Football: Lambourde catching on to catch-up game

Alex Hayes meets a defender happy to go along for the glory ride
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The Independent Online
THE LAST (and only) time Chelsea claimed the title, their closest rivals were Wolves, Portsmouth and Sunderland. During that 1954-55 season, a total of 20 players turned out for the Blues, the most exotic of whom was probably a Scot.

These days - as Chelsea prepare for the most important period of their recent history - the stakes are higher, the horizons wider. Their fellow challengers for this year's top prize are Manchester United, Arsenal and Leeds. And in the first nine months of this campaign, their manager Gianluca Vialli has already used 29 players. And not a Scot in sight.

The more eclectic - some might say electric - class of '99 is a further reminder, if it were needed, of the importance of a rich and focused squad in the modern game.

One member who qualifies on both counts is the defender-cum-midfielder Bernard Lambourde. "He's very dependable and reliable," says his coach Ray Wilkins. "He's a great member of the squad. The lads respect him enormously."

Bought from Bordeaux in the summer of 1997, Lambourde has enjoyed mixed fortunes since moving to London. "My first season didn't go very well," he says. "I was injured a lot, never really in the team. To be honest, I found it difficult to settle in."

Not surprising when you consider the cultural differences. "After you move to a new country, you are always faced with the same problems," says the 27-year-old Frenchman. "Aside from the obvious language barrier, you also have to find the right home, a reliable dentist and a good local restaurant."

Despite their perceived comfort zone, it is no easier for footballers. "People think that because we play football, we don't have the same difficulties as others, but that's not true." Lambourde does, however, admit that moving to a London club has considerably eased the integration process. "I often speak to Laurent [Charvet] up at Newcastle, and it's not easy for him. In any of the smaller cities, a foreign player is going to find things twice as hard. He has to contend with the unfamiliar weather, food and mentality. Not to mention the isolation."

Having overcome the social isolation off the pitch, Lambourde is still coming to terms with the loneliness of the bench. Following five seasons as a first-team regular in the French First Division (in the same Cannes side where Patrick Vieira and Charvet first made an impact), he has made only 16 full appearances this season. But he believes he has coped better than most because of what he calls his "footballing maturity".

"I wouldn't say that I was shocked when I went from regular to replacement, but it is frustrating. When I arrived, my ambitions were clear. I wanted to play in a winning side. The club had just lifted the FA Cup and was moving forward. What I maybe didn't realise was that there were already so many good players here."

Lambourde's understandable aversion to a supporting role is tolerated for the good of the team's quest for glory. "When you play for 15 or 20 minutes, you obviously don't experience the same feelings as you would after 90," says the man who remarkably only took up the game at 20. "But I have two years left on my contract, and I am happy to be part of a successful group."

Just how successful will become clear in the next couple of weeks. After the goalless draw at the Riverside in midweek, Chelsea missed the chance to reclaim top spot in the Premiership. So, two points lost or one point gained? "We played well against Middlesbrough, who are a good team. And both Arsenal and Manchester still have to go there, which won't be easy for them."

Despite Chelsea's drawing level on points with the Gunners, and closing the gap on the Reds, Lambourde seems intent on sticking to the party line. "I think West Ham was the important match. We have six games to go and we will give it our all, but I see that lost game as the turning point. Now we're playing catch-up."

Catch-up for points and catch-up for style. "Just look at the way those two played on Wednesday [in the FA Cup semi-final replay]. It's not gamesmanship," he insists with just a hint of irony. "The level at which they have both been playing since January is incredible. They are very special."

Lambourde may be singing his rivals' praises, but that does not mean Chelsea have given up the ghost. With a run-in which includes four home games, the Blues are very much still in the hunt. "I guess it is do-able," he admits when pushed. "We will aim to win all our remaining matches. Then, at the end of the season, we'll see how many points we have."

Starting against Leicester at 2pm today. "It's going to be hard. When we played them at home last year, it took a spectacular goal by Franck [Leboeuf] in the last minute to salvage a 1-1 draw. They are a typical English team. Like Wimbledon, they are very physical. But we have to make sure we impose our own game."

Just as well, then, that the new turf has been laid at Stamford Bridge? "A good playing surface is crucial for us. We don't have a typically English style of play; our players like to pass the ball like continentals."

Come Thursday, Chelsea will have to do more than just stroke the ball around, when they face Real Mallorca in the Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final, second leg, with a 1-1 score to settle. "I think we'll win. In the first match, we were guilty of adopting a wait-and-see policy. But this time, we'll be ready."

Willing as ever, waiting for the nod, Lambourde is ready to join the Blues' final sprint.