Unless you’re stuck in a lift or sat rigid with fear in the dentist’s chair 41 minutes could hardly be described as a long period of time. Yet, 41 minutes is precisely the amount of time Miroslav Stoch has had so far this season to show Chelsea fans what he is all about. And, you’d have to say, the pint-sized winger has made pretty good use of his limited opportunities, notably in his impressive substitute appearances against Stoke and Watford when he helped to turn impending defeats into two memorable victories.
His face lights up as soon as I mention the word ‘Stoke’ and it’s hardly surprising. As every Chelsea supporter must remember, the Blues looked set to be on the receiving end of one of the shock results of the Premier League campaign against the newly-promoted Potters at the Bridge back in January until then boss Luiz Felipe Scolari sent on Stoch in the final minutes. Two late goals swiftly followed, the young Slovakian providing the centre from which Frank Lampard slammed in a dramatic, last-ditch winner which will surely figure prominently in any highlights compilation of Chelsea’s season.
“With the first touch of the ball against Stoke I felt confident and it felt easy playing in front of the big crowd,” he recalls. “I almost scored with a shot and then I crossed the ball and we scored from that so I was so happy.” Back in his native Slovakia news travelled fast that Miro had played a vital part in securing three points for the Blues and many of his friends and relatives were soon ringing him to offer their congratulations. “I was on the phone all evening,” he smiles. “A few of my friends had watched the game and some of them had seen what happened on the internet, so they were all talking to each other.” Resisting the temptation to go out and celebrate, he opted instead for a quiet night in front of the TV in his flat in Cobham. Quite understandably, he admits that come 10pm he found himself hitting the BBC1 button on the remote control. “I watched Match of the Day that evening and they spoke a bit about me,” he says. “They said when I came on the pitch became big, but before we were playing a little bit narrow and maybe that was the key.”
Praise from those two pillars of footballing wisdom, Lawro and Hansen, is not to be sniffed at but Miro received an even better surprise at Watford in the FA Cup a few weeks later. “While I was warming up the Chelsea fans started singing my name,” he says. “I didn’t understand at first, then I did and I thought ‘Oh, that’s my name! I’d better play well if I come on…” Of course, he did come on and, again, he made a significant impact, helping to transform an embarrassing 1-0 deficit into a comfortable 3-1 win. With two game-changing cameos in his five substitute appearances to date it’s easy to see why Blues supporters have taken a quick liking to the nippy, skilful 19-year-old.
The senior players in the squad, he says, have been equally welcoming. “It hasn’t been difficult joining the first team because they have tried to help me all the time,” he tells me. “Players like Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba are so experienced that I can learn a lot from them. Training with them every day you learn something every day, and then when you play you can use that experience they give you.” I press him for a concrete example and he’s happy to give one. “Sometimes when you do something wrong they tell you what to do. Maybe it’s a tactical thing, where to move when we don’t have the ball. Or it might be about the position to take in the transition from defence to attack.” The sort of important but not immediately apparent stuff, in other words, that might take years to pick up without such top-notch guidance.
Listening to him talk so confidently and articulately it’s hard to imagine that when he arrived at Chelsea three years ago he barely spoke a word of English. Something of a teenage prodigy in Slovakia, he had already played a handful of first-team games for top-flight outfit FC Nitra before he was recommended to the Blues by his agent in 2006. Invited to Chelsea for a one-week trial he impressed in an Under-16s game and was promptly signed up by the club’s Academy. His progress since then has been steady, with most supporters only really becoming aware of him when his starring performances were instrumental in the juniors reaching the FA Youth Cup final last season. “That was the first time I played in front of a big crowd,” he says of the two-legged final against Manchester City, “and maybe some of the fans know me from that game. But it was very disappointing to lose the final, everybody in the team wanted to win – especially as we knew that Chelsea had not won the competition for almost 50 years.”
Now, though, he has much bigger targets: getting more playing time with the first team and maybe even appearing in next year’s World Cup. Earlier this year Miro made his full international debut for Slovakia, once again coming on as a sub against Ukraine in a friendly in Cyprus. Then, in April, he got a surprise call-up for the World Cup qualifier in Prague against local neighbours and arch rivals the Czech Republic. “I was with the Under-21 squad, training on the pitch alongside the first team when one of the wingers got injured in a practice match,” he recalls, “so I was promoted to the first team and scored the winning goal in the training match. Then Slovakia lost 4-0 to England and the coach said, ‘We need to call up Stoch’. So I went to Prague and came on during the match when it was 1-1 and we beat them 2-1. Everyone said I played well, and I was so happy.” Presumably, Petr Cech, whose Czech side now face an uphill battle to secure qualification, was altogether less delighted.
Naturally, Miro is confident that his country can make it to South Africa ahead of the Czechs and current group leaders Northern Ireland. A happy knock-on effect of his rapid progress at club and international level, he tells me, is that the Blues are now more popular in Slovakia than ever before. “Everyone knows me now over there,” he says. “People are writing to me and telling me ‘good luck’.” While clearly focused on continuing the bright start to his career, Miro also seems to be enjoying his new-found fame. “I like it when people stop me to ask me for a photo or to sign something,” he smiles.
Definitely one for the future at the Bridge, the chances are that he’ll be posing for many more photos and signing thousands more autographs in the years to come.
Interview by Clive Batty, author of ‘The Chelsea Miscellany’, ‘Kings of the King’s Road’ and ‘A Serious Case of the Blues: Chelsea in the 80s’. His latest book ‘The Pocket Book of Chelsea’ (Vision Sports Publishing) is out in October.