Willie Maley and, according to his great-grand-nephew, Tom O’Neill, took it upon himself to speak up for players, notably having the ability to estimate crowds and the income generated from football matches. Certainly, his departure from Celtic came very soon after Maley was appointed Celtic’s first “secretary-manager”, with a benefit match against Rangers to send him on his way.
He had brief spells on the books of Dundee and Tottenham Hotspur (for whom he played six times) but then there is a gap in available facts about him until 1905, when he arrived as the coach of Slavia Prague.
One possible explanation – though by no means supported by evidence – is that he may have taken his skills as a Scottish shipyard-worker to other countries in Europe, as many others did.
He had previously played for Celtic in Prague and the club historian, Karel Zuska, believes that he was approached by Slavia when the club visited in 1904. Celtic did play in Vienna and Prague in that year, but there is no record of Madden having travelled with the party or whether his relationship with Maley was sufficiently cordial for that to have been likely.
Another – probably fanciful – story is that encouraged by his friend, John Tait Robertson,he may have cunningly taken the place of another Rangers player Finlay Speedie, who Slavia preferred. But while there is a postcard of Madden, describing him as a Rangers player, it seems likely that a simple printing error may have given birth to a legend. Both Celtic and Rangers were known in continental Europe due to their regular summer tours at the time.
Another possibility is that he may have been recommended to Slavia by a referee. In Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics, Jonathan Wilson makes reference to referee James Howcroft, who alerted Jimmy Hogan to a vacancy at FC Dordrecht, which might provide a clue as to how someone like Madden came to up sticks and travel by steam ship and train to the heart of Europe.
Yet another theory is that a family member of his former Tottenham Hotspur team-mate, Ernest Payne, offered him a job in a relative's farm produce shop in Prague. While again possible, it seems unlikely that someone with Madden's background would emigrate to Central Europe on no more than the promise of a job in a shop, though a guaranteed income might have reassured him, if the coaching work fell short of expectations.
Tempting though it is to advance a preferred theory, it is a question that may never be answered.
What we do know is that Madden revolutionised Slavia and turned the club into the dominant football force in the region. (Although the Habsburgs still ruled over what would later become Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, the Bohemian Football Association had been founded in 1901 and was completely independent of the Austrian and German leagues, admitting only Bohemian clubs.)
In addition to his individual and tactical coaching skills, and focus on players' nutrition and conditioning, he brought new training methods to the game in Bohemia, including two days per week without the ball (which was considered revolutionary) and was renowned as a masseur and physiotherapist, using high-powered jets of hot and cold water and mixing his own muscle rubs.
Such was his reputation for curing injuries that it was said that ballet dancers visited him for treatment long after his retirement.
Again, we can only speculate as to how Madden acquired such knowledge. We might assume that he would have been able to learn something about practical treatment of injuries from people on the shipyards, to whom lost days work would have come at a high price.
In the late-19th century, hydrotherapy was becoming popular in central Europe and the ideas had spread to Britain. There are numerous spa towns in central Europe and it may also be that Madden had the opportunity to visit some of these to cherry-pick ideas. Some of these use water jets, including a technique known as “Scotch Hose”, though the etymology of the term is uncertain.
Nonetheless, there is a very clear picture of a man who was able to accumulate knowledge from a variety of disciplines and and apply it to football, to great effect.
He was also a notorious disciplinarian, who disdained smoking and drinking alcohol amongst players and was given the nickname “Dědek” sometimes translated as “Granddad” but perhaps more accurately as “Old Stickler”.
But his methods quickly brought notable successes.
In May 1906 Slavia defeated Southampton, 4-0, at the old Letna stadium in Prague, the first time a Czech team had ever beaten English opposition.
Although they later lost 4-2 to Newcastle United, the club then played out a 3-3 draw with Maley's Celtic, who Madden described as "the best team in the world".
The following year Slavia lost twice to Arsenal (7-4 and 4-2) but then racked up some remarkable scores against foreign opposition, beating FC Torino 9-1, the Croatian national team 15-2 and 20-0 respectively, BAC Pest 19-1 and Young Boys Bern 8-0. Slavia also beat Sparta Prague, 9-1 in that same year, in what is still the biggest Czech derby win of all time.
In 1911, Slavia beat Aberdeen, 3-2, but there would be more notable glory to come.
A Bohemian team played in an invitation tournament in Roubaix, organised by Union Internationale Amateur de Football. Playing in Slavia jerseys, with Madden as the coach, Bohemia beat France, 4-1, and England, 2-1, to be declared European champions.
In 1913 Slavia won its first local Championship, though the tournament was contested mostly by Prague clubs. The club continued to tour, securing emphatic wins over several of Europe's elite clubs and in 1922 beat Celtic in Prague, 3:2 in what was, by then Czechoslovakia.
In 1925 Slavia became the Czechoslovakian champions and Madden would win a further three titles before retiring in 1930, having won every league match that season.
There is a common myth that Madden was a winning coach in the Mitropa Cup – a precursor of the European Cup, featuring mostly central European teams, his team's best result was losing in the final (5-1 and 2-2) to Ujpest FC, in 1929. But other notable achievements included four Charity Cup victories – then a prestigious tournament – in 1908, 1910, 1911, 1912 and a clutch of other local tournament wins.
In 169 championship matches Madden's Slavia won 134 games, drew 12 and lost only 23 times. In 429 international matches, Slavia won 304, drew 52 and lost and 73.
While football was eventually very good to Madden and his wife Frantiska – they enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle – his time in Prague was not without tragedy. His only son, Harry, (born with the name Jindrich, a Czech equivalent of Harry) had been a talented, if not exceptional footballer.
After being told by his sweetheart that her father would never approve of their relationship, Harry
|The Madden family grave|
Several myths and legends persist around Madden. Some say that he left a previous wife in Britain behind though there is no evidence to support this. There is a tale – again unsupported – that he shouted insults at the invading Nazi forces in 1938. And there are anecdotal reports that he may have spent some time in a prison camp.
Time, inaccurate record-keeping and regime changes have not helped with the establishment of facts.
What we can say for sure is that his was a remarkable life of self-made success against a backdrop of a world undergoing enormous upheaval.
In Prague, the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was defeated in the First World War gave way to the first Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1918. 20 years later, Hitler invaded and ten years after that, the same year that the Communists came to power, Madden died.
His coffin was carried to Olšanské Cemetery by players wearing Slavia colours and the club's red star is inscribed on his headstone.
If Johnny Madden was largely forgotten in Scotland, his memory has been better-honoured in Prague. Visitors to Eden will regularly see his photograph on the screens as part of half-time montages and the fans had a full-stand card display to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth on 11th June 1865, for which a Madden beer was even produced. And, previously, the club also issued “plaquettes” inscribed with with Madden's face, given to people who had made an exceptional contribution to Slavia.
Like much about the contribution early Scots made to the development of football, perhaps the national trait of preferring not to crow about success, can be to the detriment of the domestic game's prestige.
Perhaps we can be too ready to bemoan glorious failure and missed opportunities, when we should instead be celebrating those Scots who, like Madden, taught the world how to play football.
Maybe, one day, those countries can teach us something about how to win at football, in return.