It’s one of football’s great clichés, that you can’t win big trophies without a great goalkeeper. There are obvious exceptions to the rule: Liverpool winning the Champions League with Jerzy Dudek for instance, or France winning the World Cup with Fabian Barthez. What I think is more true to say, perhaps, is that never has there been a great club side who have dominated for any length of time, without a world class #1 in the squad. In years to come, Chelsea supporters will reminisce with huge amounts of pride, over the sides we’ve fielded for the past ten years and over all that they achieved. And when they recall in their heads the starting XIs from all of those Cup Finals, or from those league winning campaigns, the first name they’ll remember will always be the same – that of, Petr Cech.
The summer of 2004 will always be remembered primarily for the arrival of Jose Mourinho, followed by the arrival of Didier Drogba. Looking back, perhaps equally important as either of those additions, was the signing for £9m of a 21 year old Czech goalkeeper from Rennes, who in 12 months time would have shattered almost every defensive record in the division. Cech demonstrated in his debut season all of the talent that would help him go on to become a Premier League legend. His shot-stopping was incredible, his control of area was absolute, his decision making was impossibly mature for his age and by the end of May he had conceded only 15 league goals and had kept a record 25 clean sheets!
A decade later, he has won four league titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups, the Europa League and the Champions League, he’s only a handful of games away from becoming his country’s most capped player of all time, and his total number of clean sheets in the PL stands at 166, just four behind David James, having played 240 games fewer. Not bad, really. Considering most of this was achieved following his horrific head injury in 2006 I think makes it even more impressive.
His contributions extend further than his on-field efforts also. Over the years when the club has gone through difficult moments off the pitch, involving negative press around his teammates or the controversial sacking of his managers, Cech has been a pillar, and consistent source of class and professionalism in the dressing room. For 11 years he has accepted defeats with grace and humility, celebrated victories with modesty and perspective, and on every occasion when called upon, represented the club with great articulacy and intelligence and understanding. In virtually every sense he has been the model professional and a relentlessly class act.
Even with a decade of being brilliant, clubs legends don’t achieve their status without defining individual moments or performances, and when it comes to the greatest moment in the history of Chelsea (our Champions League win – in case you didn’t guess), the contribution of our Czech stopper will never be forgotten, or disregarded. Playing behind the broken pair of Gary Cahill and David Luiz, and with Jose Bosingwa for cover on the right flank, for the entire game Cech was magnificent – utterly imperious, dressed all in white. His two penalty saves from Arjen Robben (in extra time) and Ivica Olic (in the shoot-out) will always be engraved in our brains. As will the image of an ecstatic Didier Drogba running over to share with his teammate the first celebratory hug.
If wasn’t already secure (which, let’s be honest, it was) Petr’s status as a club legend and fan favourite was cemented this season, in his handling of being replaced by Thibaut Courtois back in August. Never once has he publically bemoaned his position, never once was he seen to offer anything but encouragement and guidance for his young teammate and never once, when called upon, was he ever anything other than his usual phenomenal self. The grace with which he has accepted the situation and the respect he has shown the club to willingly serve as Courtois’ understudy for a year is worthy of huge admiration. I really don’t think it’s to be taken lightly, for a player of Cech’s calibre, just what a selfless contribution this was – I think it has been a real testament to his loyalty for this club, and he should be commended for it.
It’s a contribution however, that he shouldn’t be allowed to continue making. As much as it hurts I think the only reasonable position Chelsea fans can take at this point, is to acknowledge that Cech is simply far too good to be anybody’s understudy, and that this summer is the time to move on. If any top side comes in for him and he wants to leave, we don’t have any choice but to support him in making the move, even if, heaven forbid, that top club turns out to be Arsenal (or another Premier League rival).
Sadly if that move were to happen, there would probably be a few (and hopefully only a few) fans, with a distorted sense of what loyalty in football should look like, who may describe the move as treacherous, or as a betrayal. It strikes me as somewhat laughable that any fan should expect a player not to fulfil his career ambitions of playing top level football in his preferred country, simply to avoid hurting their feelings. Hopefully the majority can accept whatever decision he makes with the same levels of class and understanding as he showed Mourinho’s decision to promote Courtois to the first team.
Few players in the history of the sport manage to ingrain their name as deeply into the fabric and the tradition of a football club as Petr Cech has succeeded in doing over the past 11 years. He has been without doubt one of the greatest keepers ever to play in England and almost certainly the greatest ever to have played for Chelsea. When he leaves I hope it is to endless expressions of gratitude and affection, and if he returns that he should receive nothing but warm applause. Hopefully, collectively we can have the character to paraphrase John Terry and say: if Big Pete’s happy than we’re happy too.