On 14 October 2006, Petr Cech’s life changed forever. In the first minute of a Premier League fixture at newly-promoted Reading, he was involved in a collision that left him with a depressed skull fracture.
He was rushed to the Royal Berkshire hospital before being transferred to the specialist brain-injury unit at Oxford's Radcliffe Infirmary, where he underwent emergency surgery. Two metal plates were fitted in his skull. The surgery was successful, and after just three months of recovery Cech was back in a Chelsea shirt, sporting the helmet that would become his trademark.
In his column this week our goalkeeping great and current technical and performance advisor reflects on the aftermath of that day in Berkshire…
I had played for Czech Republic against Ireland in Dublin a few days before. We drew 1-1. I flew directly to London. I was quite tired after the international break, so the night before the game at Reading I had a massage, which I didn’t often have, to help get rid of the fatigue a little bit faster. Then I went to my hotel room, and that is the last thing I remember.
I had thought I remembered going to the stadium and the dressing room, and doing the warm-up. But in August 2007, when we came to Reading to play them, I realised it was a coincidence of a different stadium. I thought the indoor area looked a certain way, but when we got there and I was walking to the dressing room, it was not what I thought I remembered. Probably that flashback was a completely different stadium!
Every time I woke up conscious, the doctor kept asking me the same set of questions, which I kept forgetting the answers to. I would fall asleep again, wake up a couple of hours later, and couldn’t remember anything again.
The questions were about the time, where I was, if I knew what was going on, that kind of thing. It took about three days of the same set of questions before I could keep them in my memory. That must have been really annoying for everyone around me! They must have explained to me 150 times what had happened, but every time I couldn’t recall it.
When you don’t remember anything, it’s the strangest thing. When you get asked simple questions, like what’s the time, and you know it’s a simple question but you can’t answer it, that was a very unique experience. Not in a good way. That stays in my mind.
I always remember my wife, who was always next to me there, but I have to say the moment it clicked and a big chunk of memory came back was when the team came to visit. I suddenly remembered the faces, and it kicked in. That was when everything went back to normal.
Nobody knew if I would be able to come back. There were plenty of questions, and not many answers. In my head I had to prepare for the end of my career. That made me see things in a different way.
The key to my return
I said to myself, I will do everything that is possible to continue playing the game I loved. I set my mind and targets on that. I never asked myself ‘what if?’.
I put all my energy into doing the right thing, with the guidance of the medical team. Together, with the support of my family and friends, I managed to get through it and end up on the pitch much faster than everybody expected.
When you try your best, you give yourself a chance. All the support, all the medical care from the club and the medical team at the Oxford hospital, that was the key for me to come back.
Some people may have questioned if I would be the same goalkeeper, but I never played football to prove a point to anyone. I played to do my best every day. During the three months of recovery, the hard, physical work I did on my own meant I was really fit and I felt really good.
I would never have gone back if I didn’t feel it was the right moment to do so. There was always a question about match situations, but I was really positive nothing would change me or the way I played. I felt ready.
Even with the doctor and the psychologist telling me that Liverpool game was way too early for me to come back in terms of my mental and emotional state, I was ready.
Anything can happen
With the helmet, I knew I was protected. It wouldn’t ever stop me getting concussion, but it did protect the majority of the impact. As soon as I knew the surgeon was okay for me to go back to full, 100 per cent training, literally the next day I played. I had one session with the team. Until that point I had to train on my own, but I was so fit and ready to go.
I have to say the first time I came back to training, I just dived in at people’s feet. I didn’t have any fear or apprehension. I realised you can get injured without even thinking about it. Whatever happens on that pitch happens fast, and can happen any time. You know the threat is real, but I accepted it and just got on with it.
The advantage I have is I don’t remember the incident on the pitch. It’s harder to be afraid of something you don’t remember. I never once went on the pitch thinking ‘what if I get injured’. Football is a contact sport and at full speed anything can happen.
Part of my journey
When I think about my career, I never really split the time before and after the injury. For me there is no difference. After 2006 so many good things happened. Winning the Champions League, the Europa League, titles, a Double, plenty of FA Cups. They all came after my head injury.
It was a part of my career and my life that I went through a difficult injury. Some people are lucky, they have small injuries. Some people have big injuries, cruciate ligaments. I went through a different thing, and that is part of the career.
Every time there is an anniversary somebody puts it on, so you can’t help but see it. My kids saw it. When you see it, you think ‘that’s all it needs’. I have never had an issue looking back or feeling sorry for myself. I took it as part of my journey in football and life in general. There are always moments you need to overcome, and this was one of them. I’m happy I did.
The relief that I was able to come back is still the main feeling I have when I reflect on the incident now. It all went the way I needed to come back, and it was up to me to be fit and ready. When I came back, I picked up where I left off, and I had another 13 years of my career at the highest level full of trophies and memories.