Our former left-sided player and England international is the latest to answer a series of questions on his time at Chelsea, which unusually was split over two lengthy spells, commencing in 1987 and concluding in 2003…
Tell us about how you came to sign for Chelsea?
Well I did twice of course! The first time John Hollins was the manager at the time, he was in Jersey presenting a Player of the Year award and three or four people mentioned my name to him. He took the number of the secretary of St Pauls, the local amateur team I played for, and then actually had the presence of mind when he got back to London to phone and get me over for a trial. I think he just thought partly it’s an unusual surname, but also because a few people had mentioned me to him he’d better follow up on it. So I had a trial for a week, and hung around like an idiot. Subsequently I was offered a contract off the back of that.
The second time I signed for Chelsea I was playing for Blackburn – and England - and Ruud Gullit was the manager. Ruud, together with the club, had identified me as a player they wanted and it was a British record for a defender, £5.5m, so it was a big deal for everyone, including myself, but more of a traditional way of signing players, and something which meant I then stayed at the club for another six years.
Do you think you would have made it to a top-level club had it not been for the good fortune that John Hollins visited Jersey at that time?
Well I was looking at universities so I think the opportunities would have been better for me. I’d had trials from the age of 13 on and off and didn’t quite make it. Once Southampton got wind that Chelsea had me on trial they got in contact and asked me to go back, so I think my definition of luck is when preparation meets opportunity. If you’re working really hard at something and then an opportunity comes along, you’re much more likely to take it, and that sort of defined how I got that chance. If that hadn’t have happened, would I have created other opportunities for myself? Probably, but the pathway would have been different.
What were your immediate impressions of the club?
The first time, a mixture of excitement, shock and disappointment (he laughs). Excitement about the fact I was getting to fulfil the next part of my dream which was to become a professional footballer, and writing that down when I opened my bank account was amazing. Shock in the sense that it was a real baptism of fire coming into the dressing room culture at the time. The club wasn’t doing well at the time and got relegated that season, which was nothing to do with me because I didn’t play. There were a lot of difficulties, John got sacked and it was hard, there was a real shock that professional football was a lot different to what I’d been doing in Jersey.
I was committed like a professional but the environment wasn’t professional. There wasn’t that competitive nature between players and that was difficult at times. I was disappointed in the attitude of some of the players and some of the things they would pick on people for. It was quite a negative culture and with hindsight, you can see some of the reasons why the team got relegated.
It needed to be re-booted, in a sense, in order to improve, and I would say that didn’t really happen until Glenn Hoddle arrived. So they were my first impressions but within that I was trying to develop my career and that was amazing, making my debut down at Portsmouth and playing for the reserves, playing in different positions and getting to know some of those players really well. That whole experience, and being a teenager living in London, diving into that whole environment was a magical experience. It wasn’t all bad, it was just polarised.
What about Stamford Bridge itself?
It was a vacuous, enormous and quite dated stadium. It was quite intimidating as well because it was huge. The problem was that with the track around it you were slightly disconnected from the fans, so going away from home was a different feeling than it was at Stamford Bridge. The noise seemed to go out and up rather than on to the pitch. But I very quickly built a relationship with the fans. They appreciated hard work and I think they saw that effort and endeavour in me, and I put in some good performances early on which helped me get a bit of a following, particularly from the Benches in the West Stand, they were always really good to me. All the fans were until that infamous day with Ian Porterfield where I was misunderstood. It wasn’t intended as an insult to the club and fans [Le Saux took his shirt off and threw it to the ground when substituted by Porterfield in a Christmas game]. It was a cry for help and due to frustration. Certainly all the fans I speak to now say they know it was a reaction to the situation rather than anything disrespectful to the club.
What do you remember about the backing the team received from the fans, both home and away, during your time at the club? Any particular games stand out in terms of atmosphere?
Every footballer will tell you that the away fans over-deliver because they’re so up for it and so committed, dedicated and enjoy themselves, and they have that camaraderie. The away fans always amazed me, for making all that effort to follow you over land and sea, and Leicester! At Stamford Bridge, I always loved the midweek night games and they brought the best out of the players and fans.
The standout game for me during the first spell was against Spurs when we drew 0-0 [in the first leg of a League Cup quarter-final]. I think I announced myself then as a player with a lot of potential because people will always talk to me about that game even now. They will mention how I played at a level they’d not seen from me before, and stood out among some very good players on the pitch that day. I didn’t score even though I had a couple of chances, but the most frustrating thing for me was the fact I rushed home to watch it on Midweek Match of the Day and the Gulf War had broken out, so I’ve never seen that match back but I know I played well and the fans at those night games really enjoyed them.
Of all the managers you worked under at Chelsea, who had the biggest influence on you, your game or your career?
John Hollins obviously deserves a huge amount of credit but I didn’t get to work with him for too long, I think he got sacked on the strength of signing me! He was fantastic as a person, I didn’t really know what he was like as a coach but clearly things weren’t going well. He was someone I looked up to and kept I touch with throughout my career. He was always a good pair of ears and had a lot of experience.
Ruud Gullit really stood out. He brought me back to the club. Luca Vialli was also very good but they were both young managers, it was their first jobs in the game. Don Howe, who worked at the club for a spell as a coach, was tactically amazing, he was brilliant.
Claudio Ranieri was my last manager at Chelsea. He was in full tinker mode then but he was a great coach. By then we were very experienced players so it was more about taking what he said and also delivering what we knew, but I’d say John and Ruud were the two.
In addition to that Spurs game you’ve described, tell us about some of the other most memorable games you were involved in for Chelsea…
Vicenza at home in the Cup Winners' Cup, and my last one stood out for poignant reasons. There were so many memorable matches though, particularly in that second spell, it was a pleasure to be on the pitch. When we were playing well they were enjoyable as well as professional performances.
Which team-mates were you closest to during your time here? Are you still in touch with them now?
I see different guys from my first spell, people like Graham Stuart, David Lee and Jason Cundy, Frank Sinclair and Eddie Newton. Then there are a lot of people from my second spell that I keep in touch with. The contrast between my two spells was about the culture of the dressing room and the friendships we built, as well as the stage of my career that I was at. I didn’t know a lot about myself as an adult during that first experience so I learnt a lot that probably changed me during my second spell but that’s all part of growing up. I feel very fortunate to feel that I have lifelong friends that I shared those experiences with, even though we don’t see each other all the time.
Were there any opposition teams or players you particularly disliked facing and, if so, why?
When you play at the highest level you have to respect whoever you are playing against because they can show you up. The players I felt were difficult opponents were those electrically quick two-footed wingers or midfield players who constantly kept you on your toes, and if you weren’t alert mentally and physically they could show you up, so people like Andrei Kanchelskis. Brian Laudrup, who we signed, was a tough opponent when I played against him for England. I remember Shaun Wright-Phillips when he was at Man City was really tough to play against because he was so quick. Any of those top teams we played against, you came off the pitch knowing you were mentally and physically done.
What about opposition fans, what were the most intimidating stadiums to play at?
Millwall. The old Den was hostile. West Ham as well given the rivalry between the teams. Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday wasn’t hostile but it seemed huge. The standout one was Galatasaray when we played them in the Champions League. We beat them 5-0 but when we walked out on to the pitch for the warm-up they bombarded us with coins and the police had shields up to protect us. That was one of the most complete performances, to go out there in that environment with that level of intimidation and to put in a performance where you get clapped off by their fans was great.
How do you look back on your time at Chelsea overall? Is there anything you would change or do differently?
Fondly. What would I change or do differently? With hindsight, in the first spell I wish I’d had a bit more ability to deal with some of those situations I found myself in as a young player. We weren’t well supported within the dressing room and it was a hard, tough environment to survive in. I think if I’d been able to adapt to that environment a bit more smoothly and quicker my career would have started earlier, and if we’d had a bit more stability around the team I think I could have made an impact. But I’ve never been one to look back because you can’t change anything. Every experience shapes you and as long as you learn something from it and don’t repeat mistakes that’s the way we’ll all continue to learn, so would I change anything? No. The positive and negative experiences have shaped my outlook now. I definitely felt when I came back that it was an opportunity to continue that journey with the club I started at. It’s 12 years of fond memories playing for such a renowned club, so it was a privilege.
What are your thoughts on the current Chelsea and season so far?
It’s been fantastic. What I love, and I hope I don’t blow it now, is that the team are slightly under the radar compared to others. With the work Maurizio and his staff have been doing, you have to give them credit, and the players as well because when the turnover of managers is high, the players are able to put that to one side and focus on the next project and style. The team have been playing really exciting football, the new signings seem to have settled in well and I just love watching a team fulfil its potential and individual players playing at a level where you can enjoy it and the team are a joy to watch. It’s great to see Franco Zola back involved as well and I keep telling him if he needs somebody to translate from his English into English, I’m there for him!