He arrived at Upton Park with a reputation as one of the best left-backs in Euro
He arrived at Upton Park with a reputation as one of the best left-backs in Europe, only to leave a year later, but tomorrow night at the Riverside English audiences will get the chance to see the real Vladimír Labant in action. TheFA.com explains all...
At the time both parties were delighted. West Ham manager Glenn Roeder had fought off a whole host of rival clubs, including Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven, to acquire one of the continents most gifted full-backs, someone who scored against Arsenal in a Champions League tie at Highbury on 25th October 2000, for a bargain £1m, while Vladimír Labant had fulfilled a lifelong ambition to test himself in one of Europe's top leagues, the English Premiership.
"His pedigree is decent - you have to be a very good player to play for Sparta (Praha) and they are having a very good campaign this season in the UEFA Champions League and he has got just the experience I was looking for," was how Roeder described the signing of Labant on 11th January 2002.
Meanwhile the Slovakia international explained his reasons for leaving Prague by saying: "It is maybe not the best time to leave Sparta because they are still in the Champions League. But the offer was good and you don't get the chance to join a Premiership club every day - that is where I want to play", before adding: "It is definitely my ambition to get back into Europe with West Ham."
Now hindsight in football is a wonderful commodity, but when the defender arrived in the east end of London during last year's January transfer window, the Hammers were riding high and on course for a place in this season's UEFA Cup, making his decision to leave Sparta Praha during their mid-season winter break understandable.
In fact, the only thing holding Labant back was unfinished business in the Champions League that season, a campaign in which the Czech Republic champions had surprised everyone on the continent by qualifying for the second group stage. But that in itself was not enough to stop the Slovakian broadening his horizons west, and anyway, he would soon be playing in Europe wearing the claret and blue of West Ham.
The club finished the League in seventh position in May 2002, just a place away from entry into this season's UEFA Cup, although things had already started to go wrong for Labant.
He arrived at the Boleyn Ground straight from the Czech Republic's mid-season winter break and therefore lacking full match fitness, the pace and power of the game in England surprised the player, as it does every newcomer to the Premiership and he immediately picked up a back injury while playing against Fulham at Loftus Road. And yet it is not at all uncommon for foreign stars to take a whole 12 months to settle in and get accustomed to the vagaries of the English game.
But at the same time, most experts and Hammers fans still expected Labant's first full season at the club to be a much-improved affair, especially coming on the back of rigorous pre-season training.
Unfortunately that was not the case and the full-back-come-midfielder has had to endure an even more torrid time of things this time around, making just the one Premiership appearance for West Ham, and that only as a substitute, as the club spiralled towards the First Division. Not only that, but not surprisingly, Labant lost his place in the Slovakia national team.
Labant's unhappy spell in England came to an end when he returned to his former club on a one-year loan deal last December having made only 13 appearances for West Ham in eleven months and he feels that he let both himself and the Hammers faithful down, while also failing to show English fans his true value, a fact borne out by 39-year-old Nigel Winterburn regaining the left-back berth in the team from the man who was bought to replace him.
However, in football there are always mitigating circumstances to be taken into account. "I was not very happy with my performances as I missed pre-season and was not fit enough," explained the 29-year-old.
"When I came here, it was just one month after my holiday and I had had only one week with Sparta Praha, so I needed more hard sessions in training to get fitter and stronger. I think Glenn knows how difficult it is for players who come from abroad to this country."
Initially though it did not all go according to plan for the left-back as he broke his ankle in his very first training session back at the Letná stadium in January and was out of action for five weeks, further damaging his chances of adding to his 21 international caps, which was the very reason he returned to Prague in the first place.
But, having been dropped for last October's 2-1 defeat against England in Bratislava because he could not get into the West Ham first-team, coach Ladislav Jurkemik recalled Labant for March and April's victorious qualifying double header with F.Y.R. Macedonia and Liechtenstein respectively, before retaining him in his 20-man squad, ahead of Blackburn Rovers left-back Vratislav Greško, for last Saturday's encounter with Turkey and Wednesday's against England.
And if he gets the opportunity to impress at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium on Wednesday night, expect the real Vladimír Labant to stand up and grab it with both hands.
by Richard Morgan