In part one of a long read speaking to Petr Cech about his Blues career for the first time since he retired, our longstanding and arguably greatest no.1 discusses his move to Stamford Bridge, the pressure he felt replacing Carlo Cudicini, what made that back-to-back title-winning team so good, and how he prepared to retire at the age of 24...
It was on 9 February 2004 that this website published a statement confirming Chelsea had completed the signing of 21-year-old goalkeeper Petr Cech from French club Rennes for a fee of £7 million. There began one of the most decorated and illustrious playing careers in our great club’s history.
Cech penned a five-year contract, and would only join after that summer’s European Championships. These were the days before readily-available highlights compilations, so it was in a Czech Republic shirt that many Blues fans got their first sighting of the 6ft 4in keeper in action.
They liked what they saw. The Czechs reached the semi-finals - beating Germany and Holland along the way - with Cech central to that success. He was named in the UEFA Team of the Tournament, displaying the ‘courage’, ‘athleticism’ and ‘one-on-one ability’ Chelsea head coach Claudio Ranieri had glowed about when the transfer was completed in the February.
Negotiations with Rennes had been fierce. Their owner Francois-Henri Pinault, a billionaire businessman, had no need to sell his prize asset, who had been catching the eye of Europe’s top clubs for over a year.
‘When Chelsea came in, a big club with huge potential and ambition, I wanted to go,’ states Cech, as we begin our interview by asking how his Blues story started.
‘I pushed a little bit and in the end the clubs managed to get the agreement. Chelsea wanted me to move in January so if Carlo Cudicini was injured they had the option of playing me, but Monsieur Pinault wouldn’t allow that. He said if I went it had to be at the end of the season.
‘So I had five months knowing I was going to move, and for me it was actually an advantage. I felt like I could prepare better. I could make sure I learned more English. I had time to watch every Chelsea game, and learn about the way the team played, and how individuals played.
‘I also watched every Premier League game I could to see how the game was played, what was different, and that gave me ideas,’ adds Cech, who soon spotted the physical nature of football in England, and the lack of protection afforded to keepers in contrast to the continent.
‘I worked with Christophe [Lollichon, Cech’s former goalkeeping coach at Rennes and Chelsea], and there were no limits for us. I wanted to be as strong, as fit and as good as I could be in everything I was doing.
‘So when I arrived for my first day in July 2004, I kind of knew what I was walking in to. I was physically ready, and I was ready for the challenge. It was a good advantage.’
The dismissal of Ranieri and hiring of Jose Mourinho in the weeks before Cech joined up with his new team-mates also worked in his favour. Cudicini was the clear number one under Ranieri; not only that, he had been ‘the best keeper in England’ according to Cech. With Mourinho now in charge, ‘everyone had to start from zero’.
Cech shone in pre-season in the States. It was enough for the new manager to come down in favour of the new goalkeeper.
‘I found out in America I would be starting the first game against Man United, before we flew back to London,’ recalls Cech.
‘Steve Clarke came to me and we had a chat. He told me the manager had sent him to say if I carried on like I had been, I would start the first game.
‘That gave me an opportunity to get ready. I started the Gianfranco Zola tribute game knowing if everything went well I would start against United.
‘I don’t really mind if you tell me Friday or Saturday I’m playing Sunday. I’m adaptable and I’m always prepared. I would train the same way whatever, but it did take away the uncertainty of whether it was me or him. It took a bit of the pressure off, knowing I would get my chance and I better take it.’
What did undoubtedly add to the pressure for Cech was the fact he was replacing an established number one, a firm fan’s favourite and one of the greatest keepers in the history of the club.
‘When we played the Zola game against Zaragoza, as soon as we walked out for the warm-up, the whole stadium was singing ‘Carlo! Carlo!’
‘Then when we played the Man United game, that started as well when we walked out for the warm-up. Everyone expected him to play.
‘When the first line-ups came out and the fans saw he wasn’t playing, the whole stadium was cheering him up by singing it again. It was very loud and you could really feel it. I remember we were on the side and Silvino [Louro, the goalkeeping coach] was shooting at us. He was suddenly looking up and was like “oh my god!”.
‘I told him not to worry, but it put the pressure on. I knew if I didn’t perform, I would be straight out. Carlo had been a fantastic goalkeeper and he could walk in that team anytime, so the manager would have an easy job swapping the keepers if he needed to.
‘That was an engine for me to perform. I knew I had to be on my toes every day, otherwise I would quickly end up on the bench.’
Against Man United Cech kept a clean sheet as we battled to a 1-0 win. ‘He caught the first cross and went on and had a fantastic game,’ recalled Louro. ‘The decision was made.'
‘I never looked back,’ says Cech, who played all but the three league games after the title had been secured. In those 35 appearances he kept a record 24 clean sheets, conceded just 13 goals, and at one point between 12 December and 5 March went 1,024 minutes – a period of more than 11 games - without being breached.
‘During pre-season we worked a lot with Jose on the shape; there was great responsibility on our play without the ball. We had a team that was not afraid to defend. That was the key.
‘As a defensive unit we had a very good communication from the start. My game was based on a lot of communication, and understanding between me and the people who played with me. If you look back, they were defenders overall. Ricardo Carvalho and JT were brilliant with their feet, they were technically so good, but they were defenders first. That helped.
‘We had me in behind, we had JT as the link to Maka, and then to everybody in front of him. We built that link, and that spine, and it suddenly clicked. Then we had big personalities like Lamps and Didier, and we were a hungry team. Everybody was in a good age to succeed, and we knew it was our big opportunity to win things.
‘With the philosophy of the coach, we instantly knew during pre-season something was happening,’ continues Cech.
‘Already then it felt right. It shaped us. We took pride in playing well and being hard to beat, and we knew we could do things even better the more time we spent together. It showed as soon as the season started.
‘Our confidence grew with every clean sheet, with every win. The moment we scored we felt like we had won the game because people couldn’t break us down. The more you win, the more you stop thinking about everything else. You just enjoy the fact you keep winning. We had no fear of losing. The confidence went through everybody.
‘We knew occasionally we would lose, and we were angry about it, but it was like a ghost for us: ‘Don’t let this guy come and annoy you. Just keep winning.’
‘Sometimes we were lucky as well, because we gave away chances people didn’t take, but that’s a part of football. For the commitment and the way we played, we deserved a bit of luck on our side.’
Cech rattles off another stat from his first season: we won 11 league games by a goal to nil. It is testament to his powers of concentration we did so. He believes the hardest part of playing in goal for Chelsea that season was although we gave very few shots away, when we did they would often be ‘big chances’. He says his experiences with Sparta Prague in his homeland prepared him well for this challenge.
We ask Cech if there is one game from 2004/05 that feels, all these years later, defining. He selects his debut for obvious reasons, and then his first taste of a big London derby.
‘The sixth game of the season was against Spurs at home when I made a big save from Robbie Keane, a header,’ he remembers. It kept a tight game goalless and preserved our long unbeaten league record against the team from White Hart Lane.
‘That was a little bit of a turning point because people realised this guy was playing because he can; he actually has the quality to play and help his team win something. That was a moment I showed everybody there was a reason why I was there.
‘It was a very important moment for me because it transferred through the whole season. I was more settled, I got used to the league, I got used to the game. With every win the team felt more confident and comfortable. That helped.
‘It was my dream to come and get a chance to play. So I was living my dream of being a number one goalkeeper at a top club, in the best league of the world. I knew I had pressure to perform, but it’s what I wanted. It was a challenge I enjoyed.’
Cech kept up those exceptionally high standards in 2005/06 as we retained the title with an emphatic 3-0 victory over nearest challengers Manchester United at Stamford Bridge. It was his 18th clean sheet in his 34th league game; he only shipped 20 goals in his other 16 appearances.
At the time it felt almost like our stranglehold on domestic football would never end, but that would prove to be our last Premier League title for four years. Our attempt to make it three on the spin in 06/07 was hampered by a remarkable spate of injuries throughout the team, none more serious than the one Cech suffered at newly-promoted Reading on 14 October 2006.
The 24-year-old’s life was in the balance after a first-minute collision with Stephen Hunt led to a depressed skull fracture. He was rushed to the Royal Berkshire hospital before being transferred to the specialist brain-injury unit at Oxford's Radcliffe Infirmary, where he underwent emergency surgery. Two metal plates were fitted in his skull.
Cech can’t remember anything of the incident or the three days that followed it. It is why he says the whole affair was ‘a thousand times worse’ for his wife Martina, who was acutely aware of the gravity of the situation.
The surgery was successful, and when he was able to, Cech’s focus turned to playing again.
‘Nobody knew if I would be able to come back,’ he says. ‘There were plenty of questions, and not many answers. In my head I had to prepare for the end of my career. That made me see things in a different way.
‘Plan A was to do everything I could to come back. That was my target. But I had a plan B in the back of my head and I was preparing for the worst if I couldn’t come back. If it wasn’t possible, it wasn’t possible.’
The Chelsea medical team, led by Dr Bryan English (whose quick thinking at the Madejski Stadium helped save Cech’s life), worked with the goalkeeper on a flexible recovery programme.
‘If I could do three days in one, I would; if I couldn’t do anything for two days because my brain wouldn’t take anything, then I wouldn’t.
‘I found my way through it, and with every week and month I was getting better and better. Suddenly I realised how fit and strong I felt because of all the work I’d done.’
The bone in Cech’s skull took 12 weeks to heal. Before it did, he was able to train on his own but needed to protect his head. ‘That was how we found the helmet!’ he laughs. It would become his signature.
Just a couple of days after returning to full training, Mourinho asked Cech if he wanted to play.
‘I said I did,’ he affirms. ‘It was against all the advice I got from people around me, because they thought mentally I should let the season go and prepare for the next one.
‘But I just felt I was so fit and happy to come back the right thing would be to return; 105 days or whatever it was after the surgery, I played a game in Liverpool.’
Cech says he felt ‘completely normal’ that day at Anfield, and was mostly concentrated on picking up match habits again after three months without playing. He had no hesitation or fear in diving at opponents’ feet. Playing with a helmet in a full stadium was a new experience, that felt like his head was ‘in a tumble dryer’, but he soon adapted, and would wear it for the remaining 12-and-a-half years of his career.
The incident changed Cech’s life forever, and also led to a tightening of regulations in the Premier League. On matchday every club is now obliged to have a doctor in the dugout, and there must be two paramedics on the sidelines, along with an ambulance on standby. He believes those new rules saved Fabrice Muamba’s life when he went into cardiac arrest at White Hart Lane in 2012.
Reflecting on his own brush with death more than a decade on, Cech is drawn to two injuries he had suffered in the 18 months prior.
‘There was one thing I never talked about, and people didn’t know at the time,’ he begins. ‘Halfway through my first season at Chelsea I broke the labrum in my shoulder. I carried on and finished the season.
‘It felt like during the summer it would recover. It didn’t! During the second season I already had a massive problem with my shoulder and I was protecting it. Then, in the first part of my second season, I did exactly the same thing to my other shoulder. So I played my second season with broken shoulders!
‘I was trying to get the pain low for the games and find ways to train properly so I didn’t feel the unbelievable pain every day, which was difficult to avoid.
‘I thought about having surgery during the second season, but I didn’t want to risk missing the World Cup in Germany that summer. Nobody really knew how long it would take me to come back.
‘To my relief I decided to have the surgery after the World Cup. I came back fast from that and I was enjoying games and not having pain while training and moving. A few games later, we played Reading!’
If Cech had his time again, the only thing he says he might do differently in his career is opt to have surgery earlier than he did, although that decision would be with the benefit of hindsight regarding the speed with which he recovered.
With his skull as well as his shoulders mended, Cech soon hit top form again. We lost 2-0 at Anfield in his comeback game, but he kept clean sheets in his subsequent eight league appearances, earning him the Premier League Player of the Month award for March 2007. The season might have ended without a league title for the first time since Cech joined, but he did have his hands on the FA Cup after keeping champions Man United at bay in the new Wembley showpiece.
‘When you come back from a career-threatening or life-threatening injury, you don’t think about pressure,’ explains Cech.
‘I just enjoyed every moment. I suddenly realised every game could be my last one. So whenever I played from then on, I enjoyed it because I had another game to play.
‘I was so happy the journey hadn’t ended in Reading. It was a positive feeling and played a part in my recovery. Every game felt like medicine for me.
‘Leading to the end of the season and the FA Cup final, it felt like there was no other outcome than us winning it. I was so positive. It was a great joy and satisfaction. It was the first FA Cup we won together as a group, and it felt like the right end to the season.’
A maiden victory at the new Wembley crowned a dramatic campaign for Cech and the club. Plenty more highs and lows lay ahead, as we discuss in the second part of our interview with Cech, to be published tomorrow. He speaks of Moscow heartbreak, Munich ecstasy, Double delight and the hardest decision of his career…
By Rupert Cane