When Didier Drogba arrived at Chelsea eight years ago he recalls in his autobiography that he spent the journey from Heathrow to Stamford Bridge wishing he had worn something warmer than the T-shirt and jeans he had left Marseille in. He wondered why owner Roman Abramovich was not there to greet him personally. He checked into his suite at the Millennium Hotel that adjoins the stadium full of foreboding. He would later write: "It wasn't my team... I just didn't have any desire to be part of it."
When he announced his departure yesterday, he returned the conquering hero in the west London sunshine, walking to the health club behind the Matthew Harding Stand amid the stares of the day-trippers who could not believe that they had bumped into the man who won Chelsea the European Cup on Saturday night. Eight years on, Drogba's Chelsea legacy is comparable to that of Peter Osgood, Gianfranco Zola and his erstwhile team-mate Frank Lampard.
An exhilarating footballer and a controversial figure at times too, this was Drogba's last press conference as a Chelsea player. Nothing was off limits. He talked about the goals, 157 for Chelsea in 341 appearances, and the glory. But he also opened up on the allegations of diving; the managers that have come and gone during his time at the club, including Andre Villas-Boas, and the referee Tom Henning Ovrebo, whose role in Chelsea's Champions League history will never be forgotten.
This was, he said, the ideal time to walk away from Chelsea. "The best for me was to finish on a high with this Champions League final. It was the best of the best, la crème de la crème as we say in French," Drogba said. Although no decision had been made on his future, Drogba said that he could not play for another Premier League side. "I owe too much allegiance to Chelsea," he said. "My blood is blue."
Where to begin? With his final season which was, Drogba said, shaping up to be "the worst of my Chelsea career" – before the monumental turnaround under Roberto Di Matteo and triumphs in the Champions League and the FA Cup. "A few months ago, even a few weeks I would have described this season as the worst of my Chelsea career," he said. "There was the knock on my head [during the game against Norwich in August] which was for me very hard to recover from. The good thing about football is that it can change in a second."
When Villas-Boas was sacked by the club on 4 March, after defeat to West Bromwich Albion, the consensus was that the job and the personalities in the squad had proved too much for the club's young manager to handle. It was also the perception that many of the senior players were not displeased about the course of events. Drogba says otherwise.
"Andre is a friend," he said. "It's difficult. It feels strange to know that he's gone and he didn't give to Chelsea what he really wanted to. I feel we are all responsible for this – the players, the club, the team. We're all responsible. As a team when you don't win, it's easy to point the finger at the manager because of the risk of his job. But we all know inside, each one of us, that we are responsible for this."
Later, when asked about the theory that it is the senior players, rather than the manager, who run Chelsea, Drogba denied that he had ever held sway over the future of the club. "When we win games, everybody says the senior players are doing well," he said. "When we don't win, they're old. When a manager is sacked, 'They sacked the manager'.
"But, I really think that, when a manager comes here, it's because he's sat with the owner, with the board, and they've decided they have some targets, some objectives, to achieve. And if they don't do it, that gives a reason to the boss [Roman Abramovich] to do what he has to do. But never a player. I'm a player and I'd never want some players to have an influence on a manager. It's not good for the team. It's not good for the team at all."
The closest Drogba came to leaving in his eight years at Chelsea was under Luiz Felipe Scolari when the Brazilian consistently left the striker out of the team and there were suggestions he wanted to swap him for Adriano, then at Internazionale. Scolari was sacked in February 2009 after just seven months in charge despite the club only having slipped to fourth in the Premier League
"At that time, there was a few moments in my head that I thought I would have to go," Drogba said. "But as I always say, I wasn't mad with him. I want to be clear, I'm a professional. I always respect a manager's decision. I can be upset but with myself because I'm not performing and I'm on the bench. Everybody wants to play. You will not see anyone who is happy to be on the bench or not in the squad. I respect the manager's job and he decides whether a player is good or not."
The accusation that he dives to win penalties will be an issue that Drogba may never be able to change in some people's minds but he asks that the critics remember how he had to adapt to a different style of football in the Premier League. He is proud of the fact that he has been asked to carry the Olympic torch today as part of its trip around Britain and takes that as acceptance that people value him for his qualities as a footballer.
"I feel people were not really happy that Chelsea beat Barcelona [in the Champions League semi-finals this season]," he said. "They were expecting us to lose at the Nou Camp and that was why they were focussing on me being on the floor [so much]. I think we deserved to win that game, not because we dominated it because we didn't, but maybe our desire was more than theirs. I think we really wanted to win this game. Our desire was stronger than their qualities. That's why we won.
"I was a bit surprised because with the critics, even if it is true that I was on the floor. If I was, it was because someone touched me. There were fouls that the referee didn't give but I was never alone. I think it would be easier for those players who play in that situation and in that position as a lone striker against four defenders as I did against Barça to tell you why I was on the floor so many times."
Among his most difficult moments at Chelsea was the three-match Uefa ban for his post-match rant at the Norwegian referee Ovrebo whose erratic performance in the Champions League semi-final second leg against Barcelona three years ago, Chelsea believe, cost them a place in the final. Ovrebo has since admitted that he still gets death threats over his decisions in the game.
"I feel bad. Because of me – in a way – and because of us, people speak about this guy Ovrebo and it was a bit difficult for him after this game," Drogba said. "It is only football, but sometimes we attach too much importance to it, as I did that day. I'm not saying I was right to do it or that I would do it again, but I had something in my head and I wanted to achieve the win so much that when it went wrong the emotions got the better of me."
It all started when he was signed by Jose Mourinho for £24m from Marseilles after just one brilliant season at the club in the south of France in 2004. "Everybody knows the man who gave me the strength and the man who I've learned a lot from was Jose. As a human being and as a manager I think I learned a lot from him. He gave me this winning attitude, this desire to make history, he gave us this. He's a winner and we have it in our DNA now.
"Robbie [Di Matteo] talked to us individually and collectively when he took charge and then we had to do everything to save our season. It was the worst season and for the old players it was very difficult to accept that as the winners that we are. For the new players coming and seeing this situation knowing that Chelsea were always in the first two or three in the league was difficult as well.
"Everybody had to look at himself and change the way we behaved and our attitude for the good of the group."
What is the legacy of this remarkable season for Chelsea? Simply, Drogba says, that the expectation has gone up again. "When you come to Chelsea you will have to try as a minimum to do the best," he said. "You have to get into the Champions League final or to win it and that's what the club has to do to be a Barcelona, Milan or Real Madrid in Europe."
In his own words: Didier's highs and lows
"The first title at Bolton at the end of the 2004-2005 season and, of course, the win in the Champions League final on Saturday night. There are more moments like this, but it is difficult to choose."
"The one I scored in the 2007 FA Cup final against Manchester United, the first one at the new Wembley, in extra-time. It was also the first time we won the FA Cup."
"When we lost in the Champions League semi-final against Liverpool in the first season [2004-2005], with the ghost goal [by Luis Garcia]. I think that was the season we could have really achieved something big for the club by winning the Premier League and the Champions League."
Mourinho signs on again with Real
Jose Mourinho's decision to commit his future to Real Madrid for four years was welcomed yesterday by the striker Karim Benzema, who followed Cristiano Ronaldo in calling the Portuguese the "best coach in the world".
Real announced that they had agreed a contract extension that will tie Mourinho, who signed a four-year deal in 2010, to the Bernabeu until June 2016. Reports had linked him to one of his former clubs, Chelsea.
Benzema, a France international who scored 32 goals last season, said: "He is the best coach in the world. He's given us things that we didn't have. I'm happy that he's continuing. We are making progress thanks to him, we've won the league."