Early one Sunday morning, Ralph Davies boarded a train in search of a 38-year-old striker who was playing in the eighth tier of Czech football. His journey took him to the small town of Vícemilice, where he got the chance to see former Zbrojovka forward Milan Pacanda in action again. (Please note: This article first appeared on the fantastic Blansko Klobasa and is used here with Ralph’s permission)
The chances are that most of you have never heard of Milan Pacanda. He could have been a name in European football, up there with the Nedvěds, Poborskýs and Bergers. He once played at Old Trafford in a Champions League game and starred in a successful Intertoto Cup run for Brno. But that is about as big as it got for him.
It could have been so, so different.
In 1999, four years after making his debut aged seventeen for his adopted hometown club of Brno, Pacanda was riding on the crest of the wave. He had started the season extremely well, playing just behind the striker in an improving Boby team and was scoring for fun. Scouts would turn up wherever ‘Paci’ played.
Such was his burgeoning reputation in the game, Serie A side Bologna had allegedly agreed terms with the young striker regarding a move to Italy.
Then disaster struck.
After putting his side ahead in a league game away at Viktoria Žižkov, he went for a ball with defender Jan Zakopal, a player he had played with at youth level for Czech national team. It was a ball that only one man, Pacanda, could win and Zakopal knew that.
Knowing he would come off second best, he made a decision which would change the course of Pacanda’s career: he went for the striker’s knee, destroying the ligaments and putting a bright career on hold.
To this day, Zakopal insists he went for the ball. But those of us there see it completely differently.
It was a horrendous challenge.
The following winter, after five months of treatment, Paci made his first attempt at a return, only to damage his knee in his very first training session, putting him out of action for a further twelve months. It was at this time he sank into despair, possibly depression, finding solace in the casinos and bars of Brno, and with it an addiction to slot machines and alcohol.
To compound things, he purchased an expensive car on credit and promptly crashed it while drunk, damaging his shoulder.
A Second Chance
With a huge debt hanging over him he was pulled from the mire by his mentor Karel Jarůšek. When asked if he wanted a second chance, Pacanda, without saying a word, just nodded and moved in with the former Czechoslovak international.
Jarůšek brought in a strict regime and with it a curfew. He trained hard and was allowed just one night out a week, on a Friday, but had to return by 10pm.
Eighteen months on from that disastrous afternoon at Žižkov, Milan Pacanda returned to the pitch with two pins in his knee and a slight limp.
The coach at the time, Pavel Tobiáš, brought him back slowly and it wasn’t until the following campaign that he began to make the starting eleven.
He stayed at Brno for a further three seasons, forming a fantastic partnership with Libor Došek. The goals returned, helping his team to move up the league and reach the semi-finals of the now defunct Intertoto Cup.
Off the pitch, things were also a little better, though not without incident. I remember an incident after one home match – Pacanda and teammates, drinking after a draw, with Sigma Olomouc, celebrated by smashing up a billboard outside a restaurant. While his teammates faced the music, Milan disappeared for a couple of days, missing training. He was dropped for the next match.
Although there were times off the pitch where we saw the old demons returning, 2004 was a great year for the footballer as he married his childhood sweetheart Denisa and secured a £600,000 move to Sparta Prague.
A Footballing Nomad
His start at Letná was a good one. Under the leadership of František Straka, he bagged six goals in his first seven games and formed a prolific partnership with Tomas Jun.
But the wheels fell off when Straka was sacked and was replaced by Jaroslav Hřebík, a known taskmaster who demanded discipline and order from all his players.
Unfortunately, Pacanda only ever really listened to two people and Hřebík’s name was not on that very short list.
He soon found himself out of the team and back on the fruit machines and his life began to turn sour. In 2005, he was sent on loan to Tirol Innsbruck, where he continued to score and rescued the team from what seemed like a certain relegation.
Although he was a popular player with the Austrian side, he found himself back in the Czech Republic.
For Pacanda, it was the beginning of the end.
He returned to Brno in the summer of 2006. However, it was a far from happy return. During the next three seasons, he would only make 30 appearances for Zbrojovka, spending time on loan with Zlín before moving to Kazakhstan for six months.
It was during this period that rumours of him accumulating debt were reported again.
Pacanda, now becoming a footballing nomad, then signed for Znojmo, in the regionalised third division. Things started to look up as he employed a personal coach, shed a few pounds and began the season in fine form.
Sadly, another injury, followed by a now usual tale of missed training sessions, forced the hand of the club’s management.
“At the beginning of the season he helped us immensely, he looked like a great promise. But gradually his attitude ceased to fulfil our expectations. I am afraid that in the spring he probably will not be with us,” said coach Bohumil Smrček at the time.
“We could only keep Pacanda if he managed to put his personal life in order,” added club president Ota Withers.
“We were at the time willing to help.
“Unfortunately, he [did] not appreciate the efforts of the club management.”
One rumour did the rounds that he would only turn up at the club when he needed money.
In an attempt to clear his mounting debt and with collectors regularly calling round for a chat, he moved to east Slovakia and joined Bodva Moldava nad Bodvou, a newly promoted second tier side. Again, the season began promisingly, and he was even made captain, but at the end of 2010-11 Pacanda was again a free agent.
Surprisingly, his agent managed to persuade newly promoted Znojmo, now in the Czech second division, to give him another chance.
He once again got himself fit and started to impress, notably scoring a brace against Sparta’s reserve team. But the return was again short-lived and the old ‘Paci” made an unwelcome return. He disappeared again before finding a home at Slovan Rosice, back in the arms of Karel Jarůšek.
It was during his time at Rosice, that stories started to circulate about his mental state. Stories that were unfortunately true. He would go on to bravely admit that he was suffering from depression and, worryingly, had suicidal thoughts
In an interview with Czech football magazine Hattrick, Pacanda recalled the moment he was at his lowest.
“I was standing on the tracks and wondering if I should lie down and wait for the next train.”
“I was fucked,” he said, openly.
“But now I take it as a lesson for future life and I feel I am over the worst of it.”
As somebody who loved watching Milan Pacanda play football, I was saddened to hear of him talk about the mental health issues that have affected him. But at the same time, I am so pleased he’s been brave enough to talk about it. Not enough of us are able to do that.
I arrived at the Vícemilice pitch about fifteen minutes before kick-off and I immediately bumped into was Milan, who was chatting away to one of the local fans while enjoying a pre-match cigarette.
Pacanda took to the field after the shortest warm up in the history of warm-ups: A couple of stretches, an individual crossbar challenge and then another cigarette before lining up with his teammates.
I won’t bore you too much longer with details of the game, only to tell you of two Milan Pacanda moments which sum up the talent of the man. In the first half, he picked up the ball just inside the away team’s half. Heavily marked, he dragged the ball away from two opponents and played a stunning through-ball for the opening goal. You never lose it, do you?
In the second half, he scored, latching onto a pass from midfield he lobbed the goalkeeper from 25-yards.
Somebody once said of the player that if Pele belongs in a museum then Pacanda belongs on a football pitch.
And with Paci breaking into a huge smile after his goal, you would find it difficult with that.