Tomáš Řepka: The Man With An Unbreakable Character

Tomas Repka had a reputation as a fierce player known for being sent off, but he had a strong loyalty to West Ham Football Club which was reciprocated by the fans. Danny Lewis looks at his career. Tomas Repka Illustration

When thinking of the greatest and most imposing referees in history, the first to come to mind for many across the world will undoubtedly be Pierluigi Collina. In his time in black, the Italian was always in control and there is one video from Euro 2000 that epitomises this. Tomas Repka had clashed with Edgar Davids, with Collina quickly standing between the two men. In the video he can be seen pushing Repka twice and shouting at him to step back. Referees have to calm players down all the time and Collina will have been involved in this type of situation on countless occasions, so what made this stand out? It has to be the fact that it was Repka, one of the most uncontrollable beasts to step foot on a football pitch, who Collina was able to tame. There aren’t many referees, players or coaches in the game who could have done the same.

Repka was born in Slavičin, a town in the Zlin region of what was Czechoslovakia at the time. He stood at six foot tall and was the fiercest of competitors, who would never be seen to shirk a challenge and would give his all for the cause. Repka was hard hitting in his tackles, a real leader and somebody who his supporters and teammates knew they could rely on, even if he did not always get the most plaudits from the media or opposition supporters due to his combative style. The defender came through the youth systems of Sokol Brumov and FC Zlin, who had two name changes in the three years he was there and have been known as FC Zastav Zlin since 2012. However, his first forays into first team football came at FC Baník Ostrava in 1990, whom he represented over 70 times. Banik had been champions of Czechoslovakia thrice, won the Czech Cup four times before Repka’s arrival, adding the Mitrocup the season before he joined.

While he was playing for Ostrava, Repka made his one and only appearance for Czechoslovakia, playing the full 90 minutes in a 3-0 win over Faroe Islands in the World Cup Qualifiers. It wasn’t that he was dropped or dismissed by his national team, but that the country was split into Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. If there was a struggle to pin down the identity of the club he was at when Zlin were constantly changing their name, it must have been even more difficult for Repka regarding his country’s dissolution. His home town of Slavičín is under half an hour’s drive from the border that was set in place, so if it had been set slightly more West, then he would have been turning out for Slovakia following the split. However, the defender made his debut for Czech Republic in a 3-1 friendly win against Republic of Ireland in 1994, before going on to win 46 caps for his country. Tomas Repka’s name was placed in the referee’s book during that debut, something that would become a recurring theme throughout his career.

There may have been issues with identifying the sides that Repka represented during the early stages of his career, but there was a distinctiveness to the man himself which could not be mistaken. The Czech defender was not a man to be messed with. He would not shirk any challenge and was known for having disciplinary problems, totting up a total of 20 red cards throughout his career. However, this was a consequence of the passion and commitment that Repka showed whenever he stepped onto a football pitch. He wasn’t popular amongst opposition players, but Repka was certainly a favourite amongst the supporters of the clubs he played for.

Repka and his Czech team mates had to wait until 2000 to get themselves onto the big stage. They never made it to a World Cup during Repka’s career, but they did qualify for the Euros, though it was underwhelming when they got there. The man born in Slavičin played every minute of Czech Republic’s campaign, as he got booked in a 1-0 loss at the hands of the Netherlands in the opener, following that up with a 2-1 loss against France. The tournament did end on a high for them though, as Repka was a key factor in the Czechs keeping a clean sheet against Denmark, with a quick fire brace from Vladimir Smicer giving them a 2-0 lead.

Repka may have had to wait until 2000 to reach the big time with his national team, but he got his first big move at club level five years prior to that, as the defender joined Sparta Prague. In his first season there Repka won the Czech Cup, following that up by becoming a champion of Czech Republic in the two seasons following. Alongside that, Sparta gave Repka his first taste of top level European football, as he participated in the Champions League group stages and even got to the last 16 of the UEFA Cup. This was before Repka and his side were knocked out by Fabio Capello’s AC Milan, which included Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Marcel Desailly and the scorer of the tie’s only two goals, Ballon D’Or winner George Weah.

It was quality performances against opposition like this which put Repka in the shop window, with the defender moving to Serie A side Fiorentina in 1998. During his time with La Viola Repka was an ever-present in the starting line up, playing alongside the likes of Francesco Toldo, Rui Costa, Gabriel Batistuta and Nuno Gomes, as well as going on to win the Coppa Italia in his final season at the club. Repka would only spend three years at Fiorentina, as he was signed by West Ham United for £5.5 million, a fee that was a record for the East London club at the time.

It was there that Repka truly found his home outside of his motherland, playing five seasons at the Boleyn Ground. However, his stay in East London didn’t get off to a smooth start. Before he joined West Ham, Repka had a reputation as a hot head with ill-discipline; this reputation was then enhanced on his debut as he got himself sent off for two bookable offences. The fact that he then got sent off again in his third match, again for two bookable offences, left the Hammers faithful wondering why they had spent such a large fee on a player who was seemingly incapable of staying on the pitch. In total he got four red cards and 55 yellows during his five years with West Ham.

While his intensity on the pitch initially caused trouble for Repka, it was this very trait that earned the Czech international a place in the hearts of West Ham supporters. He didn’t manage a single goal for the club, but Repka was forever dominant on the pitch, unforgiving in his tackles, challenged for everything in the air and demanded the best of his team mates. This was not always enough though, as he was part of Glenn Roeder’s side that was relegated with 42 points, the highest points total of any Premier League side to be relegated.

Paolo Di Canio, Michael Carrick, David James, Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe, Steve Lomas, Freddie Kanoute, Glen Johnson, Trevor Sinclair, Les Ferdinand. With talented players like these joining a warrior such as Tomas Repka on the pitch, it seemed as if there was no way West Ham United could have possibly been relegated. It happened though. What was expected once they were down though was the exodus of players that followed their relegation. Within 24 hours of relegation being confirmed Defoe had written a formal transfer request and eventually went to Tottenham Hotspur, Kanoute went, Di Canio was forced out, Cole and Johnson were poached by Chelsea. Repka could have easily left as well, but he stayed.

His decision was surely based upon his connection with the club and its supporters, as he could have definitely joined the exodus to play at a higher level. There was a clear determination to get West Ham United back into the Premier League and this showed, as he was vital in both of the Hammers’ campaigns in the Championship. Only team captain and Repka’s defensive partner, Christian Dailly, played more matches in the Hammers’ first Championship season than the Czech, while David James had enough and left halfway through that season to join Manchester City. After losing 1-0 to Crystal Palace in the Play Off Final, Repka could have easily joined those who walked away from the club, but instead chose to remain again. As had happened the season before, Repka had to watch talented teammates such as Michael Carrick leave, but stayed at Upton Park to get West Ham back to the big time.

They made it to the Play Offs again, but this time it was different. With Jimmy Walker sustaining an injury, Repka and his defensive line were able to sufficiently protect Stephen Bywater, to keep a clean sheet and win the game for the Hammers, with the help of a goal from Bobby Zamora. With those in claret and blue going wild as the full time whistle blew in the Millennium Stadium, Repka may not have been at the centre of the celebrations with Nigel Reo-Coker or the focus of the cameras like Mark Noble, but Repka was there celebrating. If viewers watched closely, they could see Tomas in the background spraying champagne over Harewood.

This is synonymous with his entire career, with West Ham and beyond. If he wasn’t getting put in the referee’s book the Czech wasn’t in the public eye, but he was vital to the way his teams operated. He was willing to do whatever was needed for the team, as was highlighted by the fact that he was often deployed at right back by West Ham, having not played there often in his career before adorning the claret and blue. His intensity was often infectious and supporters could see it; Repka would drag his team mates along with him when required to get a result and often stood in the background, watching on with satisfaction as the very men he helped through were heaped with praise.

The time that Repka did become the centre of attention came in the following season, when he played his last game for West Ham United. Having signed a two-year contract at the beginning of the campaign, Repka was forced to go back to the Czech Republic due to family reasons, with his Upton Park swansong coming against Fulham. After the game in which he had been so close to getting that elusive West Ham goal as he hit the woodwork- the fans were given the opportunity to show their appreciation for Repka’s services to the club.

The stadium was filled with the cockney voices shouting ‘Super Tomas Repka’ as loud as they could. The defender may be known as a hard man, but he was visibly moved by the tributes, as he left the field in tears with his teammates hugging him. The Czech’s career didn’t end there though. He spent five years back at Sparta Prague, winning the Czech First League twice as well as getting the league’s Personality of the Year once. Following on from that he moved to Dynamo Ceske Budejovice and Hvozdnice before retiring in 2014.

Many will think of Tomas Repka as a hard man who failed to control his temper too often. However, those who watched him week after week will remember him as a passionate and talented defender who maintained his character at all times, no matter what situation was unfolding around him. When Zlin were undergoing name changes every few years, when his country was split and later on as West Ham were relegated and lost the majority of their talent, Tomas Repka would always keep his loyalty and ensure that he and his side gave their all in every game, maintaining an intensity and commitment that was unparalleled. Pierluigi Collina was the only man who went toe to toe with Repka on the pitch and came out on top… there weren’t many who would have even tried.

 

identicon
Danny Lewis

Freelance sport writer and final year Multimedia Journalism student at Bournemouth University with a fascination for football's obscure stories.