By Ninad Barbadikar
The Premier League is an ever-changing landscape and out of all the clubs, Chelsea is probably the one club that has enjoyed considerable success despite significant changes at the helm. Earlier this summer window, The Blues of London welcomed back an old favourite amidst their ranks in the form of Czech Republic international Petr Cech.
For 11 years, the man from Plzen guarded the Chelsea net with great aplomb and is now rightfully considered by many as one of the greatest ever to have graced the Premier League.
The art of goalkeeping is at times under-appreciated and few have done more to enhance the importance of the role than Big Pete himself. Having now been appointed as the technical and performance advisor at Chelsea, it seems only right that the man who had one of the best performance standards at the club during his time, be given this role.
The early 2000’s was a period of transformation at Chelsea. Roman Abramovich arrived in the summer of 2003 and with him, came success like the club had never known before. The arrival of Jose Mourinho at the helm also helped bring in a host of successful players to Chelsea.
At the time, Cech was plying his trade at Ligue 1 side Stade Rennes, having started his professional career in his native Czech Republic with Chmel Bisany. From the very start of his career, Cech started to make a habit of setting new records and raising the bar for those around him.
From Bisany, Cech moved to Sparta Prague in 2001 and his performances there garnered interest from European giants all over the world, including London giants Arsenal. Due to work permit issues, the deal for the Gunners fell through. Otherwise, things could have turned out to be very different for the Czech international.
In January 2004, Chelsea opened negotiations for Cech and after their initial bid was rejected, Rennes agreed a record 7m deal for the keeper that made him the most expensive transfer for a goalkeeper in Chelsea’s history.
Upon his arrival, he faced stiff competition from Carlo Cudicini, however, an injury to the Italian shot-stopper allowed Mourinho to quickly integrate Cech into the first team and things stayed that way for the rest of the season. After a sensational first season that ended in Chelsea winning the Premier League title, Cech had kept 21 clean sheets and let in an astonishingly low figure of just 15 goals and secured the Golden Glove in a highly impressive debut campaign for him.
“It’s a big loss for football but history can’t be deleted. Many congratulations on such an amazing career” – Jose Mourinho, after Cech’s retirement.
In the years that followed, Cech established himself as one of the best keepers around at the time. However, amongst all these highs was one particular low for the Czech international.
It was October 2006, a regular Premier League game for Chelsea against Reading at the Madejski stadium when a life-changing incident occurred for Cech.
Reading hosted the champions at home and it did not take long for the game to be tainted by an accident that still lives in the memory of football fans over the world. In the first minute of the game, Royals forward Stephen Hunt chased a loose ball into the side of the penalty box. As Hunt rushed towards the ball, so did Cech and in the process of getting the ball back, Hunt’s right knee collided with Cech’s head, which left him requiring serious treatment. He was rendered unconscious by the blow. Cudicini had to step in and fill in for the Czech international, however, he suffered a knock as well, which meant that captain John Terry was required to guard the posts for the remaining minutes of the game.
The injury meant that Cech was forced to miss the better part of the campaign and took considerable time to recover as he had to undergo surgery for a depressed skull fracture, doctors later revealed that this injury could have cost him his life had there been more force from Hunt.
This injury highlighted an issue that had been overlooked in the past, proper protection for goalkeepers. Goalkeepers face shots of great ferocity and dive into punches and saves by giving it their all in every game. And while they are rightfully praised for their heroics, Cech’s incident showed the English FA and the rest of the football world that goalkeepers needed more protection to avoid what happened to the Chelsea shot-stopper. In fact, when asked about it in an interview after recovering from the injury, Cech stated that he had no memory of the injury itself.
After making a successful return to training from the injury, Cech donned a rugby cap as protection for his head. The Chelsea keeper made his return in a 2-0 loss to Liverpool in January 2007. However, after that loss, Cech went on another run of keeping clean sheets and shutting out the opposition for a record 810 minutes, winning the Premier League player of the month in the process. He ended the campaign on a high as Chelsea lifted the FA Cup trophy after a 1-0 win against rivals Manchester United at the New Wembley stadium.
The following season brought with it the opportunity to clinch football’s holy grail – the UEFA Champions League. It was an iconic night in Moscow where Avram Grant’s men gave it their all against a formidable Manchester United side. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, Cristiano Ronaldo struck early in the game, while Frank Lampard’s equaliser restored parity and gave the Blues some much-needed hope. The match went down to penalties, and Cech played his part well. The Czech international wasn’t able to prevent the first two spot-kicks, however, he saved the third from Ronaldo, which was a surprise to most, but the Chelsea keeper was calm and composed. Ultimately, that save did not matter, as Blues captain John Terry’s dramatic miss and Edwin Van Der Sar’s save from Anelka’s shot sealed the trophy for Manchester United.
“The best goalkeeper with his feet? Pepe Reina. In the air, I’d say, Neuer. With his hands: Casillas. The best overall I’d say is Cech.” – Gianluigi Buffon on Cech.
Cech’s excellency in goal was rewarded with a renewed five-year contract in 2008, he had firmly established himself as one of the Premier League’s finest keepers.
Avram Grant was then replaced by seasoned Brazilian manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, a man who had enjoyed great success on the international stage, with Portugal and the 2002 World Cup-winning Brazil side. Scolari had a mixed reputation as being a disciplinarian and a very unpredictable coach. Cech had an unfortunate experience with Scolari. The former Brazil coach blamed the keeper and other senior figures at Chelsea including Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard for his departure, stating that the players were unwilling to learn his methods. Cech was particularly involved with Scolari’s departure as the coach said that Cech insisted on being assigned a personal coach. Cech later on completely denied that he made any such demands and was quite disappointed with Scolari’s comments.
Away from football, Cech is a humble and simple guy who wishes to indulge in his passion away from sport, music. The Czech international posts drum covers of songs from classic bands such as Queen to the icons of today’s music such as Foo Fighters and Coldplay.
Over the coming seasons following Scolari’s departure, the hot seat at Stamford Bridge saw many faces come and go, the first of which was Carlo Ancelotti in the year 2009. The Italian was expected to bring silverware to South London considering his exceptional success in Serie A with AC Milan and he followed through, winning a domestic League and FA Cup double in his very first season.
The Italian’s reign, however, did not last long as a poor run of form in the 2011-12 season saw him sacked by the club. Another Italian was brought in to clean up the mess, Roberto Di Matteo. Under Di Matteo, Chelsea went on a sensational run and Cech’s contributions to their UEFA Champions League success that year, were invaluable. In the final against Bayern Munich, Cech saved two penalties and was the Blues’ hero of the night as Didier Drogba slotted the winning penalty and won the holy grail for Chelsea. Chelsea rewarded the Czech international with a fresh new contract that ran up to the summer of 2016.
The return of Jose Mourinho at the helm saw a downturn in Cech’s fortunes and after two seasons under the Portuguese where his starting position was taken by the returning loanee Thibaut Courtois, Cech decided to make a move away from Chelsea, into rival territory, at Arsenal.
Usually, a player moving from Chelsea to Arsenal would never be well-received, but such was the immense respect that everyone at the Bridge had for Cech, his move to Arsenal did not produce any real backlash.
Upon his move to Arsenal, he was immediately first-choice, thanks to Wojciech Szczesny’s loan move to AS Roma and the arrival of David Ospina from OCG Nice that summer. At Arsenal, Cech’s experience saw him win the Premier League Goalkeeper of the season in his first year, despite the fact that Arsenal’s back four was hardly solid, to say the least.
In his three years at the Emirates, Cech secured the FA Cup and two Community shield titles, as well as runner up finishes in the Europa League and the EFL Cup. The Czech international decided to call it a day on his career after Bernd Leno took over his starting spot.
Cech’s career in the Premier League was nothing short of spectacular, he is the only keeper to have over 200 clean sheets in the Premier League era, beating David James to that feat and several achievements in Europe have heralded him as one of the greatest keepers of the modern era.
The Czech international’s experience on and off the pitch and his technical knowledge of the game will help him excel in his new role back at Chelsea as the technical and performance advisor of the club. While it remains to be seen how far Cech will go in his career off the pitch, what cannot be ignored is that he will always be the keeper with gloves of gold.
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