This feature first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now!
The smile on Tomas Soucek’s face has temporarily disappeared, as he thinks back to the time he was rejected at 19.
During a half-hour chat with FourFourTwo, the West Ham midfielder is almost permanently cheerful, having starred in the Hammers’ surprise rise to the upper reaches of the Premier League throughout the 2020/21 season and return to the Europa League. Now, he’s ready to play a key role for the Czech Republic at his first major tournament.
But things haven’t always been this way. Only six years ago, Soucek’s career was at a crossroads. Unable to break into the first team at Slavia Prague, he was offered out on loan to two teams in the Czech second tier. Neither of them wanted him.
After injury curtailed a trial with Vlasim, he was invited to train at Frydek-Mistek. The club were unimpressed, however, sending him home after a week and giving the 6ft 4in hopeful no real feedback beyond the Czech equivalent of, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ He never heard from them again.
“That was very hard,” Soucek tells FFT now. “Twice I tried to go out on loan to the second division, but nobody wanted to sign me. It hasn’t always been easy for me. In my age group at 13 or 14, I was only on the bench at Slavia Prague, I didn’t get to play. But from childhood, I was determined. I still believed I’d get the chance.”
Dodging the dog dirt
Born in a small town called Havlickuv Brod, Soucek joined Slavia at the age of 10 and was driven 100km to Prague by his parents for every training session. Sometimes, his grandad would take him instead, and they would stop off on the journey back and head into the forest to pick mushrooms.
At one stage during his development at Slavia, coaches attempted to turn him into a centre-back. Looking at Soucek’s angular frame now, it perhaps wasn’t the craziest idea, but the young midfielder wasn’t keen – and told them so in no uncertain terms.
“I don’t know where you heard that, but yes that’s true!” he chuckles. “I started out as a striker, then at 10 years old I became a midfielder. Later on, the coaches tried to make me a central defender but I didn’t like that idea, so we had a few fights together! I told them that I might still have a chance to be a defender in the future when I was older, but I was much happier when I went back to the midfield.”
After those two failed loan switches at the start of the 2014-15 campaign, Soucek got a third opportunity towards the end of that season with Viktoria Zizkov, another second division club. Even then, Zizkov’s coach had to be persuaded – Jindrich Trpisovsky was initially reluctant, only for the club’s general manager to sway him, because Zizkov were suffering financial problems and Slavia were offering Soucek’s services to them completely free of charge.
At first, he was walking into a challenging situation. Players were going unpaid and the club didn’t have enough money to maintain the pitch at their stadium, so the squad were forced to train in a park littered with dog poo. Understandably, they were unwilling to do the forward rolls that were often part of their pre-training routine.
“We did our warm-ups and sometimes the coaches told us we should go on our belly, but we didn’t want to because of the dogs that were coming there every day,” Soucek recalls. “We trained in the park and there were homeless people there, so it was very strange. But we enjoyed it. The coaches knew the situation and they made it fun.
“It was a great experience for me. It’s not always easy in football, and for the club it was hard – they didn’t have money and guys didn’t get paid. Players had families, and they still had to pay the bills. I was all right, but I wanted to help them out – the squad was incredible and we almost got the club up into the first division.”
Zizkov finished fourth, but were actually demoted to the third tier that summer, after being denied a licence by the Czech FA due to their off-field issues. Soucek had caught the eye, though, and established a bond with Trpisovsky that would later prove significant.
The midfielder eventually made his Slavia Prague bow months later, as his parent club staged their own recovery from cash woes – they had finished 11th in the Czech top flight in 2014-15. Soucek made 31 appearances in 2015-16, helping Slavia into Europe.
Towards the start of the following season, Jaroslav Silhavy was appointed manager and Soucek didn’t feature as frequently, even though he would make his senior debut for the Czech Republic that November against Denmark. So, the midfielder linked up with Trpisovsky again for the second half of the campaign – this time on loan at top-tier side Slovan Liberec... and soon they would unite for a third spell.
Soucek had already won his place back under Silhavy at Slavia by the time Trpisovsky was named their coach in December 2017. From there, his form took off. Having netted just 10 times in his first four terms in senior football, Soucek transformed into a prolific goalscoring midfielder in 2018-19 – bagging 18 goals as Slavia won the domestic league and cup double, and reached the last eight of the Europa League. Soucek scored in the shock last-16 win over Sevilla, then headed home and provided two assists at Stamford Bridge as Slavia gave Chelsea a scare in their 5-3 aggregate defeat.
His gangly style hasn’t always convinced everyone – he’s neither particularly speedy nor graceful, and his passing isn’t quite as slick as some other players – but Soucek was fast establishing himself as one of the biggest set-piece threats in European football. Few players attack a cross with the same level of determination as Soucek.
“A few people don’t like my style, but I like to prove to them that I deserve more credit,” he says, who was often made captain by Trpisovsky at Slavia. “I always give my maximum and I’m happy only if my team like me – it’s better if the opposition team don’t! I want to cover the pitch everywhere I can, and fight many fights up and down the pitch: in defence as well as in offence, with goals and assists.
“When I was young at Slavia, the coaches told me that I should be higher up the field, to try to score and help the team. I started to do it and it worked, then when I was made captain, I gained more confidence in myself and the goals came immediately.
“I want to score goals – I won’t stay in one place and just expect the ball to come to me. I want to run to where I expect the ball will arrive. That’s maybe part of the reason why sometimes I get a bit of luck. Ten times I can run into the space without the ball arriving, but I can run one more time, the ball arrives and I can score.”
The Hackney Marshes hero
Soucek scored 12 more goals in the first half of 2019-20, finding the net against Inter and Borussia Dortmund as Slavia appeared in the Champions League group stage for the first time in a dozen years – and even held Lionel Messi & Co to a 0-0 draw when they visited the Camp Nou to face Barcelona.
Not long after that, West Ham made their move – it came in late January 2020, just weeks after David Moyes’ return to the east London outfit as manager. Soucek had previously been wanted by Fiorentina in Serie A, but the Premier League had always been where he had hoped to end up.
“For me it was my dream, because when I was young I watched football with my dad, and we only saw the Premier League and the Champions League,” he explains to FFT. “For the two or three years before I went to West Ham, I had a few offers to join other leagues, and I was thinking about it because it could have been a good opportunity. But I’m much happier that I waited until West Ham offered me a chance. From the very start, the Premier League was the first option for me.”
He had already been learning English back home in the Czech Republic. “I had a teacher who was from England and supported Derby County,” smiles Soucek. “We’re still in contact – I’d been telling him that Derby have to get promoted to the Premier League so we could play against each other. They’ve had difficult moments recently, though – I told my friend I wished for them to stay in the Championship this season, and that we’ll play them in one of the cups next year.”
Soucek rocked up at the London Stadium when relegation was a serious threat for the Hammers, too. They sat in 17th spot, outside the Premier League drop zone only on goal difference, and slipped into the bottom three after squandering a 3-1 lead at home to Brighton, then losing away to both Manchester City and Liverpool in his first three appearances. After a brief absence through injury, he was on the bench at Arsenal before COVID-19 changed everything.
Soucek, his partner and young daughter Tereza had been in England for a matter of weeks. He had played only one home game in front of a crowd.
“It was really strange – I was here, I wanted to play in the Premier League in front of fans, and after one month everything stopped,” he recalls. “West Ham was my first transfer abroad so I’d changed everything in my life – my team-mates and the league as well. It was tough. When we started lockdown, that was difficult for our private life, too – especially for my girls at home, because we couldn’t meet the rest of our family. But on the other side, it proved to be a big advantage.”
If the settling-in process was still ongoing in his opening few weeks at the club, Soucek turned the enforced break into a positive – making sure that when football returned in June, he was ready. His future depended on it: Soucek had initially joined West Ham only on loan, with the deal to become permanent if the Hammers avoided relegation.
“I practised on my own, on the pitches of Hackney Marshes,” he says of the famous Sunday League venue, situated just a mile from where he lived. “I loved it. I was happy that I could prepare myself for the rest of the season – we all prepared well, because we were given a schedule by the fitness coaches. Maybe it was helpful for all of us – we won the fight against relegation.”
When the campaign resumed, West Ham were losing 1-0 to Chelsea before Soucek headed his first goal for the club as Moyes’ men came back to win. He would net three times in a five-game sequence that brought 10 points, easing the Irons to safety.
Soucek had thrived where many previous Hammers signings had failed, partly because he was a different sort of signing to many of his predecessors. The Czech didn’t arrive with a big name and big expectations like Felipe Anderson, Javier Hernandez or Sebastien Haller. Few in England knew anything about the midfielder. He was free of those same expectations, at least externally.
9': ⚽️25': ⚽️Tomas Soucek now has seven Premier League goals to his name for West Ham!If David Moyes needs another striking option later in the season... 👀 pic.twitter.com/juJStAVe6mJanuary 26, 2021
“I know there wasn’t much pressure on me because it was my first foreign transfer, but I put pressure on myself – because I wanted to fight relegation, and because I had a deal with West Ham if we won that fight,” he says. “For me, it doesn’t matter if I’m playing with my friends behind my house, or if I’m playing in the Premier League – I always want to do my maximum. Football without pressure is not possible. I put it on myself and I’m happy that we won the fight and I could stay.”
Last summer, Soucek signed a four-year contract at West Ham, as his transfer became permanent for £19 million. He certainly didn’t expect the remarkable season that would follow, however, with the Hammers battling for a Champions League place right up until the final weeks of 2020/21. Eventually, the had to settle for the Europa League.
“To be honest with you, I’d have started to laugh if you’d said that!” he confesses. “From the beginning of the season, I heard that not many people believed in us, but I’m happy that we proved them wrong; that we had the quality to be compared to teams such as Chelsea and Liverpool. We picked up some good results and now everyone at the club is feeling much more confident.
“For me, last season was special. For the five years before that, I was used to playing only for the title, and then I came into a fight against relegation. I was happy to have had that experience, but I was a lot happier this season, fighting for European football! I’ve been here for one and a half years, and it’s been brilliant. I hope that will continue. This has been what I enjoy – it’s not only about my own performances, I want to improve the guys next to me, and improve the team.”
In another triumph for West Ham’s scouts, Soucek was joined in 2020/21 by his former Slavia Prague team-mate Vladimir Coufal, who completed a £5.4m switch in October. “He’s shown his quality, but I believed in him from the start because I’d known him for five years,” Soucek says of the right-back. “If someone asked me about him, I said, ‘Yes, he’s an incredible player’.”
Soucek hit nine goals by mid-March and was named Czech Footballer of the Year for a second successive year. His performances even earned him a link with Bayern Munich.
After an impressive display in a 3-3 draw at Tottenham, Jose Mourinho said that Moyes had “found his new Marouane Fellaini”. The comparison was obviously understandable – Fellaini played an equally pivotal role in the Everton team that pushed for Europe under Moyes, overcoming a slightly ungainly style to provide crucial physicality and goals from central midfield, no matter how much people underestimated him.
“It was very nice when I heard that I was being compared with such a good player like Fellaini,” says Soucek. “It showed that I was doing good work.”
Next stop: afro? Or on second thoughts…
“Declan told us we can’t win”
It’s not just at West Ham where Soucek has become vital. He has grown in prominence for his country too, under the management of his former Slavia Prague boss Silhavy – the man he won over at club level, after a stint on loan at Slovan Liberec. When the Czech Republic travelled to Estonia for a World Cup qualifier in March, Soucek bagged a hat-trick in a 6-2 romp. Days later, he captained the side in a 1-1 draw with Belgium.
Now, he is more than ready for Euro 2020, where the Czechs face England in their final group game at Wembley on June 22. Soucek has met the Three Lions there before, in the opening qualifying game for the competition. England cruised to a 5-0 victory, courtesy of a Raheem Sterling treble.
“I looked forward to that match because Wembley is an incredible stadium, but we were probably too scared by England and deserved to lose,” admits Soucek. “I don’t remember that day pleasantly, but I was happy we could play against England again in the Czech Republic. We needed to support each other and not be scared. We had to believe in ourselves.”
And they did: the Czechs humbled England 2-1 in Prague, inflicting the Three Lions’ first qualifying defeat for a decade to help them book their place at the Euros in second spot. “It was the first time we’d beaten England,” he says of a feat that had never been done before, even in the days of Czechoslovakia. “They’re one of the best teams in the world, but we beat them. Because of that, we were second and reached the Euros, so it was two huge things in one game.
“Now I’m happy that we can play England again – I hope we won’t be scared this time. We need to look back at the home game we played against them, as the pitch is always the same. We have to play like ourselves and not look at the England team or at Wembley. We should prepare like we did at home, when we beat them 2-1.”
The showdown will pit Soucek and Coufal against their West Ham team-mate Declan Rice. Normally, Soucek and Rice partner each other in the Irons’ midfield – this time, they go head to head. Scoring at England’s home and helping his nation to a historic win, then? He’ll have a bit of that.
“It’s a dream of mine, yes, a proper dream – especially now I’m playing in the Premier League,” admits Soucek. “That match will be a special moment for West Ham supporters, because I will be playing against Declan. We’ve spoken about it – he told us that we can’t win at Wembley and we said, ‘Well, remember your last game against us!’ It’s been fun, it’s been friendly. Only the 90 minutes on the pitch will be unfriendly, perhaps.”
Soucek knows he also risks upsetting Moyes at the Euros. “I hope that our manager won’t be happy, either, because we’re playing our opening game against Scotland!” he chuckles. “I hope that after those games, I can head back to West Ham just with a smile.”
The midfielder was part of the Czech team which lost 1-0 at Hampden Park in the Nations League last October – a month earlier, he had been due to face them in Prague, but had to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. Soon, the entire squad had to isolate, and the Czechs were forced to bring in a new set of players to fulfil the fixture.
“Everyone had to go into isolation and we couldn’t play,” says Soucek. “They called up another team who played well but lost. I’m happy that we still won that Nations League group and got promoted to the top division. Maybe the Scotland match will be our most important game at the Euros.”
Understandably, it’s the England fixture that Soucek and Coufal are looking forward to most. “For us, it will be special to play in England at the Euros after a good campaign here,” explains Soucek. “Now we go to the Euros and the English fans know us.”
Anonymous in England a year and a half ago, Soucek has now made every Premier League fan well aware of the dangers he poses. He has made a career out of surprising people. Maybe, just maybe, those Czech second-tier clubs got it all wrong.
Subscribe to FourFourTwo today and get a FREE England Euro 96 shirt!
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.