The focus of Pat Nevin's column this week is the current president of Liberia and a former Chelsea striker who made a considerable impression on the pitch, and has done likewise off it since retiring...
I am still carrying on with my trawl through the modern Chelsea archives unearthing players who we have allowed to slip from our minds, albeit only for a short time. After this extended period of lockdown, however, I am beginning to forget what it was like to actually go to see a game of football at all, never mind who played for us and when. I was at the last top-level game played in England, when Liverpool lost to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League at Anfield, and so much has changed since it seems like a lifetime ago.
The player who popped into my mind this week is arguably the most decorated man to ever pull on a Chelsea shirt. Now, that is a big call, but I reckon this statement holds water. It was the year 2000 and the team needed some goals. Chris Sutton had been signed for a king’s ransom from Blackburn Rovers but the expected goals rush hadn’t happened, the big man only scoring once in the league campaign. Tore Andre Flo was still a class act, scoring well, and Gustavo Poyet was reliably popping up in the box, too. Gianfranco Zola continued to create for everyone, but something else was needed.
What if Chelsea could snatch a former World Player of the Year, a former winner of the Ballon d’Or, and a much-loved striker at AC Milan, when they were still one of the best club sides around? If Chelsea could actually sign George Weah, who was still then a recognised international star, maybe that could solve the problem that was looming, the lack of goals if either Tore or Gustavo dried up alongside the struggling Sutty?
It seemed a long shot at the time, but Chelsea managed to tempt George to Stamford Bridge, and his debut promised a great deal. Scoring the winner against Spurs will always get the Chelsea fans on your side and he did just that, powering between two defenders with only four minutes to go to muscle the ball over the line. He had been in Italy only hours before and his international clearance just came through at the last minute but his impact, scoring the only goal after coming on as sub, was manna from heaven, as well as a new striker’s dream.
Maybe it wasn’t the most spectacular goal he ever scored - try looking up a goal he scored for Milan against Verona if you want to see something very special - but like all great strikers it seemed to suggest he would turn up at the big moments just when you needed him most. The interest in him was huge and there were more goals that season, memorably against Liverpool, but instead of being a long-term answer, his time at the Bridge turned out to be more of a fleeting short-term fix.
The fact that he had been tempted by Chelsea was a statement and other big name players who previously might not have considered the club now realised that we were right there in with the big boys, in terms of intent as well as finance.
There is little doubt that George Weah in his thirties was past his absolute prime by the time he arrived at Chelsea. Other strikers at that end of their careers were to follow with greater and lesser levels of success, but his attitude was rarely questioned and his popularity in the dressing room was particularly impressive.
Maybe that dressing room, or more specifically the training ground dressing rooms at Harlington, were a bit of a shock initially. After Milan’s plush, tailor-made, state of the art Milanello, our ancient, basic and often cold facilities back then must have been a bit of a shock to the system.
It is also worth remembering that he had the not insignificant honour of picking up an FA Cup winners’ medal while he was at Chelsea. Robbie Di Matteo may have scored the winning goal against Aston Villa that day, but it was still a great way for George to end his time at the club. I wonder if he noticed the young lad on the bench that day on the cusp of becoming a first team regular. He and John Terry might have shared a few ideas about leadership!
When he did leave, the next season saw Chelsea bring in Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to score the goals in what was a crucial change over time for the club. I just wonder if Jimmy in particular was influenced at all by the fact that George Weah was the calibre of player that Chelsea Football Club was now attracting?
So yes, there were only the end a handful of goals and he only hung around for half a season, but as we all now know, we had a leader and indeed a budding national president in our midst. If you can be World Player of the Year, win the Ballon d’Or, play for PSG, AC Milan and Chelsea, and then go on to be president of Liberia, that has got to be a good argument for being the most ‘decorated’ player who has played in a Chelsea shirt, even if he only wore it 15 times in anger.
There are others who have had an effect on the biggest stages beyond football. Didier Drogba has had a massive effect in Africa in general and his own country in particular, specifically in areas of charity and the politics of peace. Maybe one day we will have another president from our dressing room, this time for the Ivory Coast. For the time being it is only George, and any president who can release his own reggae song to get the message across to his countrymen and women about the Covid-19 virus has gone a long way to getting my vote.
I hope they and all of you stay safe, and hopefully we can start remembering what our own players can do very soon.
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