The Horror of Petr Cech's Head Injury

10 years on from the collision that could have killed him

By Ed Hawkins / Artwork by Rory Martin

October 14, 2016

Bleacher Report

TV commentator Richard Kaufman: “Petr Cech having to come out quickly. And, er, I think he took a bit of a knock there from Steve Hunt, who’s probably a little eager to make his point.”

Andy Townsend: “Yeah he did actually. I think Stephen Hunt—quite rightly feeling he wants to chase everything down—but he did appear to catch Petr Cech there on the side of the face. Mike Riley [is] calling for Chelsea’s trainer to come on to the field. Just below the knee or maybe the shin, just catching the goalkeeper on the side of the face just there.”

A warm, unseasonal October day, 2006. The 14th. Five p.m. Reading, Premier League newcomers, were hosting Chelsea, the champions. It was the sort of contest on which English football thrives—the scrappy underdog versus the established, reigning powerhouse. Oh for the small fry to give the big bully boy a bloody nose.

And then, 15 seconds into the match, Stephen Hunt, Reading’s bustling midfielder, collided with Petr Cech, the Chelsea goalkeeper.

Hunt and Reading were indeed “eager to make their point.” Hunt “quite rightly” sprinted in an attempt to connect with a long ball, played over the heads of the Chelsea defence. In their casual commentary, however, Kaufman and Townsend were describing an incident that would go down in infamy.

Death was a matter of inches away that afternoon. Seconds away. And with every second after the 15th of the match, it got closer and closer until a surgeon inserted metal plates in Cech’s head at the John Radcliffe Hospital neurological unit in Oxford, 30 miles from the Madejski Stadium.

Cech fractured his skull from the “knee…maybe the shin” of Hunt. He required emergency surgery to save his life. His career would never be the same. From that moment on, he has worn the protective headguard on the pitch that would become his trademark.

Life or death. That is how it will be remembered. There were other consequences, though. Then-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho caused outrage by accusing the ambulance staff on duty that day of putting Cech’s life in danger by taking too long to respond.

Did this prove to be the beginning of the end for Jose at Chelsea? An outburst that would only be tolerated if silverware followed?

Chelsea won the match 1-0 and went joint-top of the Premier League with Manchester United after eight games. But without Cech for more than three months, their challenge slipped away. Mourinho was sacked at the start of the following season.

Hunt, with wild locks and a whirling dervish gate, became a pariah, vilified most in south-west London. More positively, the rules surrounding player safety were changed.

All of this from what seemed, at the time, to be an innocuous accident. A shin, a knee. A tackle, a collision. Deliberate or an accident? Life or death?

It polarised the game. Mourinho and Hunt were discussed by politicians for weeks—it was another storyline for the fans of the soap opera to devour. There were heroes, villains, supposed death threats, conspiracy theories, claims and counterclaims.

Stephen Hunt had never started a match in the Premier League before that day. “Not a lot of people know that,” he says. “I also got man of the match. Even fewer people know that.”

Hunt had set a record for the number of times he had appeared as a substitute. He swapped that unwanted tag for something far more ugly. He was called a feral thug. “Some wrote about me as if I was a murderer,” he says.

Bobby Convey, the Reading winger who had been keeping Hunt out of the team, was injured the day before the game. Steve Coppell, their manager, expected Hunt to take his chance and bring energy and commitment.

Such an opportunity was a pipe dream just a year before. Hunt suffered the recurrence of a groin injury at Brentford in 2005, and after gambling on an operation with his contract running down, his career was in the balance. Coppell had rescued him.

Previously, Hunt admitted that he may have been a “little giddy” going into the tackle. “But it was my breakthrough game,” he says. “Who wouldn’t have been pumped for it?”

Hunt was unaware of the severity of Cech’s injury until he got a phone call later that night. “I was really proud of the way I played,” he says. “I felt good. Then, over dinner, the manager telephoned. He told me what had happened to Cech. He said, ‘Keep your head down.’ It wasn’t how you hope your first Premier League start would go, let’s put it that way.”

"Some wrote about me as if I was a murderer."

Stephen Hunt

Hunt has consistently denied setting out to hurt Cech. He has also been maligned for failing to apologise. That’s not strictly true. Hunt feels a person only apologises if they have done something wrong.

“Do I regret [the tackle]?” he says. “No. Because I don’t feel I did anything to regret. Do I wish it didn’t happen? Of course. I’ve made that wish many times. I wrote a letter to him afterward, wishing him all the best. And I’ve always spoken to Cech briefly every time our paths have crossed, and he has always been a gentleman every time. It would be easy for him not to be like that.

“A lot of the Chelsea players were the same. I don’t think they thought I set out to injure. [Didier] Drogba wanted to have a few kicks here and there in retaliation, but listen, they’ve won all the titles and all the medals down the years—more than I ever got—so I think it’s clear who has the upper hand.

Hunt ran into John Terry on holiday in 2008, and the Chelsea captain invited him to play golf. A transfer between the two clubs in 2007 also had a positive impact on relations.

“It helped me with the Chelsea players when Steve Sidwell [Reading team-mate] transferred there,” Hunt says. “I don’t know what Sid told them, but it wouldn’t have been that bad, and it would have helped. They knew I wasn’t that type of player.

“But fans don’t get that. The seriousness of the injury led to Chelsea fans being upset. If I’m a fan of a club and someone did that to my player, I’d be angry.”

Kaufman: “He looks a little dazed there, Petr Cech…”

Trizia Fiorellino is the chair of the Chelsea Supporters Group, founded a year before the Cech incident. She’s a superfan. She once went to every reserve-team fixture for an entire season—home and away. Partisan would be the word.

“I was angry at the time,” she says. “I’m angry now. Still angry. It was a disgraceful challenge.”

Conscious of the football fan’s inbuilt bias, I pushed her. If you watch the collision between Cech and Hunt today, the footage provides no clarity with regard to intent. It is inconclusive. Hunt was not booked. Nor was he charged retrospectively. The challenge can easily be dismissed as one player losing his balance while running at full pelt.

“I watched it before you called, and it hasn’t changed,” Fiorellino says. “I watched two clips. The first one was from the back, and I thought, ‘you know what—not as bad as I thought.’ Then I watched from the front, and I still think it’s appalling.

“I thought he went in to make contact. He didn’t mean to hurt him but definitely to make contact.”

Fiorellino says there was an atmosphere around the game, which saw five bookings and two red cards. “It was war,” she says. “[The Reading players] had obviously been told to go out and be hard, put your foot in, and that was evident throughout the whole game—Drogba and [John Obi] Mikel were targeted. And then there was what happened to [Carlo] Cudicini.”

"I was angry at the time. I’m angry now. Still angry. It was a disgraceful challenge."

Trizia Fiorellino

Cudicini, Cech’s replacement in the Chelsea goal, was knocked unconscious in the dying embers of the match by a charging Ibrahima Sonko, as Reading sought an equaliser. They didn’t get it.

“The animosity was matched by the Reading fans,” Fiorellino says. “I don’t want to sound patronising, but they’re a little club, and they seem to think they’re better supporters because they’re not there for glory. That’s something we’ve only noticed since we became a big club, but it was evident that day in everything Reading did.”

Reading were fired up. It was the first time in their history—which dates to Christmas Day, 1871—they had played against the reigning champions of England in a league match. It was that passion that Fiorellino and Chelsea supporters still believe boiled over to endanger their goalkeeper’s life.

“We saw [Khalid] Boulahrouz get the ball back towards Cech, and then we saw this curly-headed thing hurtling towards Cech,” she says. “Even though we were at the other end of the ground, it looked to me that he raised his knee. Everyone, of course, screamed and shouted.

“But at the time, we didn’t realise how bad [it was]. He was moving, so ‘it can’t be that bad,’ I thought. We saw him crawl off the pitch on all fours, and then the players crowded round, and we started to have doubts. ‘You know what, this could be more serious than we thought.’

Fiorellino remembers Hunt tapped Cech on the leg after the collision—a “dismissive gesture” she says. It only boiled the anger inside her.

“And time ticked on. Two, three, four minutes passed, and the club doctor came on—I can’t remember his name—and then Cudicini started warming up, and the concern was growing,” she adds. “We saw Terry and [Frank] Lampard remonstrating with the ref.”

Townsend: “Mike Riley wants to get the game underway. And I think the Chelsea players are saying, ‘Hold on a minute, we want to give him as much time as we possibly can. He’s the goalkeeper for goodness’ sake.’”

Riley was the referee. Bryan English was the club doctor. Riley had blown for a free-kick to Chelsea and was talking to Hunt as he beckoned English on to the field of play. TV coverage began to pore over every angle. A sport’s appetite for controversy was whetted.

Riley says he had a sixth sense that Cech was badly injured and believes he acted with a speed and intuition that was uncommon at the time.

“It was a very quick decision, a split second,” he says. “Ordinarily, you’re expecting someone to stand up in that sort of incident, but your instinct says ‘something’s happened.’ Cech, of course, didn’t stand up. Immediately, you want to get someone on to look at him and treat him.”

English sprinted on to the field, but initially, there were few clues as to the severity of the injury. English, who now works for Derby County and had been chief medical officer at Chelsea for two years after a similar role at UK Athletics, says it was “unusual” Cech was conscious.

“He was talking to me,” English says. “Normally, when you suffer a skull fracture in an adult, there’s not a lot of conversation going on. But what I didn’t realise at the time was that if you’re one of triplets, which he is, you have a very thin skull over that part of the brain. It’s inherent in a triplet, which is why he continues to wear his helmet now because he has a thin skull.

“You can see on the footage that even when he was lying on the stretcher he was lifting his arm up because he was explaining something to me at the time about his vision—he was telling me ‘it’s blurry’ or ‘it’s not right.’ I definitely knew he had to come off, but because he was actually moving and he crawled himself off the field of play, I didn’t get him in the usual situation of immobilising the neck.”

He “crawled himself off the field.” That is key, as it was an incident seized upon by those looking to apportion blame. Riley was criticised for ordering Cech from the field, even though as he says today that he did everything “by the book.”

Keith Hackett, then the Football Association's referee’s chief, says Riley followed correct procedure for head injuries. He stopped play immediately, anxious for Cech to receive treatment, and ordered stretcher-bearers to remove him from the pitch by the shortest route. An FA spokesperson said normal protocol would have been to go around the perimeter of the pitch.

“Criticism is part of the job for a referee,” Riley says. “When I started as a referee, you had eight cameras, and now you have 20 to 30. If it’s a big game, a major game, it’s a lot more than that. And you know the worldwide audience has increased, as has the attention, and that brings extra responsibility on refs and players. Incidents are examined, debated and discussed. Because of that, things change for the better.”

That is exactly what happened. Riley, who is general manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, ensures different protocol is followed. Doctors and physios are allowed to come on to the field of play without instruction from the referee because of what happened with Cech.

English was instrumental in ensuring that the FA started a compulsory head-injury course for club medical staff. “You have to pass, and you have top-up courses once a year,” English says. “I believe we’re still the only country in the world that does this.”

Kaufman: “A sad start for Chelsea and in particular Petr Cech. You can see that knee from Stephen Hunt is still affecting him, and he’s hardly come around.”

In the bowels of the Madejski Stadium, English could see Cech was deteriorating—fast.

“I knew within about 10 to 15 mins it was serious,” he says. “As quickly as that. Because normally, if a player’s just concussed, they recover quite quickly. Anybody who is relatively conscious and then the conscious level deteriorates, they’re going in the opposite direction, and you need to get them to hospital as quickly as possible—you’re worried about an internal bleed.

“I said: ‘We’re going to have to get an ambulance for this guy. I don’t think he’s going to be stable.’ He was starting to go downhill—he was getting more agitated. Sometimes, when you have a player who’s had a head injury, they can be very aggressive towards the doc, and that would make me think that he’s not normal. They want to go back on to the pitch.”

English had to return to the pitch because Paulo Ferreira hurt his elbow. “I came back in, and he was getting worse. Again I asked them, ‘Where’s the ambulance? Why is it not around?’ My colleague told me that he’d heard the paramedic say, ‘It’s just a light concussion. We don’t have to call the ambulance.’ The fact is there was only one ambulance at the Reading ground, and there should have been two. Therefore, they were waiting for another to come from the hospital, so they were delaying it.

English says it took “something like 27 minutes” for the ambulance to turn up, “which is far too long in a situation like that.” Cech was taken to see neurosurgeons in Oxford and had an operation on his fractured skull.

A collision course had been set: Chelsea and Jose Mourinho versus Reading and the South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS). Both parties were blaming each other.

Reading and SCAS state Chelsea initially decided the injury was not serious enough to require an ambulance. Reading said it was 24 minutes after the injury when Chelsea asked paramedics to call for an ambulance, which was done at 5:45 p.m.

Reading, SCAS and Chelsea did agree that an ambulance arrived at 5:52 p.m., left at 6:04 p.m. and that Cech arrived at the Royal Berkshire Hospital at 6:11 p.m. He was later transferred to the specialist unit in Oxford.

"I knew within about 10 to 15 mins it was serious."

Bryan English

The contention is that Chelsea asked for an ambulance to be called. Chelsea say they asked paramedics to call for one at 5:35 p.m., five minutes earlier than Reading said.

Mourinho, with the belligerence for which he is renowned, stated that it took 30 minutes. In a fierce verbal attack on Reading and SCAS, he effectively accused them of dereliction of duty and putting Cech’s life in danger.

Hunt’s leg dented Cech’s skull and pushed pieces of bone towards the brain. It was these pieces that threatened his life. One wrong move, and the fragments were in danger of lacerating or bruising the brain and damaging blood vessels. There were even reports from medical sources that Cech’s injury was consistent with that of a car crash.

As Cech waned, English’s initial concern was a risk of increased pressure on the brain, which could cause a seizure. This can also crush soft tissue, which can be fatal. When it became clear following a brain scan at the Royal Berkshire that the broken pieces of bone were more than five millimeters deeper than the skull, the decision was made to operate.

He was transferred to Oxford at 1 a.m. In an operation lasting hours, surgeons at the neurological unit inspected the brain’s outer casing, moved the pieces of bone away and then reassembled the skull, inserting two metal plates just above his left ear.

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Mourinho: “The ambulance couldn’t go in the direction of the dressing room. He couldn't leave the dressing room properly. He had to go in a wheelchair in a lift, and he left the ground 30 minutes after my doctor was calling for an urgent ambulance. If my goalkeeper dies in that dressing room or in that process, it's something English football has to think about.”

Mark Ainsworth was the officer in overall charge for the South Central Ambulance service. He’d been attending games for his job for 10 years. He’s still doing it today. “I’ve seen it all now,” he says. Quite. It is rare for emergency medical workers to be criticised for unprofessionalism and incompetence—rarer still to be accused by one of the most famous football managers in the world.

Mourinho was used to being at the centre of a media storm. Ainsworth was not. He was grilled by Sky News. But in what should have been a mismatch, Ainsworth stood firm. “I have a great face for radio,” he says.

Criticism of ambulance staff was not a laughing matter for Ainsworth, however: “It was not fair. It was concerning. People join the ambulance service to care for patients, no matter who they are."

Why did Mourinho say what he did? “I don’t know,” Ainsworth says. “He’s passionate, and he was upset about what happened to his goalkeeper. He’s a good manager who is very good at playing the press. He’s never apologised. Chelsea have never apologised. But they got the facts wrong.”

According to Ainsworth, it was a breakdown in communication. This led to the delay to Cech receiving the attention Chelsea wanted. “I was confident with the service that we provided,” he says. “It was frustrating being challenged around the delayed response, but there was evidence from the football club that they weren’t clear on how they should have requested the ambulance and the fact we had the ambulance there.

“It put the ambulance service in a negative light, which was unnecessary. Obviously, our focus was to treat the patient and get them to hospital as quickly as possible—that was Cech and then Cudicini after that but not so seriously. I’m still frustrated today.”

Ainsworth explains the paramedic ambulance crew at Reading sits by the away bench. “Both teams are briefed around the medical cover by the referee and the safety steward at the start of the game.” he says. “It’s part of the FA rules that you have to have a paramedic ambulance on site for the players, so my personal feeling was disappointment about the lack of communication that should have happened immediately after the injury.”

Ainsworth says the media storm in the aftermath did not help: “I [was] happy to defend the service on TV. I just think it shouldn’t have come to that. It could have all been sorted out by the relevant parties face-to-face rather than the open forum of the media.”

Cech: “There were a lot of people saying it was probably the end and that I would not play again.”

The boundless energy that got Hunt into trouble tumbles down the phone. “Hey. How ya doing? You okay? ... Good man.” 

He is on his way to England from his native Republic of Ireland to do a deal for a 19-year-old prospect. Hunt is an agent now, having retired last season from a career that, after Reading, took in Hull City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Ipswich Town and Coventry City.

The Chelsea fans who booed him mercilessly—“It always fired me up; I played better,” he says—will find irony when Hunt passes advice to impressionable young players.

“Nobody’s flawless,” he says. “If they can avoid the big mistakes, then they won’t have any regrets. Don’t make the big ones so they can’t look themselves in the mirror.”

But there is a second, more poignant irony. Hunt, the man football loved to hate after the incident with Cech, the man the press cast as one of the ultimate villains in a football soap opera that sees only black or white, is now a columnist for the Irish Independent.

It is his job to fire bullets at the players and managers. But his experience has steeled him for the role, and he says he will have more of an appetite for facts given how his critics seemed to wilfully ignore them or failed even to seek them out.

"He’s never apologised. Chelsea have never apologised. But they got the facts wrong.”

Mark Ainsworth on Jose Mourinho

One was Oliver Holt, a Daily Mirror journalist at the time. Hunt confronted Holt eight years after he had strongly hinted that the tackle on Cech was no accident.

“I got a lot of stick,” Hunt says. “And maybe for other players, it could have really damaged them. But I thrived on it. It never affected me at all—because I don’t think I did anything wrong. When I’m writing my column, I draw on those experiences.

“When you’ve played the game, you know the character of the players—the ones who can’t let a bad tackle go and are steaming until they smash them back. Or there are guys who just do it week in, week out. I was never a dirty player. I never went out to hurt anyone. But that part of my character didn’t fit the storyline.”

And what of the storyline spun by Mourinho? “Even he didn’t realise how serious it was,” he says. “He was trying to take attention away from his team because they didn’t play very well. And it blew up into something more serious. That was hard for me to go through—but then you think what it was like for the Cech family and Petr, and it wasn’t half as bad for me.”

If the incident marked Hunt’s career, it also affected Mourinho’s. According to Fiorellino, the Portuguese, who was believed to have been untouchable at Chelsea—a god in the vernacular of the person in the stand—was revealed as flawed in that season.

Chelsea finished six points behind winners Manchester United and were beaten by Liverpool in the semi-final of the Champions League. Mourinho was sacked the following September and took his talents to Inter Milan and then Real Madrid.

“I honestly believe that the incident led to the downfall of Jose because as much as I love Cudicini, he was not half the ‘keeper Cech was,” Fiorellino says.

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Cech in action for Arsenal this season. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

“A lot of people love Jose for being outspoken, but his criticism of the ambulance staff was too much for some. Roman [Abramovich] was getting sick of the outbursts by then, I think. We limped through the rest of that season. We could have been on course to win the title for third year running, and that Cech injury led to us falling away. When we talk about these incidents, these soap-opera stories, no one actually stops to wonder whether it had an impact on results. We didn’t recover from not having Petr.”

Cech, of course, did recover. And while Hunt and Mourinho have been able to keep closeted the bearing of that October day, Cech has a constant visual and physical reminder—as does anyone who watches him play. The headgear he had specially made allowed him to continue his career.

Frank Weigl, senior product designer at Adidas, was charged with getting it right. Weigl took 3D scans of Cech’s head and consulted with the ‘keeper and his doctor three times.

“We started using a plastic plate to cover the injured zone of his head,” Weigl says. “But Petr and his doctor preferred to insert a very shock-absorbing foam on the sides of the helmet. He wanted to wear it as if it weren’t there. It could affect his hearing, for example.”

Even before reaching that stage, Cech had a fight. Doctors told him he should not play again that season. It was a prognosis he was desperate to prove wrong despite being unable to speak for days. “The words would come out all wrong,” he told Mike Pattenden of the Mail on Sunday. His rehabilitation also included seeing a psychologist and cognitive specialist.

In January 20, 2007, Cech made his comeback in front of the world. Headgear and all. Chelsea lost 2-0 to Liverpool. It wasn’t long before the soap opera would start again. Time heals all wounds, but there are plenty prepared to try to open them up.

“It irritates me that people say ‘he wears it because he’s afraid’ or psychologically it makes me feel more secure,” Cech told Pattenden. “They have no idea what my surgeon said. They have no knowledge of brain injuries. If I needed help psychologically, I’d wear an American football helmet.

“When you play in goal, you expect to get kicked. When the ball is there to be won, I don’t consider what might happen.”

All quotes were gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated.