Allow us to introduce United's Czech mates
Goalkeepers always stick together. It’s in their blood. We all know it can be a lonely existence at times, stuck between the posts, and it takes a special character to devote your life to the art.
Training together in all weather is one thing, pushing each other to the limits and doing it all for the greater good. Yet Manchester United’s Alex Fojticek and Matej Kovar take their work home with each other. The housemates live and breathe the game and are loving their time here.
Czech Republic teenager Kovar arrived in January, the Reds’ other signing that month aside from Alexis Sanchez. He immediately became a rival to Fojticek for the gloves in the lower-age teams but it genuinely is the healthiest of competition. Yes, there is rivalry but an understanding they are striving to both become better.
”He speaks Czech and I speak Slovakian,” Fojticek tells ManUtd.com. “It’s virtually the same. It’s also good for him that he can learn from my English – and learn as a goalkeeper from me too!”
The blond keeper is joking and his role as interpreter for the interview is not always required. Kovar’s linguistic skills are already coming along nicely. “It helps make it easier for me to have someone using the same language,” he says. “Alex helped me with everything and is my best friend here.”
The two pals appreciate the bond they have and the fact that goalkeepers are usually, well, just different. Often such nice guys and thinkers about the game. This pair fit that description.
”It’s like this everywhere,” insists Fojticek. “At my former club, all the keepers were all together. Our job is different. The other keeper is your mate, you’re with him every time, doing the training and the warm-ups together. We speak about matches and live together. We watch games on TV and are analysing them a little bit. We watch our former clubs and have little comments coming backwards and forwards with our friends on how it’s going. Of course we watch English matches too and also the World Cup during the holiday.”
Both youngsters arrived after successful trial spells, as is often the case for overseas signings to the Academy. Kovar joined from FC Slovak and is already sure he made the right move.
“I played for Czech Republic in a tournament in Spain and that was the moment I heard there was a scout there from United,” he recalls. “After that, I was wanted here on trial and that was it. I think, for me, it was one of the best tournaments of my life as I played well. The trial was one week, from a Monday to the weekend, and it went very well for me. I played really well and, after then, my agent told me United want to sign you. I was really happy for this and that is why I am here. My dream was to come to England and one of the best leagues in the world. Everyone wants to play here.”
Fojticek was already settled in Manchester after being transferred from Tatran Presov in 2016. It is well documented he had trials at other clubs but opted to come to United.
“I was at Liverpool and Aston Villa,” he confirms. “The Villa coach wanted me and I was supposed to go there but I got injured at my former club. Then United came in to offer me a trial at the end of the season. When my agent told me they wanted to sign me, I was shocked and surprised. Amazed. I was really happy. I think it was the greatest moment of my life.”
So what is it about keepers from the former Czechoslovakia and their ability to perform at the highest level? In today’s game, think of Petr Cech and Martin Dubravka at Newcastle, while past Premier League stoppers include Jan Stejskal and Ludo Miklosko (whisper his name quietly around Old Trafford).
“I think there’s something inside of us,” argues Fojticek. “We’re happy to really work hard and another area maybe I would say is just being talented as well.” Kovar agrees, adding: “Our mentality. Goalkeepers are like this – it’s down to the position.”
There is always a disarming honesty about keepers when discussing the fact they know the consequences of any mistakes. Errors are highlighted far more than any other role in football and you genuinely need a thick skin when dealing with any criticism. Fojticek appreciates this but accentuates the positives of undertaking such a key job.
”You have to be prepared for it,” he says. “I would say to take the blame. But you have to be prepared to be the hero as well because, on loads of occasions, you can save your team. You can be the hero. You have to be really strong mentally to be a keeper. It’s not easy. Behind you is only a goal. So, if you make a mistake, you concede.”
Again Kovar nods in agreement. “This is football,” he smiles.
Both played a part in the 2017/18 northern title success for Kieran McKenna’s Under-18s but will move to the Under-23s once pre-season training gets under way next month.
“Obviously, it was one of my main goals for the team to win the league,” says Fojticek. “And we did it so I’m really happy. We could have done better in the FA Youth Cup and UEFA Youth League because my aim is to win everything that I can. There were still some trophies we didn’t win so, hopefully, next year we’ll get everything we can.
”I would say I just need to settle down in the Under-23s and get used to it. It’s men’s football now and maybe I will fight for the position in the goal. We’ll be pushing each other and that’s what we need. At this age, it is like this everywhere in the world. Everyone wants to play but only one goalkeeper can play. The coach is not going to sub another goalie at half-time. We’re pushing each other and are going to help each other in the future as well.”
Kovar not only broke into the Under-18 team but also made a Reserves debut in the final Premier League 2 clash of the campaign, against Everton at Old Trafford. It finished 2-2 and provided valuable experience for the 18-year-old, who is an absolute giant.
“I think, for me, it was a very good season,” he states. “I played in 11 matches and only lost one. It is a good team that played well and I’m happy to be here. I had one game in the Reserves and it was amazing for me. I’d never played in this famous stadium. It was the first time for me and a big experience.
”I think I will continue with this work next year, then we’ll see. I will go to the Under-23s as I’m the same age as Alex and we’ll still be training together. Maybe, in the future, I’ll go on loan to get more experience but I can’t wait for next season. I’m looking forward to the UEFA Youth League and getting some good results in that competition as well.”
Of course, the no.1 slot in Europe won’t be easy to secure. A certain Alex Fojticek will have a say in that, as will other goalies at the club.
You get the feeling both he and Kovar would not have it any other way.