Truth be told, when I found out that Ondřej Petrák had joined Nürnberg, I raised a skeptical eyebrow. In a season that has been filled with many a negative headline for Slavia Prague, the fact that Der Club have decided to pluck a twenty-one year-old out of the frying pan and throw him into the fire, so to speak, tells onlookers quite a lot.
In an interview upon his departure from Prague, Petrák admitted he was aware of interest from the Bundesliga Bavarian side dating back to the summer, but that the clubs failed to agree upon the terms of a transfer. Instead, by staying in the Czech Republic, the twenty-one year-old was featured fifteen times for Slavia this season, scoring once while becoming one of the few Vršovice players to have seen their stock rise. The composition of Slavia’s kit, half-red and half-white, is supposed to resemble a balance of sportsmanship and strength, which are joined together in symbiosis to form certain ideals. The star that adorns the shirt – red with the tip pointing down – represents the triumph of hope over adversity. In many respects, Petrák, and a few other youngsters at the club, have been the physical embodiment of this cosmic symbol.
After making his league debut (a 6′ cameo when 18 years old) in October 2010, Petrák did not see any further competitive game time for ten months. Tellingly, in charge of the club at that time was Michal Petrouš, who had been working with the youth-teams before moving up to oversee first-team affairs. Petrouš was aware of Petrák’s and promoted the player into a starter role, lining up in a struggling side with long-term potential. But, given the nature of Slavia’s owners, the long-term plan was tossed away and a new manager, František Straka, was appointed and Petrák found himself cast into the shadows. A second coaching change brought about Petrák return, and he hasn’t successfully been ousted since, despite the continued revolving door approach to both managerial and playing staff.
Established names have returned to the Czech Republic after less than successful periods abroad to sign for Slavia, lured by a healthy pay packet and the prospect of being the one to lift the struggling side out of the doldrums (Marcel Gecov and Tomáš Mičola are two such recent examples). Yet Petrák has quietly gone about his business, seeing off his competitors who have constantly flattered to deceive. A stalwart of the club, Petrák joined Slavia aged ten and has risen through their youth ranks, even captaining the side in a number of age categories, decisions which were democratically decided by the players.
However, successive home defeats to Teplice, 7-0, and Mladá Boleslav, 4-0, indicate just how poor Slavia have been this season. Currently, the side that most would generally associate with domestic success thanks to their successes of the 2000s, find themselves eleventh in a sixteen team league, two points off the bottom. But amongst the dire performances, those who turn up to Eden week-after-week rarely direct the blame at the feet of Petrák. Speaking to one such Slavia fan, Petrák was described as being ‘very much an unsung hero’ in the current tough times. With hindsight, the club may regret not building around him while they had the chance, though now present with a healthy amount of compensation they can perhaps begin the process in earnest thanks to his departure.
To expect the ex-Slavia midfielder to have an instant impact in the manner that his compatriot Václav Kadlec made upon his move to Frankfurt would be unwise; Kadlec was more of the finished article whilst Petrák still is a malleable entity, who time time to both adapt and improve to the rigors of a Bundesliga relegation scrap. The step-up in quality will ensure that Petrák will have to mask certain weaknesses if he is to figure straight away. Technical aspects will have to be worked upon, especially his passing range, and a spell with the U23 side may work in his favour as he adapts to his new surroundings and the subsequent on-pitch change of pace.
But what Nürnberg have acquired is a glimmering star, one that has flickered and survived in the darkness. Now it needs to be nurtured.
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