Time runs out for the Old Guard
It was the reason so many resented Andre Villas-Boas and Rafael Benitez, and in time it is a task that looks increasingly likely to arrive on Jose Mourinho's to-do list.
November 28th, 2013
Because if this year’s Chelsea boss does deliver enough success to become next year’s too, then the first task on his list may well be the long-threatened removal of Stamford Bridge’s old guard.
Chelsea have twice tried to get the job done by unpopular figures: Villas-Boas earned that unpopularity by attempting to push it through against reason or form; Benitez had it in spades before he even considered marginalising some of the Blues’ older statesmen.
But the pressing need to tackle the issue has never been stronger.
None with any sense of history or loyalty would argue that Frank Lampard did not deserve the contract extension he finally, belatedly, garnered at the end of last season. But, a commanding performance at Upton Park aside, this new term has been difficult for Lampard. Mourinho has heeded the midfielder’s frequent call that he is a slow-starter, and that frequent football results in better football. The problem, this season, is that in the legs of the 35-year-old, it generally hasn’t.
Ashley Cole is another issue. The club were far less hesitant in re-signing the left back – knowing he had plenty more time left at the top. But, reunited with the manager who caused so much trouble in recruiting him, Cole has been a shadow of his former self – relegated to the bench behind an out-of-place reserve right back. If those two carry dressing-room clout, then the third man in this list carries more at Chelsea than any other – and it is a name that may surprise.
For Petr Cech, never once dropped in 10 years at Chelsea, is almost certainly the club’s most influential player. He is the only man at the club who picks his own coach, in Christophe Lollichon, and the only man who has maintained that situation through the club’s ever-changing list of managers.
Like the previous two names, Cech has had a magnificent career with the club: at times, rightly carrying the best-in-the-world tag. But those times are largely past for him, and the small-but-significant errors are creeping in. With Thibaut Courtois waiting in the wings, recently ascending to the level of La Liga’s very best keeper, the heir is apparent.
Finally, there is the man whose career has shunned more obituaries than any other in sport, bar Sir Steve Redgrave. It is characteristic of John Terry that, after being almost completely written off last term, he is now back to his best: marshalling Chelsea’s defence, and outplaying contenders for his centre-half berth with both the character and ability of a man ten years his junior.
No man is bigger than the club, and each of those four will one day play his last game in front of The Shed. But when?
Lampard and Cole, each with a year left on their contract, surely both set themselves standards so high as to concede that many recent performances make it tricky to justify a further year. For Cech, the sand also seems to be running through.
If Mourinho does please the man in charge enough to see next September in SW6, and precedent suggests that would require another Premier League medal for him to toss into the stands, then one might expect some of the compromises that brought him back ‘home’ to be lessened.
Does any club need two goalkeeping coaches, as Chelsea presently have? And does any club need an increasingly world-class-looking young keeper on loan in a foreign country for a fourth season? And then there is the issue of Terry’s contract – also in its last year.
Chelsea have tried before, and failed, to get unpopular men to do unpopular jobs. How much easier will these tasks be, should they fall to the club’s most popular boss?