Goodbye to a great

Following the news of an agreement for Petr Cech to leave the club, we look back at a historic Chelsea career…

 

May 19, 2012. Allianz Arena, Munich.

The Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich has come down to a penalty shoot-out.

With the scores level at 3-3, Bastian Schweinsteiger has a chance to put Bayern back in the ascendancy. The German steps forward and fires towards the bottom right-hand corner. The home supporters packed in behind the goal prepare to celebrate but Petr Cech, fresh from denying Ivica Olic with the previous kick, has other ideas.

The Chelsea goalkeeper dives to his left, somehow managing to get the slightest of touches on the ball, diverting it against the foot of the post and back out to safety.

The balance of the contest has now swung well and truly in our favour.

We are just one kick away from Champions League glory.

Everybody remembers what happened next. Without doubt one of the greatest, if not the greatest night in the history of Chelsea Football Club.

For Cech to play such a pivotal role in our finest hour was testament to everything he had worked towards up until that point.

As well as the two penalty saves in the shoot-out, he had also saved Arjen Robben’s spot-kick in extra time, a truly outstanding achievement in any match, let alone the biggest game in club football.

Didier Drogba of course receives much of the plaudits for the role he played in Munich, sending the game into extra time with a dramatic late header and then tucking away the penalty which secured the trophy, but the Ivorian himself is quick to emphasise the magnitude of Cech’s performance in Germany.

When Drogba was honoured by the Football Writers’ Association in January for his services to the English game, Cech gave a moving speech, paying tribute to his long-time team-mate, before the striker returned the compliment.

‘There are so many times when people talk about me scoring the winning penalty in Munich, but I always tell them there would have been no winning penalty if you weren’t there,’ Drogba told Cech at the event.

‘In the final I scored the equaliser, but you made some great saves that night and I don’t think you get enough credit for what you did. Strikers are the ones people talk about but, for me, you are the one who won us the final. That’s why I had to run to you when I scored the penalty, I didn’t run to you by mistake.’

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Football has always been a game in which the attacking players grab most of the glory and dominate the headlines. Put together a list of the greatest players and, in all likelihood, it will contain the names of an obvious few. The odd legendary defender may feature but it is even less likely a goalkeeper will gain recognition in many people’s selection.

Of course, there have been some truly outstanding number ones down the years, revered on these shores and overseas. Here at Chelsea, supporters who frequented Stamford Bridge in the 1960s and throughout much of the 1970s were fortunate enough to watch Peter Bonetti in action.  ‘The Cat’ was a magnificent and innovative goalkeeper with starring roles as we lifted the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cups for the first time.

He was the club’s first Player of the Year, with goalies Eddie Niedzwiecki and Carlo Cudicini following in his footsteps in collecting that accolade. Ed de Goey was a multiple trophy winner with the club. All were integral members of strong Chelsea sides.

However, early in February 2004, the day after a Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink penalty had given us a 1-0 home win over Charlton Athletic, the club announced what would turn out to be one of the most significant signings in our history.

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We had agreed a deal to bring Rennes goalkeeper Cech to Stamford Bridge.

The 21-year-old, from Czech Republic, would stay in France for the remainder of the 2003/04 campaign before joining up with his new team-mates in the summer.

While supporters were understandably pleased to acquire the services of a talented, young goalkeeper with a growing reputation, with Cudicini playing well at the time, it wasn’t widely regarded as a problem position for the team. It’s fair to say few could have predicted just how big an impact Cech would have in the years that followed.

Four Premier League titles, one Champions League, one Europa League, four FA Cups and three League Cups. A mightily impressive CV by anybody’s standards. Munich 2012 is widely considered the pinnacle of his career, but there is so much more to Cech’s Chelsea success story.

In terms of individual honours, the list goes on and on: Premier League Golden Glove winner on three occasions, voted into the PFA Team of the Year twice, UEFA’s Best Goalkeeper three times, Chelsea Player of the Year in 2011 and Czech Footballer of the Year a remarkable seven times. A similar ‘Golden Ball’ award in his homeland has been bestowed on eight occasions.

During our title-winning season of 2004/05, Cech’s first at the club, he kept a record 24 clean sheets in the Premier League, as well as setting a new league best of 1024 minutes without conceding a goal.

Jose Mourinho’s side romped to a first championship in 50 years, conceding just 15 goals in the process, another record, with Cech instrumental.

A 1-0 win away at Blackburn Rovers, hailed by many as the most significant result of that season, was secured by a goal from Arjen Robben, but the importance of Cech’s penalty save from Paul Dickov couldn’t be understated. 

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The following season as we recorded back-to-back league title triumphs for the first time in the club’s history, though continuing to play behind a strong defence, when Cech was called upon to be at his best he didn’t disappoint.

A 3-0 victory against Manchester United ensured we were crowned champions again in style. Cech kept his 50th clean sheet for the club.

His first couple of seasons were filled full with happy memories, but a serious incident early in the 2006/07 season put Cech’s career, and his well-being, in jeopardy. 

During the opening minute of a Premier League game at Reading, Stephen Hunt’s knee collided with Cech’s head as the two players challenged for the ball. The Chelsea goalkeeper had a fractured skull and required immediate surgery.

Thanks in no small part to his own fortitude and hard work, plus club and family support, he was able to return to action just three months later, and the season came to an end with Cech keeping a clean sheet as we beat Manchester United 1-0 in the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley. We also lifted the League Cup with a 2-1 win over Arsenal in Cardiff. 

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Figuring in any discussion on the greatest goalkeepers to play in the Premier League, it’s no accident Cech has been able to produce consistent displays at the top level for so long. Natural ability coupled with dedication brings big rewards.

He is a deep thinker on the game and many other aspects of life, always looking for ways in which he can take his performances to another level, but what makes him such a great goalkeeper?

His agility, particularly taking his frame into account, is hugely impressive. Cech is undoubtedly a great shot-stopper but is also comfortable coming for crosses and dominating his penalty area.

Hugely important has been the confidence he instilled in the players in front of him, so central to our success. The stable and steely spine to the team so revered as Chelsea grew from first-time Premier League winners to champions of Europe had a vital link between the keeper and the captain - John Terry on so many occasions marshalling the defence to work as a unit with the familiar man behind.

During Cech’s time as a Chelsea player, there were numerous eye-catching displays. His debut, a 1-0 victory over Manchester United in August 2004 when he was selected ahead of fans’ favourite Cudicini, brought its own pressures, but he produced a mature performance which immediately endeared him to the Stamford Bridge crowd.

In the 2010 FA Cup final against Portsmouth, having already demonstrated remarkable reactions to deny Frederic Piquionne from point-blank range, Cech saved a Kevin-Prince Boateng penalty with the score at 0-0. Minutes later Drogba at other end scored the winner.

En route to Munich three years ago Cech produced one of his most memorable performances, when Barcelona came to Stamford Bridge for the first leg of our semi-final.

Pep Guardiola’s side dominated possession for long spells, carving out chance after chance, with our goalie called into action countless times over the course of the 90 minutes.

In the first half, he made a smart stop to deny Andres Iniesta before thwarting Lionel Messi twice in quick succession. With the Blues having gone in 1-0 up at the break, the Spanish side came out for the second half intent on restoring parity, but they couldn’t find a way past Cech. 
 

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Terry and Gary Cahill were excellent on the night, but it was Cech who ensured we headed into the second leg with a one-goal advantage, saving from Adriano early in the second half and then making a wonderful save low down to his right from a Carles Puyol header right at the death. 

For all the titanic battles between the two sides in recent years, Messi is still awaiting his first goal against Chelsea, thanks in no small part to the heroics of the man between the posts.

In that same season, Cech produced one of the greatest FA Cup final saves of all time to deny Andy Carroll as we beat Liverpool.

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Of all his individual accolades, one with which Cech can be very proud is surpassing Bonetti for the greatest number of clean sheets kept as a Chelsea goalkeeper.

The Blues travelled to Old Trafford just three games into the 2013/14 campaign; the match itself ended goalless but it was Cech’s 200th clean sheet for the club, and it was only a matter of when, not if, he would break the record of 208.

The magnificent milestone was achieved at Hull City’s KC Stadium on a January afternoon.

Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres made sure of the three points with a goal apiece, but when the final whistle sounded it was the goalie the rest of the players ran to congratulate. Not for the first time, he had made history. 

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While some players require a settling-in period when joining a new club, particularly one in a different country, that was never the case with Cech, who hit the ground running and never looked back.

As professional and helpful a person as you could wish to meet, he has been the perfect role model for young Chelsea players attempting to make their way in the game, and his response to the arrival of the youthful Thibaut Courtois is typical of the man.

Perhaps influenced by the way Cudicini dealt with freshly arrived, young and talented competition for a place in the team back in 2004, Cech played a big part in the 2014/15 double trophy success not only through his performances when called upon (he kept five clean sheets in six league appearances and was in goal when Spurs were vanquished at Wembley back in March), but also by giving his all for the good of the club day in and day out between games. 

Mourinho talked of being able to call upon two of the best three goalkeepers in the world. Courtois frequently speaks with gratitude about the way Cech helped him settle into a new and challenging league, imparting his wisdom as they worked closely together on the pitches of Cobham.

It’s on pitches up and down the land and across continents that Blues supporters have had the pleasure of seeing Cech shine.

In a home game against Arsenal in October, when Courtois sustained a head injury, Cech received a wonderful ovation from the home support as he made his way onto the pitch and went on to produce an assured a display as ever, keeping a clean sheet in a 2-0 win. In a vital 1-0 home victory over Everton in February, he made two saves as good as anyone’s anywhere during the season when the game was goalless. 

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Cech, at 6ft 5in tall, is a big man who has been a monumental player during the most glorious period in Chelsea history, sustained for a decade and a match for any team in the land over that time.

By any measure his is undoubtedly the finest career a goalkeeper has had at the club, and one of the greatest of all time.

It may be true that players in his position often don’t receive the credit they deserve, but at Stamford Bridge the love, admiration and respect for Petr Cech runs ever so deep. We have been fortunate to watch him receive his due rewards. 

Eleven special years provided by one special player.

Thanks for the memories Big Pete, a true Chelsea legend.

 

You can read Petr Cech's letter to Chelsea fans here...

Read Cech's key Chelsea statistics here...