WORDS WITH: BRANISLAV IVANOVIC
This month sees Branislav Ivanovic celebrate four years as a Chelsea player, and the versatile defender spoke to the club's website in order to take stock, and look back at what has been an eventful, enjoyable and largely rewarding time in the capital...
Four years into his Chelsea career, Branislav Ivanovic is in a happy place. With trophies in his collection, medals cluttering up the mantelpiece and having cemented his position as an integral member of one of the strongest squads in Europe, few could have predicted the impact he has made when he made the transition from Russia to England in January 2008.
The Serbian defender is a popular figure among fans and it's not difficult to understand why; solid, reliable and with an uncanny knack of popping up with vital goals, Ivanovic is the modern manager's dream.
But while the majority of his time at Chelsea has been punctuated with success, silverware and smiles, it hasn't always been that way.
When Ivanovic signed for Chelsea from Lokomotiv Moscow he endured a difficult start to his Stamford Bridge career.
Involvement with the first team on his arrival was virtually non-existent, and it was a brutal introduction to life in England, as the defender tells the official Chelsea website.
'Signing for Chelsea was a big step in my career at the time,' he says. 'But my fitness wasn't so good and I picked up a hamstring injury.
'Within the club I was okay, I adapted quickly because everybody wanted to help me so I felt happy and confident. My problem was the fact I wasn't playing, so that made it difficult. It was a tough time for me, but I passed through it and it made me stronger.'
Ivanovic reserves nothing but praise for the players and management at the club for the way in which they helped him come through a difficult period, both on and off the pitch.
But there was one player in particular, who was struggling with his own performances at the time, that became Ivanovic's close confidant, and whose words of advice and encouragement played a vital role in him reversing his fortunes.
'Andriy Shevchenko helped me a great deal,' he admits. 'When I arrived I didn't speak very good English and he gave me a lot of confidence.
'I worked closely with him and he explained what I needed to do, not just in terms of football but away from the pitch as well, the whole way of life over here.
'I will always be grateful to him for that and he is one of the most important people in my career, he changed my outlook on various things and we speak a lot still.'
After a long, hard pre-season, in which Ivanovic worked tirelessly in order to force his way into the then manager Luiz Felipe Scolari's plans, he was finally handed his Chelsea debut during a Carling Cup tie away at Portsmouth in September 2008.
It had been a long time coming, and while the early stages of the Carling Cup are hardly the pinnacle of an international footballer's career, that game represents a turning point in Ivanovic's Chelsea story.
'I lost trust in the fact I would ever get my opportunity at the club. January until September is a long time, the only games I had played in that period were for the national team, which was important to me and helped keep me focused. Making my debut against Portsmouth was my reward for all the hard work I had put in since my arrival,' he says.
Shortly after, having gradually become accustomed to the demands of English football, Ivanovic was beginning to look the part at the heart of the Blues defence.
Injuries to both Ricardo Carvalho and Alex afforded him the opportunity to play alongside John Terry, and following a string of impressive performances he endeared himself to the Chelsea faithful even further with two crucial goals in a 3-1 Champions League win at Anfield in 2009.
An injury to Jose Bosingwa at the start of the following season gave Ivanovic a sustained spell in the side at right-back and, to his credit, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, establishing himself as an important member of a team which went on to win the Double for the first time in our history, while putting the gloss on a memorable campaign by being voted in to the PFA Team of the Season.
'For me, it was the greatest season in my life, it was fantastic,' he insists.'We played with pleasure, we played with confidence and we had a great squad.
'We deserved to win the league and then we won the FA Cup final as well. That achievement isn't just for the supporters and the club itself, for the players personally it's a golden moment, I'm very proud of it.
'Personal awards in football are important in the sense that they give you confidence and belief, but we played that season as a team; being voted in to the PFA team was a personal award but the whole team deserved to be selected.'
Last season began in a similar vein to how the previous one had ended, with the side scoring goals for fun and brushing teams aside with consummate ease, but thanks to a three-month period in which we struggled to find any kind of form, we ended the campaign without adding to the trophy cabinet, signalling the departure of Carlo Ancelotti.
The arrival of a new manager in the shape of Andre Villas-Boas has inevitably seen the implementation of fresh ideas as he looks to stamp his mark on the side, and while Ivanovic acknowledges there is plenty of room for improvement, he insists the whole squad are united as one going into a crucial part of the season.
'This season at the club has been slightly different because obviously we have a new manager. There are a lot of things which have changed and we are still trying to adapt, we have played brilliantly in some games but dropped a lot of points, particularly at home,' says Ivanovic.
'I still believe we can improve this season and I'm sure we will do. The manager is doing a great job, he is trying to make sure everything is perfect for us, we are giving him our full support, we believe in him and we are trying to make good things happen.'
Having played under a succession of managers during his time in west London, and learnt something from all of them, Ivanovic has taken his own game to a level he could only have dreamed of when growing up as a youngster.
But it's the lessons he has taken on board from working alongside some of the most talented players in the world every day which he believes has been the key to his development and progression at the club, as he explained.
'When I came here I realised that training with these guys is how you improve,' he says. 'All of the players are very professional, I didn't know it would be like that before I came so that was a bit of a shock.
'Training with this squad every day is an absolute pleasure. A lot of the players do extra work in order to help them improve on the pitch and that is the big difference.'
To see Ivanovic in and around the training ground on a daily basis is to see a man who clearly appreciates the position he is in; helpful, humorous and engaging, his is an interesting story, and having recently put pen to paper on a five-and-a-half year contract, you get the feeling there are a few more chapters yet to be written.
'Signing a new contract was very important and I see it as reward for the hard work I have put in since joining the club,' he says.
'Winning trophies is what motivates me and I will do everything possible to do that every season, we know that will be very tough but I am very happy here, my first wish was to stay here and hopefully that will be for as long as possible.'
By Mark Conlon.