John Madden, Prague and the story of a Mitteleuropean football revolution

In 1905, when John Madden suddenly reappeared after having disappeared without a trace for almost ten years, everyone wondered what good wind had carried this Scottish gentleman with a musketeer’s moustache to Prague. Many versions were formulated, but according to one of the most reliable stories there was a sentimental matter behind Madden’s arrival in today’s Czech Republic. In fact, many were convinced that he fell in love with a local girl, during a tour with Celtic F.C., probably with his future wife Františka, from whom he had his only son, Harry, a promising midfielder who committed suicide at a very young age when he threw himself under a train following a disappointing love affair.

In general, only a few things were known about him, but it was enough to shroud him in a sort of mythical aura. In a football of similar kinds of pioneers, far from the indiscreet camera gazes and worldliness of today, a nickname was enough to build a reputation on. A man was, in few words, what he was known as. Ever since he was a young man, a dashing looking striker of Glasgow club Celtic, like most of his colleagues, Madden also carried a nickname: they called him “The Rooter”, or the “Devastator”, because from his feet came terrifying shots, of an unprecedented violence, overwhelming enough to create the feeling for a few seconds, of even being able to knock the goalposts down. With the Bhoys he won three Scottish championships at the end of the nineteenth century, scoring floods of goals, but above all he found the key to entering the hearts of the people, refusing a transfer to the richest English groups several times.

About ten years and some more grizzled hair later, it is not clear how, but he found himself in Bohemia. A friend of his, former Rangers player Jacky Robertson, had put him in contact with Slavia Prague. Robertson had also been contacted by the Prague club, but he had no intention of moving to Bohemia, so he talked about it with Madden. If anything, maybe, they would be reunited in the future. There was, however, one problem: Slavia Prague was courting Robertson, not Madden. And above all, rather than a skilled footballer they were looking for a charismatic guide, a football teacher, a prophet able to instill a new and innovative football philosophy in his disciples. Then Robertson came up with a brilliant idea, to pass Madden off for himself. At the time few photos were circulating, the news traveled slowly, and practically nobody knew the players. Who would have noticed? It could have been a credible stratagem and indeed it worked, but only for a certain period, until Madden chose to come out into the open. “I’m Madden”, he finally showed up one day, finally throwing off the mask definitively. Slavia Prague, but also Czech football in general, would thank him in the future. If, for example, today we speak of “Danubian football”, the merit belongs to him.

At that time, in the early twentieth century, especially in that northern region of the Austro-Hungary Empire, from which Czechoslovakia was born in 1918, the seed of football had not yet taken root and Madden immediately worked to transplant the basic concepts, working both on the athletic and tactical side. He brought a sort of ante litteram concept of professionalism to the Vltava banks, encouraging physical exercise and introducing a whole series of innovations at the time: to treat muscle injuries, for example, he used some meticulously prepared special ointments with a do-it-yourself method. Madden did not speak Czech, and would never do so fluently throughout the course of his life, but he knew how to make himself understood. Once he suddenly appeared in the locker room and, slamming the door, he captured everyone’s attention: “The Czech players do not behave seriously. They train very little and only think about girls and getting drunk”, rebuking them in a peremptory tone, as the players’ eyes quickly lowered in search of another reference point. In addition to what was said against alcohol, the “grandfather of Czech football” fiercely fought another crusade, the one against tobacco. A paradox, on closer inspection. He, in fact, besides being a great drinker of whiskey, then replaced by cheaper beer, never parted from his smoking pipe, but with his boys was intransigent: “If a player drinks and smokes is no longer a footballer”.

From a purely tactical point of view, his exquisite signature was visible on the 4-3-3 formation, an unusual module for the time, but he devised it for the first time in 1911, during a friendly match between the Czech national team and the English amateurs won 2-1 by his men. The spark came when the British, eager to come from behind, discarded their traditional pyramid module (2-3-5), the most popular of the time, and added offensive terminals until they had the beauty of seven attacking minded players in the front line, ready to strike. The Czechs, worried by the multiple dangers and determined to navigate their ship to a historic victory, reacted when the Scottish coach moved two of his strikers in defense, cleverly passing from an initial 2-3-5 to a more solid 4-3-3. It was a historic enterprise and was celebrated as such on the streets of Prague, with waving white handkerchiefs and cries of jubilation. In fact, on returning from Paris the national team of Madden was welcomed by a festive crowd gathered at the Franz Josef Station of the capital, today’s Central Station.

In addition to enhancing the quality of his men with this type of tactical illumination worthy of a visionary, Madden also demanded order and discipline from them, but however never trapping their fantasy, combining the typical features of British football with the typical Bohemian style. Perhaps unknowingly, although on the banks of another river, the Vltava, had developed the primal mixture of Danubian football, the one with which a few decades later Ferenc Puskás’ Great Hungary would enchant the world, even though it was without collecting almost anything in terms of trophies. A sort of hybrid between the two most popular gaming modules of the time: the “WM System”, successfully designed and tested at Huddersfield Town and Arsenal by the legendary English coach Herbert Chapman, and the “Metodo” so dear to Vittorio Pozzo, the most successful coach in the history of the Italian national team.

It would not be rhetorical to say that Madden had filled a void, and had been in his own way a revolutionary, the “father of Czechoslovakian football” as he rightly would be remembered in the future. Progress, moreover, was clear to everyone and chased at a frenetic pace. Under his supervision, in 1920, Czechoslovakia even reached the semifinals of the Olympic tournament in Antwerp, surrendering amidst much controversy, only to the host nation of Belgium, but gave the best of himself to Slavia Prague, of which he was the coach for twenty-five years. With him guiding the Červenobílí, founded in 1892, they turned into a genuine powerhouse, instilling fear not only in other Czechoslovakian teams, but causing talk about themselves all over Europe for the scintillating and rewarding football they put on display. The Slavia of that period was an irresistible team in their homeland, but also abroad, where they systematically bulldozed some of the most famous exponents of European nobility. The red and whites of Prague, for example, between 1926 and 1927 first humiliated Juventus 6-1, and then not to miss anything delivered a five-goal mauling to Inter Milan.

At that time nothing, more than Slavia Prague, could be a better representation of the new Czechoslovakia, the football microcosm of one of the most advanced and prosperous countries of the Old Continent. The excessive power exerted on the championship was absolute and unscrupulous. By 1930, when Madden decided to retire, Slavia Prague had filled their trophy cabinet with three national titles (the first Czechoslovak official championship was only played in 1925), but above all managed to win the beauty of 304 matches out of the 429 disputed with the Scotsman at the helm. But the best was still to come. Four years later Czechoslovakia would face fascist Italy in the final of the World Cup, giving in only in the final minutes after having also gone ahead. That day, even though by then wheelchair-bound, and he could no longer be near his creation, Madden’s hand was more visible than ever: no less than eight national team players, from legendary goalkeeper-captain František Plánička to slippery Antonín Puč, were from Slavia Prague, having developed at the John Madden school.

The father of Czech football would die some years later, in 1948, a few months after the coup d’état with which the communist regime was to be installed, which would have always opposed Slavia Prague, perceiving it as an enemy team due to a cultural heritage which was rooted in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in the First Czechoslovak Republic. And many of those footballers, 1934 World Cup runners-up, would carry Madden’s coffin on their shoulders, accompanying him on his last journey to the Olšany cemetery. Where he still rests today.

by Vincenzo Lacerenza