Saturday, December 24, 2011

Petr Cech unmasked! Behind the mask of a man who's still the No 1


Standing over a golf ball at Wentworth with an audience, Petr Cech looks a little uneasy. A childhood spent playing ice hockey probably explains why he swings a club a bit like Happy Gilmore and he seems rather miffed when he heads for the clubhouse. ‘I just don’t get to play enough,’ he complains. ‘I can shoot 10 over one day and 30 the next.’

Amateur golfers the world over can sympathise but Chelsea’s giant of a goalkeeper seems to be unflappable in every other respect, on and off the football pitch.

He is extremely bright. He insisted on completing his education in the Czech Republic even after joining Chelsea seven-and-a-half years ago and he can speak five languages. ‘At  the moment I’m studying Spanish for fun,’ he says. ‘We have many different nationalities in the dressing room and it allows me to converse with most of them.’

But Cech’s linguistic skills also enable him to articulate his thoughts and feelings on a variety of issues. From the recent problems at Stamford Bridge and the questions that remain about Andre  Villas-Boas to his personal journey at Chelsea; a journey as memorable for the setbacks as the success. 

I last interviewed him, one-to-one, in August 2004, a couple of weeks into his first season in  English football and long before he needed a head-guard or the  services of a plastic surgeon for a facial injury that required 50 stitches. Just lately he has needed a mask too, this time to protect a broken nose. He says it does not bother him in the slightest.

‘I can see a line at the top of my nose but it’s not a problem,’ he says. ‘When I played as a goalkeeper in ice hockey I would wear a full mask so I am used to it, although I hopefully won’t have to wear it in another week or so.’

But I have to ask him if he ever feels vulnerable. If he ever fears that the next 50-50 ball could leave him with another serious injury. Particularly when the club’s medical experts now suspect that being one of triplets has left him with a fractionally thinner skull than the average man and particularly when he concedes that a head injury as serious as the one he suffered in a collision with Reading’s Stephen Hunt back in 2006, at that time obviously without the protection of his head-guard, could kill him.

‘I guess whatever produced the bones had to be shared between three kids and they do say my skull, in terms of the thickness, is slightly under the average,’ he says. ‘They don’t know for sure but they do  say it could be because I was one  of triplets.

‘But once I’m on the pitch I’m  giving 100 per cent for the team. If that means if I have to put my head somewhere I will do it. Even after the head injury it meant I ended  up with a broken nose against  Blackburn and I needed plastic surgery after a training session.

‘If I have to put my head in to  get the ball I will do so because I don’t want to concede a goal. To be  honest, if you have a bit of fear you should not go on the pitch because if there is a bit of hesitancy you  will probably end up with a more serious injury.’

Even so, one can only admire his courage and his resolve. ‘If I ever feel differently, if I ever feel I cannot give 100 per cent, I will stop,’ he says. ‘But it never once crossed my mind to stop playing. Obviously I was initially thinking, “Thank God I’m still alive”. But I was also relieved I could still play.

‘The day it happened they told me I might not play again that season. Perhaps even the following season. They said it would be a case  of seeing how things progressed. The first priority was my life. It was not about football.

‘But as soon as I realised I would be able to play again I was determined to get back as quickly as possible. There were some days when I could not even think about training. But I was back after three months and a month later we won the Carling Cup. It remains one of my favourite trophies because of what I’d had to overcome. I was happy not only for myself but for all the people who had helped me through that time.’

He says he will always wear the head-guard. ‘I have to because another crack and it’s all over,’ he says. ‘And because nobody can guarantee what would happen if I took another blow like that to the head. I don’t think it’s wise to risk my career, perhaps even my life, for the sake of not wearing a helmet.’ He has always been brave. You have to be to face an ice hockey puck travelling at up to 100mph.

‘When I played the padding and protection was not as good as it is today and, boy, it could hurt,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘I was good, and when I was younger I probably enjoyed it more than football. Probably because there was more to do. More shots to deal with.

‘It was only because the  equipment was too expensive for my family that I chose football. But if you got hit by the puck between the pads, it was terrible — really painful. The bruising could be unbelievable.’

It might, nevertheless, explain why he has long made goalkeeping look relatively easy. It is impossible to find fault with any aspect of his game but his ability as a shot stopper is second to none, perhaps because he grew up facing a considerably smaller, faster flying object.

That said, he has conceded a few more goals than usual this season. It has not really been his fault, the decision by Villas-Boas to play a more aggressive, ambitious style at times leaving him exposed.

But Cech has an interesting take on what led to a run that saw  Chelsea suffer five defeats in nine matches before what appeared to be a return to more familiar tactics enabled them to beat Manchester City and Newcastle and progress to the last 16 of the Champions League with an impressive win against a much-fancied Valencia team. 

He dismisses talk of tactics being the problem before Chelsea’s game at Wigan today. ‘The problem was that we were making too many individual mistakes,’ he says.

‘The high defensive line was not the issue. The problem was that at moments we would lose balance. We would have too many people attacking and we could not recover fast enough. Now we keep more people behind the ball. That is the major change.

‘It means if we lose the ball we are now better organised. Against Valencia and Manchester City we played deeper but we did that because they played really well. We couldn’t play high because we didn’t have the ball. They had spells of possession and we had to organise ourselves to deal with that. 

‘We talked about the individual mistakes we were making and the fact that, while we were attacking really well, we were forgetting to defend. We put that right and you can see the result.

‘But it’s about adapting to the challenge of each game. Against Wigan this weekend it will be  different to the last two games because I would expect Wigan to defend and wait to hit us on the counter-attack.’ 

Cech speaks with real authority and he does so as one of Chelsea’s most senior and influential players. He is a member of the four-man players’ committee at Stamford Bridge, along with club captain John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.

So it seems appropriate to ask him about Villas-Boas and the  attitude of the players towards their 34-year-old manager. After all, there have been mutterings of discontent; this sense that the return of Jose Mourinho’s DVD guy as  manager might have been met with a touch of scepticism. When Luiz Felipe Scolari was sacked as  Chelsea manager, Cech was singled out by the Brazilian as a reason for his downfall. Scolari said he had problems with Cech, Drogba and Michael Ballack, claiming he clashed with his goalkeeper when his demand for a personal coach was not met. 

Cech has since refuted the claim, insisting he has never had a personal coach and never asked for one either. Judging by what he says, he seems to have genuine respect for Villas-Boas.

‘Every manager is different,’ he says. ‘But the people identifying problems at the club are making those judgments from the outside.

‘They are never at the training ground. They never see what we are doing on a daily basis. I know that everybody is looking only at the results, but sometimes it is not always a reflection of what is happening. And everybody with Andre is talking about his age when in football there is no such thing as age. There is only quality.

‘It’s about the talent, quality and character of the individual. Edwin van der Sar was still a top, top  goalkeeper at 40. If you have the quality and the character to win things, and the manager won  with a big club like Porto, then I am not worried about the age. He has the experience.

‘Whether you like or dislike a  manager is not important. There have been so many managers I have not liked but I might have liked the way they are working; the way they prepare the team, the way they organise the training. If they understand the game, I am happy.
‘You don’t have to love the manager, you don’t have to love the other players. You can hate half the dressing room but if you are happy to play with them on the same pitch that is all that matters.

‘In training we are doing some very interesting stuff and that gives me a lot of confidence. It gave me confidence even when things weren’t going so well in matches.’

But what about Scolari? What about this group of senior Chelsea players some managers might find intimidating?

‘I was really surprised by Scolari,’ he says. ‘If you think a player is a problem, if you think they are not good for the team, you take them away. You are the boss after all. Well, I played every game and I always gave my best, for the team and for the coach. When Scolari arrived I had big respect for what he had done. He was a world champion with Brazil and he did good things with Portugal. But it didn’t work out for him at Chelsea.

‘I will never do things for myself. For me the club and the team come first. Petr Cech is not important. I might be an important member of the team but compared to the club I am not important.’

And the dressing room? ‘If you are the manager it has to be a massive help that the dressing room is united,’ he says. ‘It’s a good working environment, easier to manage. The players should not be intimidating.

‘Yes, it’s a strong dressing room. We have a lot of experience and we have won things together. We have also had plenty of difficult moments and we have always managed to come through them as a group. We have had so many different managers but the strength of the team has remained and we have enjoyed great success.

‘You discover the character of the team in difficult moments. I think you have seen that character in the last couple of weeks. We have been through another tough period, and it’s not over yet. But I think we have found a way out. We are back on the right track.’

And with that Cech heads back to the driving range, to the nice chaps from TaylorMade he wants to fit him for a new set of golf clubs. You never know, they might even make him hit the ball more like Nick Faldo than Wayne Gretzky.


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