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Patrik Schick: ‘My coach told me I’d never make it at the top level’

The Independent
The Independent
 2022-01-20

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Just like the hang time of his extraordinary lob against Scotland this summer, there have been moments this season when Patrik Schick feels as though he’s been walking amongst the clouds. It has been seven months since his halfway-line goal left Hampden Park suspended in equal parts amazement and anguish, but that day still remains the starting point of another outlandish trajectory.

It might have been a little overshadowed by the twin auras of Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland, but since finishing as the Euros’ joint-top scorer, Schick has quietly transformed himself into one of the continent’s most formidable strikers. Last Saturday, in Bayer Leverkusen ’s 2-1 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach, the Czech scored his 18th goal in just 16 Bundesliga games. “The Euros gave me a lot of confidence but I wouldn’t say I’m doing anything different,” he says, just a few days before narrowly missing out on Fifa’s Puskas award. “I would say I’ve come to a point in my career now where I’m a more complete player. It has taken a lot of work and now, in this moment, the work is giving me everything back.”

For an impressively calm character, the work has often inflicted more duress than Schick has publicly let on, and his mind returns instinctively to another summer that almost defined him. In 2017, after scoring 11 goals in his debut Serie A season, Schick was being lured in half a dozen directions by Europe’s biggest clubs. Eventually, a £26m fee was agreed with Juventus and the deal was considered so water-tight that Schick even posed for photograph’s in the club’s training kit. A few hours after completing his medical, though, the news filtered out that inflammation had been detected in his heart. “It was a shock because I didn’t feel anything. I thought I was a healthy guy,” he says. “After they said it was a heart problem, of course, I was worried about my health. It was in my head that I might have to stop playing football completely.”

Thankfully, after a few weeks, the inflammation subsided and Schick was given the all-clear, but the scare still changed the course of his career irreversibly. Sensing their opportunity, Roma swooped in and signed him for a club-record fee. The price tag brought a different type of pressure; a cage of competition, comparisons and constant speculation. Schick struggled to settle, scoring just five league goals across two seasons, and he has no hesitations in admitting that “it was the hardest period of my career”.

“Everywhere I’d been, I had always scored goals,” he says. “It was a new experience for me and [looking back] there are definitely some things I would like to do differently. For example, when I signed I was injured but, because I came for a lot of money, I wanted to get back on the pitch as soon as possible. I started to train and play earlier than I should have and that brought me a lot of problems. I knew my quality, I still believed in myself, but the circumstances weren’t the best for me and I knew for my career I had to make a change. But I’m not worried about what could happen in the future [if I lost form again] because I know it made me a better player.”

Schick points out that he became accustomed to harsh critics long before leaving home, where posters of David Beckham adorned his bedroom wall. The story of him giving his overbearing father the finger during one academy match at Sparta Prague has gone down in folklore. The words that really stung, though, were delivered when he was playing for the club’s U18s. After scoring twice, he was hauled in to speak to Sparta’s sporting director, who claimed he lacked tactical understanding and didn’t fight properly for the team. “They said I could never make it on the top level,” he says. “I proved them wrong.”

Soon afterwards, he was shipped out on loan to Bohemians, a club built on rugged spirit better used to battles at the bottom of the Czech league. “The start was really tough,” Schick says. “There were a lot of experienced older players and the younger ones had bad times with them, but once I performed on the pitch they took me in. When I joined Sampdoria [for €4m from Sparta at the end of the season] the coach, Roman Pivarnik, called me and told me he hadn’t wanted me there at the beginning. He didn’t think the club needed a young player like me but he still gave me the chance. I convinced him about the player I am.”

With his struggles in Rome exorcised, after a season-long loan under Julian Nagelsmann at RB Leipzig provided the springboard for a permanent move to Leverkusen, there are few who need convincing any longer. Schick’s form this season has inevitably demanded attention from clubs across Europe again, particularly from within the Premier League, but although he doesn’t rule out that possibility in the future, he acknowledges that feeling at home has helped to bring out the best in him. “Let’s wait and see,” he says. “I’ve changed clubs a lot [six in as many years] so I never had time to feel settled. I’m really happy in Leverkusen and with my life in Germany so at this moment I’m not thinking about being transferred somewhere. I watch the Premier League and I like England but that doesn’t mean that if I continue like this I’ll play there.”

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