James Lawton: Makelele move shows method to Chelsea spending madness

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Suddenly it is necessary to look at Chelsea in a different and infinitely more respectful light. You know how these things happen. You have a picture of someone carrying on in a certain, not unamusing way which is interesting but somehow less then compelling. It is easy to say, "He's all very well, but..."

Then he does something that gives you an entirely different slant. You say: "Wait a minute, maybe this person needs to be taken rather more seriously."

For some insightful football men, this was the effect of Chelsea when they linked themselves with Real Madrid's Claude Makelele this week.

There are suggestions now that the deal will not happen, Real having reacted stubbornly to the French midfielder's decision to stay away from training. But Chelsea, having for a while given the impression they were keen to sign up almost any name that caught their eye, have made an impressive statement of intent. The move for Makelele says that they indeed have more than stars in their eyes and an indecent amount of money sloshing around in their back pockets.

Makelele isn't a star. He's a consummately productive footballer, potentially, as they say in American sport, a franchise player who might do for Chelsea what Roy Keane did for Manchester United. He could set competitive standards around which a truly serious team might indeed be built.

Why has the Frenchman gone into a massive sulk? He has never been a drama queen. As far as he is concerned, Zinedine Zidane, Raul, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and now David Beckham can bask in the limelight. But he wants his value and perhaps, as the most resilient and defensively sound force in a team utterly betrayed by its fragility at the back, he has been allowed to dwell too long on the fact that he is paid a mere fraction of the money that goes to his celebrity team-mates. The point is that Makelele isn't some willing functionary, some relatively minor component of the Real galaxy. He is the heart and soul and wonderfully sharp professional edge of his team.

In recognising this, Chelsea have given the clearest indication so far that there is strong method in what some have described as financial madness. But for the acquisition of Juan Veron and Joe Cole, players of great talent but as yet unproven consistent effectiveness in the Premiership, the signings have been conspicuously sound. The young full-backs, Glen Johnson and Wayne Bridge, who acquitted themselves impressively in European action this week, albeit against unchallenging opposition, are plainly sure-fire investments. Damien Duff proved himself in last summer's World Cup for Ireland. Géremi may be no Edgar Davids, or Claude Makelele, but he is a highly efficient and committed professional.

Having signed the Romanian striker, Adrian Mutu, Chelsea are now apparently eyeing Internazionale's Hernan Crespo - a banker goalscorer. Here, again, we have an increasingly convincing impression of genuine team-building with neither Eidur Gudjohnsen nor Mikael Forssell making impressive statements about their future prospects in the European game. Of course, some rules still apply. Chelsea are still attempting something that old heads say is impossible. They are still attempting to throw together an instant team, and football has no encouraging precedent of a successful outcome to such a mission. However, the Makelele move makes you think.

His name snaps the sense of helter-skelter talent-hunting. It speaks of a hard instinct. Madrid's willingness, at least at one point earlier in the week, to sell him gives an entirely different impression. Some Real aficionados are already dismayed that the club would jettison a coach of European Cup and La Liga success - and in their minds the damage has been compounded by the apparently low rating of Makelele's value, and especially so after the huge investment in Beckham, about whom some are still awaiting evidence that he is a whole lot more than a super shirts salesman.

Whether or not Chelsea land Makelele, they have made the most important point about their extraordinary expansion. They have said that they want at the heart of their team a player of tremendous commitment and technical accomplishment.

Makelele tackles like a vice and if he has not displayed any great flights of creativity, why would he in a team stocked to the gunnels with the commodity? Makelele wins the ball and gives it to Zidane and Figo, Raul and Ronaldo and, if he stays, Beckham. It is a precious contribution and if Madrid had one or two more of the same order, their hold on the European Cup would surely not have been so easily broken by the Italians.

As the Premiership kicks off today, there is no inclination to look beyond the defending champions Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson has made much of his signing this week of the promising Cristiano Ronaldo and the proven Brazilian World Cup winner, Kleberson. but for some the most compelling reason to back him again has nothing to do with anyone's summer trading.

It is the evidence that Roy Keane produced in the Millennium Stadium last Sunday that he is back in full working order. This is a gift of certainty without which even the most experienced champions can go adrift. Keane hounded his arch-rival Patrick Vieira to a standstill. He gave United that old extraordinary measure of sinew and heart.

It is something the team-builders of Chelsea have recognised and now crave. That was the vital significance of their move for Claude Makelele.