Sometimes people noticed the tall figure going through his training drills with help from his wife and young daughter. London had gone into lockdown and Tomas Soucek, who had joined West Ham at the end of January, needed to find somewhere to stay fit as he adjusted to a new reality in an unfamiliar city. “We went to Hackney Marshes, where there are 50 pitches in one place,” Soucek says. “It was incredible.”
The West Ham midfielder smiles. Lockdown brought challenges for everyone, forcing adjustments to the usual routine. For Soucek, the task was to be ready for whenever the Premier League season resumed. He did not mind being out in public. If people realized who he was, they waved. And if they happened to support West Ham, it was a chance to greet their new signing by putting their arms over their chest to make a crossed hammers sign, the club’s symbol.
Soucek had given West Ham hope in their battle against relegation after joining on loan from Slavia Prague. Tall, physical and good on the ball, he enhanced their presence in midfield, forming an effective relationship with Declan Rice.
The Czech Republic international had been preparing, starting English lessons six months before the transfer, and was determined not to grow stale when Covid-19 forced the season to be suspended. His wife, Natalie, is a keen runner and wanted to help him train, so they went to Hackney Marshes with their daughter, Tereza, who is 20 months old.
“I took a ball and some cones and I did normal training, but individually,” Soucek says. “My wife was sometimes giving me the ball and helped me enjoy it. Sometimes I enjoyed it with my daughter and her. It was a good time. I heard all about the tradition for playing Sunday League football there, though there was nothing like that during these times. At that time there were only a few five-a-side teams using it.”
Soucek did not mind using a space usually associated with amateur football. He was brought up in Havlickuv Brod, a town with a population of 23,000 people, and comes from a sporting family. “My dad took me to my first football training because he was the coach,” the 25-year-old says. “He was a footballer as well, a goalkeeper. My mother played handball, my aunt played football. The first option when I was born was to play football. Everywhere I went I would ask my family if I could take the ball with me.”
Soucek’s mother, Iva, was a major influence. “For the last 15 years she has been running half-marathons and marathons and sometimes when I was younger, I went with her to the forest,” he says. “I’m a footballer and I don’t like too much space without intensity but sometimes when I was in pre-season I would go with her to run in the forest. I think I got my stamina from her. She was brilliant. I think she won the park marathon.”
Soucek, who may consider a marathon after retiring, needed support from his family after joining Slavia at the age of 10. The journey from Havlickuv Brod to Prague was long. Sacrifices were required and Soucek was determined to repay his family’s faith. He worked hard, establishing himself in Slavia’s first team, helping them win league titles in 2017 and 2019, impressing against Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Internazionale in the Champions League last season.
His talent was clear when he helped the Czech Republic defeat England in a Euro 2020 qualifier last year. David Moyes had watched Soucek and moved for him after being appointed as West Ham’s manager last December.
Soucek’s height – he is 6ft 4in – and threat in the air inevitably drew comparisons to Marouane Fellaini, who played for Moyes at Everton and Manchester United. “David has found in Soucek his new Fellaini,” José Mourinho said after West Ham’s dramatic 3-3 draw with Tottenham last weekend. Soucek smiles again. “I take these words very positive because I know what a player he was,” he says.
“I was maybe one of the tallest from nursery but from even when I was younger I told myself I wanted to cover every square of the pitch. I wanted to help my guys in every situation so longer legs helped. It suits my style and prepared me for the way I play even now.”
Given freedom to roam by Rice, Soucek rampages forward from midfield, bursting into the penalty area and attacking crosses. He scored three times at the end of last season, helping West Ham stay up before joining permanently. Yet Soucek, who supported Arsenal because of the presence at the Emirates of the former Czech international Tomas Rosicky, is not a one-note player. He can play, too, and cites Yaya Touré as an inspiration.
Soucek, who has been instrumental in West Ham’s improvement, is a football fanatic. His bedroom walls at home were covered with posters of heroes such as Pavel Nedved and he loves swapping shirts with opponents. He got Olivier Giroud’s shirt after scoring against Chelsea for Slavia in the Europa League and says he plans to have “a small museum” of his collection in his parents’ house one day.
The Guardian Sport