FOR some footballers, the idea of spending the last few years of your career sitting on the bench, barely getting a taste of first-team football and playing second fiddle to the manager’s first name on the team sheet is the stuff of nightmares. But for Tomas Cerny, it provided a much-needed soft landing from the sport when the time came to hang up his gloves.

The 35-year-old goalkeeper, most recently on the books at Aberdeen, called time on his career earlier this month. A knee injury played its part, he admits, and while regular visits to Cormack Park to receive treatment mean the Dons players aren’t exactly shot of him yet – “the club kept me in the bubble and I’m able to go back to do my gym work and still work with the physios, which is brilliant” – Cerny says he knew his time was up.

The former Hamilton and Partick Thistle keeper made just two appearances in his two-and-a-half years at Pittodrie and while that might leave some wistfully wondering what could have been, Cerny insists that he harbors no regret about winding down his career in such a muted fashion.

When the Jags were relegated to the Championship in 2018 after falling short to Livingston in the play-offs, Cerny found himself without an employer and with his confidence shot to pieces. Retirement was seriously considered but in the end, Aberdeen’s offer to extend his career by a few years proved too good to turn down.

“To be completely honest, I was utterly devastated after the relegation,” he said. “Mentally, it took me quite a while to get back to normal and I really struggled with it.

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“In those first few weeks after the play-off game I felt like I had nothing to offer at that point. I felt that if I stayed, I wouldn’t be helping anyone here. It was almost like I needed some space.

“It was a personal thing. If I felt strong at that point and believed I could have helped the team then I would have stayed. I ended up being without a club for a couple of months and I’d even considered retirement at that point.

“I was applying for jobs and then Aberdeen came out of the blue. It was the day before they played a Europa League game against Burnley and they offered for me to come up and do a medical and sign. It was something I couldn’t refuse.

“I wouldn’t say there’s any regret [about not playing more often]. At that point in my career it felt like the right move and it was a different part of football for me.

“I had played over 400 games so I didn’t feel that playing another 50 wouldn’t have made a massive difference to my career. It would have been nice, of course, but I probably didn’t feel the same urgency as I did a few years back.

“Being a part of Aberdeen was overall a great experience. It’s such a well-run club with a brilliant history. We played in Europe every summer and it was nice travelling.

“Joe Lewis is arguably the best goalkeeper in the country and he was playing ahead of me but it’s difficult to argue with that to be honest. I was just trying to help him as much as I could and be ready when required.

“In the couple of games I played in I did very well and we won them both. It would have been nice to play a few more games but it wasn’t to be.

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“Plus, I feel it was almost like it made retiring from this position a little easier – the transition from playing every week, to being on the bench and sometimes playing, to retirement – rather than playing one Saturday and ending your career the next week. I would find that really, really difficult.”

Looking back, Cerny certainly has a lot of fond memories. At Hamilton, where he established himself in the men’s game and became a first-team regular. And after that, when he tried his luck on the continent, initially at Bulgaria’s CSKA Sofia and then latterly at Ergotelis in Greece.

On both occasions, financial difficulties at the club resulted in Cerny moving on to pastures new but he prefers to focus on the positive side of his time on the continent.

“The spells in Bulgaria and Greece were really interesting, getting to live in a new country and learning the language,” he recalled. “CSKA Sofia is the biggest club in terms of history and stature in Bulgaria – I guess it’s kind of like signing for one of the Old Firm here, really.

“Again, it was a completely different experience in terms of football. There were many financial problems at the club that I had to deal with but it was certainly a good experience. We really enjoyed our time in Sofia. My wife still goes back and visits because she really liked the place, so we’ll always be fond of it. We had a good few years there.

“Then I moved to Greece. The experience of living on a Greek island for a period of time isn’t something that comes along very often so again, I’ve nice memories of that! There were a lot of problems within the club so it was challenging in that respect. That’s why we cut the deal short; I terminated my contract and came back to Scotland.

“Our first child was on the way and my wife was seven months pregnant. We had to make a decision about what to do because I wasn’t getting paid regularly in Greece. We thought if we stayed a few months longer and the baby was born here and she wasn’t able to travel, then we would have to stay there. I wasn’t getting paid so we then decided to terminate the contract and the logical step was to return home for her to be near her family.

“We went back to Kilmarnock and I was a free agent, and within a week Hibs contacted me to see if I was interested in signing there. It was perfect at the time. Then our son was born in Edinburgh but I wasn’t playing there regularly – that’s why I moved to Partick Thistle in the summer.”

Cerny would stay at Thistle for the next three years, quicky establishing himself as a cult hero among the supporters. He was named player of the season by supporters in his first year at the club, played an integral role as the Jags finished in the top six the following year, and experienced the bitter disappointment of relegation in 2018.

It was an eventful ride for the Czech, who admits he still feels a special bond to the Firhill faithful to this day.

“They definitely weren’t just another club,” Cerny replied when asked what the Jags meant to him. “We had great experiences elsewhere off the pitch but in terms of the clubs I played at, there’s never been that personal touch where you just feel good to be around. I think I got that at Thistle.

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“It was a good time. I was 30 years old, I had good experience but was still at the peak of my career in terms of my physical powers. I had a decent spell and especially the last season when we finished in the top six – I think we had a very good team.

“I’ve got great memories from that period and of course, the relationship I had with the fans was very special to me. That’s something I will always cherish. I found it very easy to settle in and I felt very welcome from day one. I was at the club for years and in terms of football, I played very well in my first few games which helped.

“I made my debut against Hamilton in the first game of the season. I think we played with 10 men for 70 minutes but we ended up getting a 0-0 draw and I made some good saves. From then on, the fans took me in and that made things a bit easier.”

Few Thistle fans would hesitate in naming Cerny as the best goalkeeper the Jags have had in quite some time, but does the man himself feel he reached the peak of his powers at Firhill?

“I think so but it’s hard to say,” he replies. “In terms of playing well, I had great spells in Bulgaria. I had like 35 clean sheets in 60 games or something like that. When things were going well and the club were paying me, I was quite settled. But I would say my first three seasons at Partick Thistle were probably the most enjoyable.”

There is one save in particular that sticks out in this writer's mind when thinking of Cerny at Thistle. The Jags were hosting Dundee in 2017, searching desperately for their first win of the season in a campaign that would ultimately end in relegation. The visitors had absolutely hammered Thistle yet as the clock wound down, the score was level at one apiece. Dundee found some space down the left, in came a drilled ball to Sofiane Moussa, who hits it first time with the goal gaping. Cerny seemingly defies space and time to hurl himself at it and bats it to safety, and a few minutes later Miles Storey scores a dramatic winner for the Jags.

“That one was right up there,” Cerny recalls. “That was a game where we were battered by Dundee at home. I saved a penalty in the first half and then I managed to get that save in the second half. That was made even better by the fact we scored a 92nd-minute winner in a relegation battle. If we had stayed up that season then that might have even been my best save.

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“The saves that I made the week we finished top six were special too. I saved a penalty from Scott Sinclair at Parkhead and we got a point, and then I had a very good save from header from a free-kick against Motherwell in the game where we secured top six.

“Those saves were probably more important. The one against Dundee is a save you don’t really expect to make – the striker has an open goal from a few yards out, and I made a couple of steps and managed to get a hand to it. I was lucky that the ball kind of stuck to my body. It was one of those where I don’t really know how I made it but you have to be lucky to make these.”