With more thinking time at the moment than is often the case, our regular columnist and former player Pat Nevin has been reminiscing and reckons it is high time to recall once again the contribution Ricardo Carvalho made to a winning Chelsea side…
I was musing away the other day about old friends in football and specifically those at Chelsea that I hadn’t seen or talked to for a long time. Then I realised there were some that I hadn’t even thought about for a few years and that made me stop with a jolt. These were players and sometimes friends who were in my thoughts constantly back then, but down the line they have been relegated to distant memories. It didn’t seem right.This reminiscing started with two players sadly no longer with us. First my friend Dale Jasper who we lost back in January and second, a guy called John McNaught, who came down from Scotland to join Chelsea while I was playing. After about five minutes thinking about big John, I realised he was a huge character with a wealth of stories connected to him, but most have been lost, forgotten or at least misplaced. I’ll collect them for you at a later date, but they are genuinely funny, poignant and a bit surreal.
It is not only the memory of the more peripheral players that gets parked in some dusty corner of your brain where the neurons from hippocampus and the amygdala don’t venture very often. It can be others who were important but who have been usurped and replaced in our affections. As I thought about it further, a great example for me is Ricardo Carvalho. I mean what a fantastic player he was for Chelsea, managing to be a world-class defender as well as being a cult figure at the same time.I can’t believe I hadn’t thought about him for so long, but why was that? Of course there was my adoration for David Luiz who played in roughly the same position and to be fair, our Brazilian was a pretty big character who was hard to miss and hard to forget. Then again, if people ask about their favourite Chelsea centre-backs, is it even possible to answer that question without your brain immediately focusing on John Terry, leaving other legends like Marcel Desailly trying to muscle their way in to get some consideration time.
The thing is, along with many Chelsea fans at the time, I thought that Ricardo was one of the best defenders we had ever seen, not just at Chelsea but anywhere. The trophy haul throughout his career bears this out. Three league titles in his six years at Chelsea, but he also won the Portuguese Primeira Liga with Porto before he arrived and La Liga in Spain with Real Madrid after he left us to join their new manager, one Jose Mourinho. With Portugal he got to the final of the Euros in 2004 in his home country but then lost to the shock outsiders Greece. He also won the UEFA Cup against Celtic with Porto, with Mourinho of course.It did look like he followed Mourinho around the continent like a small child, playing for him at Porto, Chelsea and Real Madrid. Considering what a connoisseur of great defending Jose is, it is a high compliment he felt he needed his countryman at the heart of his defence just about wherever he went. Jose even tried to acquire Ricardo when he was at Inter. I sometimes wonder if I will see Jose walking out the door at Spurs one week and there will be Ricardo two steps behind him, dark glasses and menacing look, defending him like a close protection officer.Ricardo did have those lethal dark arts at his disposal, we all knew that. He was an asset to the team in an almost Jason Bourne sort of way. If you got hit by Ricardo, you tended to stay hit. He wasn’t just an out and out football assassin, his true world-class ability above all his other attributes was his uncanny ability to read the play and see where the danger was likely to develop from. That usually meant winning the ball clean and if someone had to feel the force of the tackle after he won the ball, then so be it. There are a very few players who have this ability to an almost supernatural level and they are not all defenders. Claude Makelele had it but so too has N’Golo Kante.
John Terry had that innate ability to read danger as well. With him and Ricardo together at the heart of our defence and Makelele there too, beating them must have been like trying to outwit a bunch of muscular, physical psychics. It is worth remembering that first season in 2004/05, the defence lost only 15 goals in the Premier League. That is still an astonishing statistic and not surprisingly still the record.There was one area of his game that I was actually disappointed with, but it is still a compliment really. Every now and again he would break out of the back line with the ball and he was a superb footballer on these occasions. He travelled with the ball smoothly, he was perfectly capable of shimmying past a couple of tackles, he had an eye for a pass and his pace was exceptional, so he was definitely a danger on those crazy-horse breaks from the back. I thought he was brilliant at them, so why were they so rare if they were such an unusual and dangerous weapon for the team?
I spotted the reason one night while commentating on a European game. Mourinho knew Ricardo’s fondness for a fast counter-attack and he didn’t always like it. As Ricky galloped forward having dispossessed the opposition striker on the edge of our box, he approached the halfway line with the ball still at his feet, the play opening up ahead of him, options everywhere. At that moment he glanced over towards the dugout only to see Mourinho static on the halfway line with his arm out like a barrier. The message was clear from his boss’s eyes, ‘You have been told. If you go over that halfway line you are in trouble and it doesn’t matter how good a position we are in. You are a defender tonight and nothing else. There is a fine waiting for you if you dare venture into the opposition’s half.’Ricardo seemed to shake the flowing locks for a second while he considered ignoring the gaffer’s orders, but then thought better of it. His fun curtailed, he made a two-yard square pass and trudged back to stand beside JT. That’s why we didn’t see those runs, he was under orders.That said he did score a few goals, a diving header against Manchester United in the Charity Shield comes immediately to mind and even more memorably, that 40-yard screamer against Spurs (both shown in the first video above). But it will be his defending that will live long in the memory, or at least it should live long in our memories. I promise to try not to overlook him again.