Almost ten years ago to the day, Libor Kozák, clad in the sky blue of Lazio, netted a dramatic winner against Napoli in Campionato Nazionale Primavera, Italy’s highest-ranking youth competition.
His teammates that day are now either ambling around the Italian lower leagues or are retired, having not quite made it in the senior game. Kozák certainly has followed a nomadic path, bouncing around from Lazio to Brescia and Bari to Livorno, but he hasn’t retired.
And that’s something of a miracle.
In January 2014, Aston Villa released a brief statement, announcing that the Czech “will play no further part this season.” Details of his injury were, initially, sketchy but as always, the truth emerges. It turned out that Kozák had collided with Ciaran Clark in training, and had broken both the tibia and fibula in his right leg.
Comeback targets came and went. He was supposed to return to the first-team ahead of the 2014-15 season but suffering from complications, he appeared just once for Villa’s Under-21 side that campaign. He didn’t kick a ball in anger for the club until August 25th 2015, almost eighteen months after his double leg break.
In England’s second-biggest city, he became a forgotten man. Written off by tabloids, social media users and the clickbait websites alike, Libor Kozák was no longer a striker signed from Lazio, or the Europa League’s golden boot winner; he was Aston Villa’s ‘injury flop’ and a sad reflection of the one-time European Champions’ decline.
Unbeknownst to many, however, was just how serious the former Lazio man’s complications were. In an interview with Karel Häring, Kozák laid bare just how serious things had been and how torturous his road to recover was and would continue to be.
Kozák had a titanium plate inserted to help stabilise the fracture. However, his fibula was afforded no such support and though he was given the all clear to resume training, the bone hadn’t healed properly. He effectively spent two months trying to regain full fitness with a leg that was still broken. To top this farcical state of events off, he was even told by a medical professional that “he didn’t need the calf bone (fibula) to play” football.
After returning from a second operation, this time performed in Italy – and overseen by Enrico Castellazzi, who’s worked with the Italian national team – Kozák was effectively shunned by successive managers. Everyone, it seems, had given up on him.
Fast forward to May 2017. “I would like to say thank you to all the Aston Villa football fans,” his said on Instagram, “I have tried with all my strength but the last few years have been rather difficult… For this reason, I am happy and ready to close a chapter and start a new one.”
That new chapter saw him return to Italy, where he joined Bari. But after just seven starts and another season dominated about finding both form and fitness, – and not to mention a club in dire financial straits – he swapped one port city for another and moved north to Livorno
The stint at Livorno was an unmitigated disaster. Last December, with the Amaranto mired in a relegation battle, the one-time Czech international was nowhere to be found and in the new year, a curt update was published on the club’s website: Kozák’s contract had been terminated by ‘mutual consent’.
With five years (almost all) lost to injury, it would have been easy to call it a day. But then the rumour mill started to swirl into action. Jablonec were interested in a forward who was nearing thirty and had scored just two goals in competitive games in four years, And then it emerged Baník wanted to sign him to bolster their bid for the top six. Eventually, he ended up signing for Slovan Liberec on a six-month deal.
The reports coming out of Liberec’s training camp in Turkey were promising. Kozák looked sharp and thanks to Slovan’s dearth of options in attack, he was almost guaranteed to start come the resumption of the Fortuna Liga this past weekend. And sure enough, he was named as Liberec’s solitary striker as they welcomed Příbram to the Stadion u Nisy,
Somewhat strangely, the game against Příbram was not only the twenty-nine- year old’s first game Slovan Liberec, it marked his debut in the Czech top flight too. A poignant reminder and reference that over ten years ago now, he was seen as one of the biggest and brightest talents in Czech football.
Then, a fresh-faced teenager, Kozák had clubs from England and Italy chasing him despite having just broken through into Opava’s senior side in the Czech second tier, A hat-trick against Čáslav announced his arrival and soon after, he travelled to England and spent time on the south coast on trial with Portsmouth. But come the following summer he opted for a move to Rome and joined Lazio.
To say that Libor Kozák’s career has never hit the heights it could have is a massive understatement – the double leg break at Bodymoor Heath put paid to that. But during his brief time with Liberec so far, that goalscorer’s instinct that served him well in the past remains. He netted twice against Botev Plovdiv in a mid-season friendly and, perhaps predictably, he got on the scoresheet against Příbram.
That goal was typical poacher’s effort – a simple tap-in from six yards out – but as the saying goes, they all count. It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing goal of the game, far from it. It was nowhere near the ‘best’ goal of the weekend and it won’t be featuring in any end-of-season highlights package. But was it the most emotional and well-deserved goal of the weekend?
Of course it was.