Eden Opening: The story of Slavia and Oxford

The Eden Arena was inaugurated 15 years ago. Slavia invited Oxford UAFC in a replay of the famous 1899 game of both teams in Prague.

There are many links between Slavia and England. And the UEFA Conference League Final between West Ham and Fiorentina at Eden will write another chapter. The first one dates to 1899 when the Red-Whites hosted Oxford University AFC, their very first English opponents. And the same club came to Prague for the opening ceremony of the new stadium at Eden. The construction of the arena which hosts the Final on Wednesday was finished 15 years ago.


Oxford UAFC team at Eden on 7 May 2008.

The stadium was inaugurated on 7 May 2008 with a ceremony followed by an exhibition match between Slavia (completed by some of the club legends) and Oxford University Association Football Club, with whom Slavia first played in March 1899. The Red-Whites won 5-0, with the first goal scored by former Liverpool midfielder and then Slavia captain Vladimír Šmicer.

The hosts also symbolically repaid 40£ – a price Slavia had to pay in 1899 to be able to invite Oxford to play in Prague. The banknotes are now framed and displayed in Slavia Museum.

Nick Baker and James Doree, both West Ham fans, were among the Oxford players who played Slavia in the grand opening in 2008. Nick Baker – now management consultant in London – captained the team. He is now returning to Eden after 15 years to watch the UEFA Conference League Final.

Do you remember the moment when you and your teammates found out that you were going to Prague to open Stadium Eden?

J.D.: Yes! Slavia approached OUAFC when I was still a student and Secretary of the club. Honestly, I thought it was unlikely to happen at first. But as the plans gradually came together the following year I became more concerned with making sure I was in the squad.

N. B.: I remember the initial invitation and not quite being able to believe that it was actually happening. We deliberately kept the news to quite a small group until everything was confirmed, but the excitement amongst the squad when we told everyone was pretty special.

Have you ever been to Prague before, what was it like?

J.D.: I had never been to Prague back then – or travelled much at all. We knew about famous Czech footballers in such as Ludek Miklosko and Karel Poborský – but didn’t know the city very well.

N. B.: I had been on a school economics trip a few years before – so at least knew my way around. It’s a beautiful city – always a pleasure to come back

Where did you stay and how did you spend the time around the match?

J.D.: We stayed at the stadium hotel which was brand new. I remember the weather was great and we caught some of the tourist sites, including the astronomical clock.

N. B.: Slavia very kindly arranged for us to stay in the stadium hotel, but most of us headed into town during the day to see the sites and stretch our legs – while some of the squad stayed in their hotel rooms preparing for their final exams that were due to start imminently.


OUAFC players after the final whistle.

How much time did you spend in Prague at all?

J.D.: We were only there for one day – I think we all wished we’d had more time.

N. B.: The squad had to head back the next day (with a few sore heads from a good night out!) but would have loved to stay longer. I was lucky enough to be invited back out to watch the final game of the season on the Saturday as Slavia secured the title – which was an amazing experience.

What were your immediate impressions when you first entered Eden?

J.D.: We had a first tour of the stadium after arriving in Prague. The boys were buzzing with excitement – it felt like a familiar English ground, with tight sides close to the pitch – but it was brand new.

N. B.: The stadium was incredibly impressive, and the pitch was immaculate. I remember the underside of the roof of the stands was made of wood, which seemed to amplify all the sound and made it feel like many more fans were there.

At what stadium and for how many people did you play as the university team before meeting Slavia?

J.D.: We’d played our annual game against Cambridge at grounds like Upton Park (West Ham United), Craven Cottage (Fulham) and Loftus Road (QPR). But the maximum was only ever 3,000-4,000 people. I think the most I’d seen at our Iffley Road ground was 200!

N. B.: Oxford University had historically played our annual varsity match against Cambridge at Wembley Stadium, and I think attendances had exceeded 50,000 at some points – but that was long before even the old boys in our squad had joined (we stopped playing at Wembley in 1987 as the crowds were too small!), so playing in front of about 4000 people at Craven Cottage on Boat Race day was probably the biggest crowd we ever attracted – and that was definitely not the norm!

It must have been a huge difference, right?

J.D.: It was a unique experience. You could feel the crowd on all four sides of the ground – and particularly the end with the ultras. We didn’t have any experience of a real football atmosphere.

N. B.: The energy behind in the stand behind the goal was incredible – and only increased once we had (very kindly) let Slavia score that first goal after about 15 seconds...

How did you enjoy the festive atmosphere, the backdrop of 15 thousand fans?

J.D.: It did feel like a festive atmosphere. Obviously, the stadium was new for everyone – including the fans. We could really see the positivity of the Slavia fans arriving at the ground.

N. B.: It was a great time for the match to happen – there was a natural sense of excitement as Slavia were expected to win the league title for the first time in a long time on the following Saturday, so the club was in a great place.


15 thousand people attended the friendly against the university club.

Didn´t you regret that you didn´t score even once?

J.D.: We struggled to even create chances against experienced professionals. But I was more worried about preventing goals at the other end! I think Slavia went easy on us in the second half.

N. B.: I think we were pleased to have a couple of corners! There were probably a few more speculative long-range shots than we would normally take as our players imagined telling the story of how they scored an amazing goal from 30 yards against Slavie. But overall, I think we achieved our 2 main objectives – firstly not to be completely embarrassed, and secondly to make sure we didn’t any Slavia players before the big match on the Saturday. And we should remember that the referee took pity on us and finished the game early – so maybe we could have nicked a late goal as Slavia tired!

Were you sad about the result, or didn´t it matter at all?

J.D.: We’re competitive and proud guys – but we’re realistic! One minute, Gebre Selassie was gliding past me on the wing, and the next minute Patrick Berger was pulling our midfield like string.

N. B.: It was just exciting to be out there – it was special to experience just how good Slavia’s players were, and how quickly and efficiently they could move the ball. I think you don’t always get the full experience of that gulf in quality from the sidelines.

Did you know the history of Slavia vs. Oxford in the past?

J.D.: We were aware of the history from the time Slavia made contact. Oxford University itself had successful teams in the nineteenth century – and regularly played high profile matches. But the game against Slavia was a complete novelty for our generation.

N. B.: We certainly researched it once we received the invitation – but being a university club actually limits our continuity – most people only play for the club for the 3-4 years that they are doing their degree so we lose the accumulated knowledge and relationships quite quickly unless we get volunteers from the old boys who continue to participate beyond their graduation. I know that the Slavia relationship is definitely one that my generation now treasures – and we have passed the stories on at every opportunity.

He was in Eden and also enjoyed the atmosphere here...

J.D.: That’s great – in fact, a former colleague of mine was working for PwC in Prague in 2008 and also came to watch the match in corporate hospitality!


Oxford players joined Slavia for the post-match "děkovačka" ritual in front of the Nothern Stand.

It´s been 15 years, what are you doing now what is your profession? Do you still play football?

J.D.: I was playing football every week in East London up until my first daughter was born in 2017. For us amateurs, it’s difficult to balance work – including travel and other demands – with children while playing football.

N. B.: Professionally, I work in renewable energy investments. I actually have several Czech colleagues. I think I stopped playing a few years earlier than James – I didn’t really enjoy the fact that I was getting worse as having a real job got in the way of training! I’m now a management consultant with Bain & Company and spend my weekends trying to convince my 2 young daughters (Evie and Bella) to play football with me.

Was the match in Eden your strongest football experience?

J.D.: Definitely – it was unique for a group of amateur students in England to play in a match like this. It’s certainly more memorable that muddy and windy away games at the University of Staffordshire.

N. B.: It’s a wonderful memory and a story I really enjoy telling – partly because it seems so absurd to most people. But I enjoy remembering games that we won too!

Do you meet your former teammates now? Do you know what they are doing now? What are their professions?

J.D.: Yes, I am quite close to a number of the lads and in fact several of us continued to play together in the Southern Amateur League after University. They are lawyers, bankers and scientists!

One of the team that played in 2008 – Deji Davies – is still involved in football, on the Board at Brentford FC in the Premier League.

N. B.: We still do catch up, though not as often as we used to as work and families take up more time. But we certainly reminisce about our experiences at Eden whenever we do. There’s real variety in the careers that our squad have gone on to – lots of lawyers, bankers and scientists. Very few have stayed connected to football, but we do have Deji Davies (one of the old boys) who is now Chair of the Inclusion Advisory Board for the Football Association and a board member at Brentford, Jack Hazzard who is an Exec Producer for Monday Night Football – which is one of our biggest football TV shows in the UK, and Leon Farr who is a Partner at a specialist sports law company called Onside Law.

Do you follow Slavia results?

J.D.: Yes definitely. In fact, my interest was rekindled when Thomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal joined West Ham a few years ago. I particularly remember the win against Leicester – my friend Owen who also played in the 2008 game is a Leicester fan.

N. B.: Definitely – and I’ve exchanged a few messages with Ondrej over the years. It’s always great when English teams play at Eden (whether clubs or the national side), and we often get mentioned by the commentators as a piece of trivia during the coverage! I’m sure it will come up again if West Ham make it through to the Conference League final in June (and I imagine James will be looking for some tickets)!

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