In our first interview with Djordje Petrovic since his arrival in the summer, the keeper reflects on his journey to Stamford Bridge and the important characters that have shaped him, including one of our own…

Football connections can be forged in unlikely places.

Kevin Hitchcock, a former Blues no.1, may never have predicted his coaching career would take him across the pond to Boston, Massachusetts. The current incumbent of the Chelsea goalkeeper shirt, Djordje Petrovic, certainly did not expect to be plying his trade in the United States when he had offers from all over Europe shortly before the pandemic struck.

But football works in funny ways, and so it was at MLS club New England Revolution a former Chelsea goalkeeper and a future one came to meet.

Hitchcock helped Petrovic perform at such a high level in America he caught Chelsea’s eye. By the end of our victory against Newcastle last Tuesday, their kinship had come full circle.

Petrovic had just produced an outstanding penalty save to secure a dramatic cup shoot-out victory over the Magpies by four goals to two, following a late Chelsea equaliser in normal time. Hitchcock’s joyous reaction in the East Stand Upper was captured by his son Tom on social media.

Rewind a little under 28 years, and Hitchcock was the hero against the Magpies in a shoot-out. This was an FA Cup third round replay up at St James’ against a side striving to win the Premier League - and a 14th home win in a row in all competitions.

Ruud Gullit levelled with two minutes remaining to send the cup tie to extra-time and, with no further goals scored, penalties. Peter Beardsley missed Newcastle’s first penalty and their second, by Steve Watson, was kept out by Hitchcock. We were flawless with each of our spot-kicks. Chelsea won 4-2 on penalties. It was one of Hitchcock’s finest moments during his 13 years as a Blue.

‘He told me all about it after the game!’ laughs Djordje as we sit down to talk at Cobham. The 24-year-old smiles as he watches the video of Kevin celebrating his protégé’s save.

‘With him I have and I had a good relationship, like a family. We speak a lot.

‘When I came to America I had two months for adaptation, to change my life before I was ready to play. With Hitchcock these two months we used for adaptation.

‘I learned new things from him, corrected some details, and accepted some team tactics about how we play. I started and every game was better and better.

‘I started to play in June, the season ended October. I was MVP of the team from the fans and from the team after 20 games. Wow. After that, everything was easier.’

Hitchcock followed in a long line of influential goalkeeper coaches that have made Petrovic the keeper and the man he is today. His father was his very first.

‘He was a goalkeeper also,’ Djordje tells us.

‘He also played handball and did gymnastics. He was a gymnastics coach and he had experience with that. He just wanted me to be happy. You like basketball? Play basketball. You like tennis? Play tennis. But my dream was to play football.

‘I was seven years old when I started playing football, and he tried to push me to be an outfielder. So I started as an outfielder, but at one tournament we didn’t have a goalkeeper. I said I wanted to play there. I took responsibility!

‘It was a six-a-side tournament. I was good because I was tall and big, and we played in the small goals. After that, my father asked me if I wanted to be a goalkeeper, and I said I did. We started training.

‘He taught me a lot of things at the start. He was very focused on me because I was his son. He taught me what was important for us in that period. After that everything was on me, and the next coach.’

Opportunities were not rife where Petrovic grew up, in the small city of Pozarevac in eastern Serbia. ‘To make something’, as he puts it, ‘you needed to go to the capital Belgrade’.

Petrovic did just that and quickly impressed at a goalkeeper school, earning a trial at Cukaricki, widely regarded then as the third best team in Serbia, behind the two Belgrade giants. They signed him up as a 14-year-old. He would leave for America eight years later as a full Serbian international and one of Europe’s highest-rated young keepers.

‘Before I started playing for Cukaricki I had one season on loan in the third league. For me, that period was the most important for me. You see and feel the big difference between youth football and senior football.

‘Cukaricki had a plan to promote young players and give them a chance. I got that chance. When I started to play for them after my loan, they changed generation. We had maybe seven players under 21. We had played together at the academy. We had a good chemistry and a good spirit.

‘The Serbian league was good for my development. Sometimes you didn’t have the chance to show your quality, but you were always learning. You had to focus.’

It looked like three successful seasons at Cukaricki, including appearances in the Europa Conference League, would earn Petrovic a move to France, Holland, or Belgium. Covid had other ideas, though, so it would be two more years until the keeper was handed a chance to further his career abroad.

‘My family and me had a picture I would go to a club close to home. So when I got the offer from New England, I was changing my mind every day. I would go. I would not go. I would go!

‘I heard it would be very hard to get visas for my family. What if covid came back? I had never been to America. I heard the USA is a different world.

‘But it was a good opportunity. I wanted to change something, to try something new. I heard good things about Boston, a nice city to live. And I saw [Matt] Turner, the former goalkeeper they sold to Arsenal. They sent me the offer after that.

‘I saw they could sell a goalkeeper to Arsenal. It made me think I could do something similar and come back to Europe. But honestly, I never imagined Chelsea!’

Joining the Revolution proved the right decision. Petrovic flourished under Hitchcock’s guidance. He broke records for penalties saved, and earned a spot in the MLS All-Star team earlier this year. He was undoubtedly the league’s outstanding goalkeeper.

Then came Chelsea. He recalls watching compatriots Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic do their thing for the Blues at a time when Balkan footballers proliferated in the Premier League. Djordje’s personality is reminiscent of Matic’s: thoughtful, calm, with a dry sense of humour. He is excellent company.

Petrovic, who turned 24 in October, leaped at the chance to follow in the footsteps of Ivanovic, Matic, and Hitchcock. Now he is getting the opportunity to show what he can do; to demonstrate why Hitchcock guaranteed us ‘the Matthew Harding will love him’.

‘I had an opportunity to play against Everton, and I felt the atmosphere and the fans,’ Petrovic says.

‘I had a picture in my head how it would be against Sheffield United. Okay, you feel the pressure a little bit, but I spoke with Toni [Jimenez] and Hilario [our goalkeeper coaches], and they told me to just play my game and to play normally.

‘They said not to think too much because you don’t have time to do it. Before the game I spoke with Rob [Sanchez], and he told me to be calm and not feel the pressure. That was it.

‘Everything is faster at this level,’ he adds. ‘We work a lot on details with the goalkeepers. We try to implement those details in our style, and to improve on them to make the games easier.

‘We goalkeepers can learn from each other. We have a good relationship. We want to push each other. If I am better, he will be better for sure.

‘Not only me and Robert, but Marcus [Bettinelli], Lucas [Bergstrom], Jamie [Cumming], Ed Beach even training with us. We speak a lot between us about football.

‘Also, Marcus became a father I think seven months ago, now Rob became a father, and in six months I will become a father! Rob learned from Marcus, and I will learn from Robert! That’s really nice for us.’

The tradition of Chelsea goalkeepers past and present helping one another goes on.