It was early June in 1996 and football fever gripped the nation. In a few days England would kick off the European Championship against Switzerland. Russ Rigby, groundsman, club secretary and kitman at Bamber Bridge FC, was mowing the grass at the Irongate stadium when he received a phone call. It was the manager of a local hotel in Preston: would Bamber Bridge be interested in playing the Czech Republic in a pre-tournament friendly?
“I confirmed it with our chairman at the time, Dennis Allen, and he said ‘Ring back now and tell him of course we would!’” Rigby recalls. “I called the hotel manager to say we’d do it and that’s when it all kicked off: phone calls, faxes, meetings with the Czech Republic FA. It was one of the best times of my life, it just came out of the blue.”
Instead of winding down for the summer after a long season, Bamber Bridge was suddenly abuzz with activity. The Czech Republic manager Dušan Uhrin paid Irongate a visit, along with his interpreter, to see if it would be suitable. “He came to our little stadium to have a look around,” says Rigby. “He thought it would be ideal, so we had a meeting in the boardroom and he said ‘Look, it’ll only be a few days before the opening game with Germany. I don’t want any physical stuff or else I’ll have to take the players off.’”
Rigby had been looking forward to watching Euro ‘96 at home, but now he was at the centre of the excitement. The phone was ringing off the hook and a film crew from the Czech Republic had been in touch. There were match tickets to sell and a special bar serving Pilsner to assemble: “It was quite a hectic time. We had an ex-police superintendent who was sort of the commercial man for Bamber Bridge, and him and I did all the negotiations. The match was televised live in the Czech Republic and all the national papers were interested. The Times were ringing on a daily basis for updates.”
Installing the bar was one of the toughest jobs. It was difficult to work out where it would fit between the tightly-packed sell-out crowd until it was eventually decided to build it on the roof of the clubhouse. “The Czech Republic team was sponsored by one of the breweries over there, and they brought their own bar,” Rigby recalls. “So we erected a marquee on top of the clubhouse roof. What a performance it was to get that up there. They had draught beer, bottled beer, their own special glasses. I’ve still got a couple of them at home.”
Irongate was finally set, but no one was really sure what to expect from the opposition. The Czech Republic had only separated from Slovakia in 1993, and Euro ‘96 was their first international tournament as an independent state. An unknown quantity with an absence of household names, they were tipped for elimination from a group containing Germany, Italy and Russia. But they would soon announce themselves as a new force in European football.
“I didn’t know much about the Czech Republic,” Rigby admits. “I’d never heard of Poborsky, Nedved or Patrik Berger, who later played for Liverpool, but they all went on to be world famous players with careers all over Europe. Berger was a ladies’ favourite. All the players’ wives and the committee members, they were drooling when they saw him!”
Bamber Bridge were somewhat a surprise package themselves, having won the Unibond Premier Division that season just a year after gaining promotion. Sadly they were denied entry to the Conference after it was deemed their facilities weren’t suitable. Good enough for the Czech Republic, but not Northwich Victoria. “We should have gone up into the Conference,” says Rigby. “We were a small village team who in six years went from playing on park pitches in Preston to winning the Unibond Premier League. It’s quite a feat, that.”
A local brass band marched across the Irongate pitch before kick-off, and there were Czech Republic flags flying alongside Union Jacks. The Netherlands were also based in the north-west, and a number of fans came down to see what all the fuss was about. The two teams exchanged pennants, but the Bamber Bridge players were under strict orders not to swap shirts at full time. “We weren’t a wealthy club,” says Rigby. “Our players were told in no uncertain terms that they weren’t allowed to swap shirts because we had limited kit.”
With the sun beating down and the Pilsner flowing, the game got under way. Thankfully for the Czech Republic, and the 2,300-strong crowd, Uhrin’s warning was heeded by the Bamber Bridge players. “It was drummed into them,” Rigby remembers. “We had to stress the point that they couldn’t afford to have injuries at that late stage. It was only a few days before they played Germany, and so it was more of an exhibition game really. Every squad member for the Czech Republic played a part.”
In three days’ time the Czechs would have Andreas Moller, Matthias Sammer and Christian Ziege to contend with at Old Trafford, but at Irongate it was Steve Denny they had to keep an eye on. After Berger made it 4-0 to the visitors, the Bamber Bridge striker scored his side’s consolation, finishing the script on one of the greatest pub tales ever to be told. “It was an absolute cracker as well,” says Rigby. “People asked me afterwards, ‘How did you get on?’ It finished 9-1, I told them. And some would say ‘Who to?’”
The match was over but Euro ‘96 was just beginning. The Czech Republic would turn out to be the tournament’s unlikely underdogs, urged on by their new supporters in the north-west. Rigby’s phone was still ringing: “The interest it caused was unbelievable. I had phone calls and mail coming in on a daily basis from fans all over Europe asking for souvenirs.”
After England’s defeat to Germany on penalties in the semi-final, the rest of the country also got behind the Czechs for the final at Wembley. “For them to reach the final as well, that was a real highlight,” says Rigby. “They should have won it really, they had plenty of chances. We were all rooting for them but it wasn’t to be. It would have been the icing on the cake to say that we’d helped them win it.”
Rigby wasn’t disappointed for long. Along with his pint glasses, he still has a programme and video of the game. In later years he worked as a kitman at Preston North End, and would tell the players about the time the Czech Republic visited tiny Bamber Bridge, with Steve Denny scoring a screamer. “It really was a good goal,” he says. “It was a very enjoyable time of my life.”