Salomon Kalou knows a thing or two about winning the FA Cup, and ahead of tomorrow’s big game we caught up with the popular winger, who made over 250 appearances for the Blues, to discuss finals, fighting spirit and Frank Lampard…
There are not many former Chelsea players with a better FA Cup record than Salomon Kalou. The Ivorian attacker spent six years at Stamford Bridge, and in four of them he picked up a winners’ medal in the world’s oldest cup competition.
‘That’s a good ratio!’
Kalou laughs. He’s in fine form as we talk to him over the phone in the week leading up to this year’s Cup final. After six years at Hertha Berlin he recently joined Botafogo in Brazil, extending his footballing story to a fifth different country. He speaks with the same insight and illumination as he did during his time in west London, but now eight years have passed since he left, it’s clear he has had ample opportunity to reflect on the most successful period of his career.
Kalou was a fresh-faced 20-year-old when Jose Mourinho added him to Chelsea’s stable of attackers in the summer of 2006. It was Ruud Gullit who had given him his big break at Feyenoord a couple of years prior, and the man who delivered our first FA Cup in the modern era encouraged the switch.
With Didier Drogba and Andriy Shevchenko understandably ahead of him in the pecking order, many of Kalou’s contributions in his early Chelsea days came off the bench. Probably the most crucial in his first season was a late equaliser at home to Tottenham in the sixth round of the FA Cup. Just four minutes remained when Kalou slammed home a volley in front of the Matthew Harding to make it 3-3, and preserve our long unbeaten home record against Spurs.
‘For us it was the beginning of something,’ Kalou recounts. ‘We felt like we knew we were going to win the Cup after that game.
‘We were 3-1 down, Lampard scored, and then I scored the equaliser. I remember so well. After I scored I saw the coach Mourinho running down the line, and then I saw JT - who was injured and not playing - jumping around on the bench. Those memories will stay in my mind forever. It was a great moment and a great goal. It was the Ivorian connection between Didier and I, and it was the perfect finish.
‘We went back to White Hart Lane to win the game with Shaun [Wright-Phillips] and Shevchenko scoring. We knew we had a balanced team, players who could make a difference. We knew we had that story to go all the way to the final.’
That we did, with Kalou setting up Michael Ballack’s extra-time winner in the semi-final against Blackburn at Old Trafford.
‘Oooh, I played Champions League finals, but the final at the new Wembley, there is nothing to compare to that,’ reveals Kalou, who turns 35 next week.
‘I remember the spirit when everyone was singing the national anthem, which is normally for national team games. The surroundings of the game were so well prepared, and at the time there was so much adversity between Manchester United and Chelsea, it was huge. It was the perfect final.
‘I came on in extra-time and I had the first chance to score. I remember going one-on-one against Ferdinand and shooting just wide from outside the box. After, Lampard made a great touch for Didier who finished past Van der Sar.
‘In that squad we had experience, we had young players, we had good spirit. The spirit we showed in that final at Wembley made us believe the squad could win great things.’
Kalou played 28 FA Cup games for Chelsea, and lost just two. One of those was actually a penalty shoot-out defeat to Everton after a pair of 1-1 draws; the other, a shock 1-0 reverse at Barnsley, ended our chances of retaining the trophy we won in 2007.
‘We were playing in a small stadium, the fans were going crazy, and it was like a special English game, full of fighting spirit.
‘Barnsley had a better fight than us that day, but that was the only upset we had.’
We roared back with consecutive Cup triumphs in 2009 and 2010, the latter of those sealing the club’s first-ever Double. Crowned champions a week earlier, we met relegated Portsmouth at Wembley and hit the woodwork four times in the first half alone, Kalou among those denied.
‘It was one of the most difficult finals we played. That was a crazy game. In the final there is no favourite, just two teams who want to win the trophy. We had more to lose than them, but it ended with another trophy and the Double. It was a great season.
‘We always tried to get to the final, because we knew we would perform in the final. We believed the most difficult part was getting to the final, and when we got there we knew something could happen and we would be well prepared to win.
‘It didn’t matter what the line-up was, we knew we would have a great game,’ continues Kalou, his mind focusing on the goal-laden strikeforce of 2009/10.
‘We had a good connection between players up front, whether it was me and Malouda, Drogba or Anelka, me and Anelka, we were working well together. Our connection was so efficient we didn’t need to prepare. We knew each other so well it was easy.’
As in 2007, and again two years later in 2012, it was a Drogba goal that proved the difference.
‘Didier had a strong mentality. He always showed up when people expected him to. You could never take his confidence away from him. He always thought he could turn it around.
‘I was always learning when I played with him. People thought I was from the same generation, but when I came to Chelsea I was 20. I was playing with players with much more experience than me, and Didier was one that helped me to develop, to have confidence, to make the difference sometimes.
‘It was the same with Anelka, Malouda, John Terry, Lampard, Ashley Cole. It wasn’t just football wise, I grew up as a man in those years because I was surrounded by people who already had big careers and great experience. I emerged through that and learned a lot from it.’
Kalou’s final season at Stamford Bridge proved his most turbulent. Unfancied by Andre Villas-Boas, he played just 10 times before the head coach was replaced by Roberto Di Matteo in early March. Another Chelsea man with great FA Cup pedigree, Di Matteo immediately brought Kalou back into the fold. He would go on to play an important part in the extraordinary climax to 2011/12.
‘Robbie had been assistant manager and he knew I was training perfectly. When the opportunity came I was ready, and he gave me the chance. I didn’t give up when the season wasn’t going the way I was expecting, so to start the two finals was a reward for that.
‘It’s amazing they were my last two games for Chelsea. They are memories I can share with my kids and my grandkids. ‘Listen, my last two Chelsea games were the FA Cup final at Wembley, and the Champions League final in Munich, and we won both.’ That’s historical.’
Tomorrow the Blues will be seeking a ninth FA Cup triumph in our history, and an astonishing sixth at the stadium Kalou remembers quickly feeling like ‘home’.
For the young crop of players who have burst onto the scene under Frank Lampard this season, it will be their first experience of an FA Cup final. Putting the unusual circumstances to one side, what advice would Kalou, who was 21 when he played his maiden final in 2007, offer the likes of Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham?
‘It’s another game. Yes, the context is different, but you will have shown through the whole season you have quality. Every time you get the chance, you have to take it. When you play for Chelsea, people only remember the trophies. That’s the time for them to shine and get some trophies. They have the talent, and I believe they will show their quality.
‘In a big game, you are not going to get a lot of chances, so if you seize them, you will have more advantage to win the game. That’s what we were doing when we played the final. We will get a chance, Didier would score, and we were done! We would go home with the Cup. A final is always on small details. If Chelsea take their chances they will go home with the trophy.’
Kalou will be a keen observer, cheering on his beloved Blues and his friend and former team-mate Lampard.
‘I always thought he would be a great manager because he was a very smart player,’ says Kalou.
‘He knew how to move between the lines, he understood the game before even touching the ball. Those are manager behaviours. He knew how to read the game. I’m not surprised he’s manager of Chelsea. If someone is supposed to be there right now it’s him.
‘I like how he’s filled up the squad with young players and is trying to develop them. Football now is very fast, there isn’t often time to help young players, but when you see Chelsea today the average age is probably 25. Before you could never have imagined that.
‘If anyone knows how to win trophies, it’s Lampard, for sure. No doubt. He’s one of a kind. There was never a game when I would see Lampard be afraid of defeat. He was never scared. Sometimes there are some games when you can see a player is not confident, but Lampard always had the same look on his face before every final. If Lampard was not afraid, why should I be? Let’s go, let’s do it.
‘Hopefully Lampard will have his first trophy as a coach, and once again Chelsea will be victorious at Wembley.’
Salomon certainly knew that feeling!
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