Football: The steel in the Bridge of highs

Le Saux a new boy again as he brings a winner's experience to a club he barely recognises from the bad old days; Ian Ridley finds Chelsea's latest import determined to dispel a popular myth
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The Independent Online
"Oh No, not another one," said the woman behind the counter at the canteen of Chelsea's training ground. "Does he speak English?" She had just heard of the club's 14th overseas signing, one with an appropriately foreign-sounding surname.

In fact the name and the man hail from no further abroad than England's south seas island of Jersey. A championship medal and 20 international caps on, Graeme Le Saux is back where he began. "Welcome home," were the first words the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, uttered to him after paying Blackburn Rovers pounds 5 million for the player he let go for pounds 600,000.

Much has changed since an unhappy Le Saux left London for Lancashire almost four years ago. The training-ground pitches are better, he says, and there is more of a buzz there. The stadium itself is no longer just a redevelopment plan. "Stamford Bridge was tatty, to be honest," he said, "and the club was like that. Now you get the feeling that it's all being done properly."

There is, though, an old similarity besetting the club. Ask any Premiership manager for a list of his title contenders for this season and Chelsea are probably on it. With the talent at their disposal, the FA Cup winners are well placed to muscle in among the top four clubs of the last two seasons, Manchester United, Newcastle, Arsenal and Liverpool. So the theory goes.

One game into the season and for all the changes in style, approach and personnel, the old image of fancy-dan fragility has returned to confront them. Defeat by Coventry City on opening day was almost predictable. Chelsea can equally well win at Old Trafford and lose at Oakwell, where today they face a promoted Barnsley side who are eager to get among the capital's cosmopolitan crew.

Le Saux heard it first time around. "People are saying it again, so we have to start disproving it," he said. Indeed two reasons why Chelsea recruited him, beyond his ability to slip as seamlessly into their wing- back system as he has England's, are his combative attitude - without the excesses he has sometimes shown - and experience of what it takes to win a title.

"Maybe I am going against policy here," he said, aware that for all that experience, at 29 he is again a new boy in Ruud Gullit's regime. "But sometimes you just have to kick the ball as far as you can from your goal and if you have to do that for 10 minutes it doesn't matter, providing it's done for the right reasons." It is a pragmatism born at Blackburn under Kenny Dalglish.

"I am not saying we have to be long ball but after we took the lead against Coventry, perhaps for five minutes we should have just launched it over their defenders, as if to say, `We have just scored against you and to make matters worse, we are going to whack the ball straight over your heads and make you run all the way back to your goal to get it and start again.'

"This team has so much ability it's frightening. Some of the build-up play against Coventry was just amazing but if there's an opinion that we are fragile then everyone must work hard to shake it off. The only way to do that is for each individual to do his bit and win at places like Barnsley. Then, hopefully, we can look back at Coventry and say we are glad it happened because it shook us all up."

Coventry came as a shock to Le Saux in more than the obvious way, as it was the end of quite a summer. It began in a Paris bar, watching Chelsea win the Cup during a stag weekend to herald his wedding, which took place two days after returning from Le Tournoi. A little make-up covered up a black eye sustained against France. After a honeymoon in Grenada, it was back to discuss his future with the new Blackburn manager Roy Hodgson.

In hindsight, the erosion of Le Saux's enthusiasm for Rovers began a few months after the 1995 championship. Dalglish had moved upstairs to become director of football, his coach Ray Harford assuming full control.

"You go through so much and the title is such a difficult thing to achieve, as Manchester United's domination has proved, that you have to have a unity," Le Saux said. "There is a feel-good factor to keep going and it hurt so much after what we had been through, that it was slipping away."

That much was seen in a feeble Champions' League campaign notable for his exchange of fisticuffs with David Batty in Moscow. "We are both fighters, both proud. We've probably had to be like that because we are both small," Le Saux said. "But it was nothing personal. It was a result of what was happening in the club. I felt really tense and frustrated. Looking back, it was probably a cry for help."

A serious year-long ankle injury also distanced him from the club. Alan Shearer had already been sold by the time Le Saux declared himself fit for a team who had taken only four points from their first 10 Premier League matches. It was the same day Harford departed.

The old chemistry had gone and though Le Saux insists he did his best in the campaign to avert relegation, there were training-ground disagreements with the caretaker Tony Parkes. "For the first time in my career, circumstances had started affecting my game," Le Saux admitted.

"I was confused and having negative thoughts. It was time to move on and I hope the Blackburn fans can understand that and remember the good times we had there. It is an important time for me with the prospect of the World Cup and I need to be excited, the way I was for a long time with Blackburn and how I am now about the next four years. Since my injury, I realise even more how little time you have and how fragile that time can be."

The experienced Hodgson recognised Le Saux's state of mind and reluctantly agreed to his release, though a piqued Blackburn's price of pounds 7m frightened off Arsenal and Juventus. Chelsea persisted, however, as nine messages on Le Saux's mobile phone indicated when he finally got a signal in the Ribble Valley after afternoon training two weeks ago.

Following a dash to a Heathrow hotel and a late-night medical, Le Saux had no hesitation in signing in the early hours. "It was similar to Kenny Dalglish. When somebody like Ruud Gullit wants you, your ears prick up and your eyes open." They were again only four hours later, this time for a second opinion on his ankle in Harley Street. "The specialist said it was stronger than most that had never been injured," said Le Saux. Then, after training, he was on the bus to Coventry.

He anticipates no recurrence of the time he threw his Chelsea shirt at the then manager Ian Porterfield; another frustration, another cry for help after being in and out of the team. "I hope I am a totally different person from the little brat I was," he said. "I feel much more mature in the way I approach the game and situations.

"I don't want to lose my edge, though. If I do, I won't be the sort of player that has got this far." Chelsea will not want him to lose it either. Indeed, beginning at Barnsley, they need to show the mix of overseas technique and toughness appropriate to the English game that Le Saux embodies.

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