From his days starting out in the game to becoming a Premier League and Champions League-winner with Chelsea, as well as captaining England, Gary Cahill talks us through his football journey in the latest of our regular feature...
I got a lot of enjoyment from school football and then progressed to a team called AFC Dronfield. I played for the year above me, as that’s the team all my friends played in, and I was there for a number of years. Playing near to where I lived, and at grassroots level, was great fun. I was around 13 when I was scouted by a few teams and I went into the set-up from there. I was living near Sheffield, and Sheffield Wednesday offered me a contract, so did Derby, but I ended up going to Aston Villa. It made no sense in terms of where it was but there was something about the club and I had a good feeling about it. The facilities and the coaching were fantastic. My mum and dad felt the same as I did so we made that decision.
There are numerous coaches who have helped me along the way. But when I went to Villa there was Gordon Cowans, who a lot of people are aware of, Tony McAndrew and Kevin MacDonald. Those three looked after me from 16 up until the reserves and were a big influence on the way I saw football. It wasn’t always rosy; they were strict and quite hard on us, but you appreciate that more the older you get. It was just what they demanded through work and the sessions. They wanted us to play in the right way, at a fast tempo, and we had a lot of success. Over a period of three or four years the amount of players they produced was frightening: Peter Whittingham, Jamie Ward, Liam Ridgewell, Steven Davis, Gabby Agbonlahor, Craig Gardner, there were loads who came through. That’s down to the recruitment and the coaching we had which was phenomenal.
I went on loan to Burnley and then Sheffield United. I was playing reserve football regularly which a lot of the first-team players were involved in back then, so that was good to play in. Then Burnley came in and I have to say Steve Cotterill, their manager at the time, was massively influential on my career because he took a young lad from the reserves, who’d never played first-team football, and took the risk to put me into his squad and play me consistently for six months, which gave me a platform to go on and have a career. I then went to Sheffield United, under Bryan Robson and Brian Kidd, so there was a good schooling there with two great figures, which was another important experience.
At Bolton I felt I grew as a player and established myself in the Premier League. I had a fantastic four-year period there. I loved it. I loved the fans and the people at the club, it was brilliant. We had a very good side. Before I arrived they were hitting the European places and in my first year we were involved in the Europa League. There were some big characters, the likes of Kevin Davies and Kevin Nolan, such great people and I had a wonderful time.
You look at hurdles in your career. First you want to play one game in the Premier League, then you want to play regularly, and then you see the next goal, which for me was to move to a bigger club and try to compete for trophies. To do it so quickly at Chelsea, winning the FA Cup and Champions League in my first season, was bizarre. I had to be patient, like you do when you move to a big club. Looking back now, when the club signed me from Bolton they probably weren’t sure if I’d be able to play at this level, or play in the Champions League, because I hadn’t done it. So it takes somebody to have that belief in you and then for you to go and do it. Eventually, after waiting a couple of months I got that opportunity and the rest is history. It was crazy how it happened so quickly and then continued through the whole time I’ve been here really.
I’m proud of having had the confidence to perform for this club. Here, it’s not just about football. I’ve seen so many players who have come here for one or two years and then they go. There’s more to it; you have to be able to play football, to play out from the back, you have to tick all these boxes or you don’t survive here, that’s a fact. Then on top that you have to be able to deal with everything else, the pressure that comes with trying to win trophies, the modern game, it’s endless so that’s what I’m proud of. To have had so many years here, and win so many trophies while being a major part of that success, means a lot.
Being given the captain’s armband was special. I wore it a lot when we won the title in 2016/17 and JT let me lift the trophy with it on. We all know he was the captain and that’s another thing I’m proud of, to be able to look back and say I played with the likes of John, Lamps, Didier, who retired last week, Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Ivanovic, all these great players who have now moved on but were top professionals. Sharing a dressing room with them has given me some great memories. I’ve loved it, it’s been amazing.
Playing for England was a dream come true. One of the goals I wanted to achieve was playing for my country. I remember when I got my first cap thinking that nobody could ever take that away from me. It was against Bulgaria at Wembley and I came on for Michael Dawson. To go on and win 61 caps, and to be captain along the way, was fantastic. I played at two World Cups and one Euros', although it should have been two but I broke my jaw in 2012 and missed out. The tournaments were a bit frustrating because in my experience we generally qualified comfortably.
Captaining England is one of the best feelings ever, just behind making your debut. I was proud to play so regularly when I was involved in the set-up. In my head I wanted to get to 50 caps, and when you do that you get presented with a big canvas of all your games, and that’s a big milestone. But to reach 61 caps means that during the time I was in the squad, I played regularly, and it was brilliant to be a part of the squad at the last World Cup, even though I was coming to the end of my time with England.