In the second part of our in-depth interview with Petr Cech looking back on his Chelsea career, our former goalkeeper reflects on his European dream finally being realised, his toughest opponent, and the pain of being displaced and then leaving the club.
First, though, on the 10th anniversary of one of his finest days in a Blues shirt, the thrashing of Wigan that secured our third Premier League title, he reminisces about that most enjoyable campaign, and the lead-up to it…
The news rocked the footballing world. Six weeks into the 2007/08 season, Chelsea Football Club and Jose Mourinho parted company.
‘It felt strange,’ recalls Petr Cech, over a decade later. ‘It was very unexpected.
‘There was the documentary movie release in Fulham Broadway when we all went to the cinema with all the coaching staff. I got home and got a message saying the manager had left. “What?! He was with us!”
‘It felt like the end of an era. The winning team started with Jose and his staff.’
Despite the upheaval, Chelsea kept fighting. ‘We pretty much lost the title on goal difference,’ Cech notes, ‘and then the Champions League final in a penalty shoot-out where we were so close.
‘It was a very bitter end to the season.'
The following campaign proved almost as turbulent, but Cech points to Guus Hiddink’s stint as caretaker as something of a turning point. As well as enjoying the feeling of winning silverware for the first time in a couple of years, Cech believes it was during these months the strength of the team was rebuilt, setting us up for a new era of success.
‘We lost the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona with…a complete performance from the ref,’ he recalls through gritted teeth.
‘It was unbelievable to be involved in that game. It really was tough to take, but at the same time it showed we were ready to compete with the best team in the world. We were back. The FA Cup win confirmed that. When Carlo Ancelotti arrived, the team was in a good position again.’
Further affirmation of Chelsea’s renaissance was provided throughout the goal-laden 2009/10 season. Ten years ago today, we thumped Wigan 8-0 at Stamford Bridge. It was some way to seal Chelsea and Cech’s third Premier League triumph, and it kept our hopes of a first Double in the club’s history alive.
At Wembley the following weekend, Cech became only the third goalkeeper to save a penalty in an FA Cup final, denying Kevin-Prince Boateng from 12 yards. A few minutes later Didier Drogba scored the only goal, rounding off what Cech considers to be possibly his most pleasurable campaign in a Chelsea shirt.
‘With Carlo’s work, his positivity, his little changes because of his experience and personality, suddenly the team felt ready to go again. We had a good mix of youth and experience.
‘That season was really enjoyable. We played really good football, attacking and defensive, we scored a lot of goals, we were winning games, we kept clean sheets.
‘Everybody worked hard and well, and the team was strong and experienced to do that. We enjoyed every game. That really stands out. The atmosphere at the club and within the team transferred onto the pitch.
‘The build-up and the journey made it special as well,’ Cech adds. ‘We basically had to win the last eight games to win the title, and we had games at Old Trafford and Anfield. It was an overall really good season. We were well balanced and we were rewarded for it winning the title and then the Double.’
Cech broke new ground 12 months later. Over the space of a long weekend in May 2011, he was named Chelsea Player of the Year for the first time, and then became our all-time top foreign appearance maker. It is a record he still holds, his 494 games over a hundred more than the next player in that list, long-time team-mate Didier Drogba.
At the end-of-season awards in which he received the main prize, Cech, about to turn 29, stated his intentions.
'I love the club, and I feel at home here. There are players here when I joined the club still here, we have had good years, worse years, average years, but they made me feel at home and that's why I look forward to the future.
‘You always want to win everything but especially the Champions League now, that is the only one missing.’
The date was 19 May 2011. Cech could not have foreseen the extraordinary European adventure that lay ahead, culminating in his wish being realised exactly a year later.
Monaco, Anfield (twice), Moscow, Iniesta. Chelsea seemed to find increasingly agonising ways to be eliminated from the Champions League as the 2000s progressed.
Our belated glory in the competition was all the sweeter for it.
‘Any sport at this level is about resilience, overcoming obstacles, and transforming bad experiences into a driving force,’ says Cech, as he begins to explain how we overcame the odds in 2012.
‘The huge heartache of losing in Moscow, a game like the Barcelona one: all these bad experiences give you extra strength if you take them the right way. It’s easier to win, but finding ways to overcome obstacles and forget about the failures shapes you as a player.
‘That season things in the league didn’t go right from the start. But I said to my wife in December we were going to win the Champions League! We agreed. We both said in all those years when we were dominating in the league, we were so unlucky in the Champions League.’
The tables turned. We finished sixth in the Premier League, by three places the worst showing in Cech’s 11 years at Chelsea. But in Europe, things began to fall in our favour.
‘Every time we played during the knockout stage, starting with Napoli at home, it felt like we were a different team. Things were happening for us in those games that were not happening for us in the league.’
Past Napoli and Benfica we went, setting up another semi-final tie with Barcelona. A man and two goals down in the Nou Camp, it seemed like all hope was lost. Not so, says Cech.
‘We had problems, injuries, and we could have felt like it was another of those moments. But it didn’t feel like that on the pitch. We said at half-time that if we lose 6-1, we lose 6-1, but we wouldn’t make it easy for them. If they have to kill us, they would have to work hard to kick us out.
‘Ramires’ goal gave us a lift and showed it wouldn’t be easy for them, even down to 10 men and with all the shuffling we had to do. People had written us off before the Napoli second leg, and we made it. That experience of overcoming the 3-1 deficit, and the experience of previous tournaments, meant we knew we would do everything in our power to make it a nightmare for them. In the end, they couldn’t beat us.’
During the second half, as we clung on for dear life to the advantage given to us by Ramires’ away goal, Cech made a couple of outstanding saves, and also saw Lionel Messi smash a penalty against his crossbar.
‘It was the longest half of my career!’ Cech laughs. ‘It felt like three games in one. We cleared the ball, got out of our box, and before you realised it was out, it had already come back in!
‘Then you looked at the clock, and it felt like it had stopped. Every few seconds felt like a few minutes. We couldn’t grab any control of the ball. But the more time we survived, and the more chances they missed, the more belief we had.
‘I saw how much effort and energy everyone spent. We said in the dressing room at half-time ‘minute by minute we just go as hard as we can, and survive as long as we can, before they kill us’. With that mindset, we knew we could do it.
‘The satisfaction after the game was fantastic. We knew we had knocked out possibly the best team that year, in their home and down to 10 men. Nobody would have even put a penny on us.’
According to Cech, our Nou Camp heroics psychologically set us up perfectly for our next challenge, the final against Bayern Munich on their turf.
‘Against all the odds we had got to the final, and against all the odds we knew we could win it,’ he says.
‘They were playing in their stadium, in their dressing room. It was written in the stars for them. Nobody expected anything from us. The defenders were injured for two weeks and might not have even been fit to play. We had four players suspended.
‘But we gave it our best shot. In the end games like that, the strength, resilience and the togetherness of the team is stronger than anything. We proved it. We were dead, again. We were almost dead in extra-time.
‘Even when we conceded with a few minutes to go, on the pitch it felt like we might have one more chance. When we got that first corner, everybody agreed it was the chance we had, with big guys in the air.’
Drogba equalised with a bullet header. Cech then kept out an extra-time penalty from his old Chelsea mate Arjen Robben, so, just as in Moscow, spot-kicks would settle the final. Cech’s two saves allowed Drogba to convert the winning penalty, the pair immortalising themselves in Chelsea - and football - folklore.
‘It brought me back to the feeling in Barcelona that we would make it. We were overcoming obstacle after obstacle minute by minute. The positivity and belief we would make it paid off in the shoot-out.’
Cech chooses his penalty save from Robben as the best of his career because it was the most important. ‘That was a win or lose moment.’
A couple of weeks earlier, he somehow clawed Andy Carroll’s header onto the underside of the bar in our victorious FA Cup final win over Liverpool. He reckons that save was possibly the best he ever made from a technical perspective.
Both stops went a long way to securing trophies that seemed unlikely just a few months earlier. They also helped silence some doubters who felt Cech was never the same after his head injury.
The man who accrued a record 124 international caps for Czech Republic remained first-choice keeper at Chelsea for two more years, in which we won the Europa League and broke the club’s all-time clean sheet record. Cech’s eventual total of 228 shutouts mean he did not concede a goal in 46 per cent of the games he played for Chelsea, a remarkable figure.
Alongside that hefty milestone, and his 2011 Player of the Year prize, Cech picked up plenty of other individual awards during his time at Stamford Bridge. He was the Premier League’s Golden Gloves winner in 2005, 2010, and again in 2014. He was named UEFA’s most valuable goalkeeper in 2005, 2007 and 2008. Seven times he was the Czech Footballer of the Year, and following his recovery from the injury sustained at Reading, he was given an Outstanding Achievement Award by Chelsea.
Of course Cech values collective success the most, but he says the individual accolades he received were the ‘icing on the cake’.
‘When you feel people appreciate what you do and give you recognition, it helps you because it gives you motivation and satisfaction, to wake up again, start from the beginning and work even harder.
‘My biggest achievement is that I managed to play for one of the best teams in the world, in the best league in the world, for 10 seasons without losing my starting line-up spot. This is the hardest thing to do. You have to prove you’re better than everybody else season after season, and make sure every manager who comes believes the same thing, and gives you the spot in the team.’
Finally, after a decade as our number one, Cech relinquished his position as our first-choice keeper, when Thibaut Courtois returned from a successful three-year loan spell at Atletico Madrid. It was the beginning of the end for Cech at Chelsea.
‘I was not happy at all,’ he remembers. ‘I could see in pre-season how hard I was working. There was nothing obvious suggesting I wouldn’t be ready to keep my spot.
‘But in a football team you can only have one goalkeeper playing every week, and unfortunately that was the way it went. Thibaut was regarded as the future of the club with all his potential and quality. I understood the choice was made, even if I didn’t think it was my time.
‘Leaving Chelsea was the hardest decision I had to make,’ continues Cech. ‘Having played for this club for such a long time, and becoming a big part of the history of the club, I always thought I was going to finish my career at Chelsea, or maybe leave for the last couple of years.
‘At that moment I didn’t feel like it was like the last couple of years. That was not what I pictured in my head. But it was clear my journey had come to an end, and I decided I was going to go and try something else.’
Cech signed for Arsenal in the summer of 2015, not before winning his fourth league title. The decision to join a rival was hard, says Cech, but he knew he had given everything for the Chelsea cause, from beginning to end, and so supporters would understand his desire to stay in the Premier League and not uproot his family.
After four years at the Emirates, which included appearances in two finals against Chelsea - one won, one lost - Cech hung about his boots, bringing the curtain down on a 20-year professional career.
Fifteen of those were spent in the Premier League, and he is well placed to assess its transformation in that time.
‘The league has got more competitive,’ he starts. ‘When I came in 2004, probably the top 12 teams were very strong, with strong squads, and then it would really depend on the years for the other eight teams. For them it was harder to bring in international players.
‘It started changing around 2007, 2008 when the Premier League’s dominance started. You would suddenly see international players coming to every team, even promoted teams. The league became a big attraction. Teams started getting stronger and stronger, and the competition became harder and harder every year. That has continued to this day. It’s what makes the Premier League the best.’
He thinks goalkeepers in England get more protection now that they did when he first arrived, and found himself boxed in and under aerial bombardment from the likes of Bolton, Blackburn and West Brom. His decision-making on whether to come for crosses was the single biggest change he adapted to upon moving to the Premier League.
We then ask Cech which opposition player he was most wary of from a goalkeeping perspective.
‘Wayne Rooney,’ he replies. ‘Every time we played against United I had to make sure I was aware every time he had the ball, because he was very unpredictable and very clever.
‘He is a guy who can chase, who can fight, who can run, who is clever with his shot. He could score from the halfway line, he could try and chip you if you were too high. That was a challenge I enjoyed.’
It takes us back to a phrase Cech has used on a number of occasions during this interview: overcoming obstacles. Through a combination of natural ability and hard work - both mental and physical - Cech dealt with everything football had to throw at him. His focus never dimmed. His preparation never relaxed. His attention to detail never wavered. He emerged from the unimaginable low of a life-threatening injury to help Chelsea scale its greatest height in 2012, and cement his place in the pantheon of the goalkeeping gods.
‘When I look back, I’m happy for the good things, I’m obviously not happy with the things that didn’t go exactly as we wanted, but they played an important part, so I wouldn’t change a thing.’
‘It was a great journey. I really enjoyed it. If I had the chance, I would do it all over again.’
By Rupert Cane
Read more: Cech on signing for Chelsea, taking Carlo Cudicini's place, why the team won back-to-back titles, and overcoming a life-threatening injury