Blue Petr

Chelsea's fortunes in safe keeping as Cech recounts how his career was kickstarted by a boy who failed to turn up

Pat Jennings gave up the game for Gaelic football before being talked into training with his brother's team when the keeper left. Bob Wilson was given a proper jersey for Christmas and started catching footballs in the back garden instead of kicking them.

For Petr Cech, last line of the meanest defence English football has known, it was a tale of a young team-mate who didn't turn up and then a bad injury. "I started as a winger or in midfield," he recalled. "When I was eight we played a friendly game and our goalkeeper didn't come. A few times I'd been in goal just for fun, so the coach chose me. For about two years after that I played one match in goal, then one in midfield. But when I was 10 I broke my leg, so finally I stayed in goal."

What a strike partnership the Czech Republic might have had: Cech at 6ft 5in alongside the 6ft 8in Jan Koller. Not that football was his chosen sport for a long time. For the young Cech, Bohemian rhapsody encompassed all manner of pastimes, including ice hockey and athletics, overseen by a father who was a decathlete of some distinction: "He showed me every sport possible but never forced me into one. It was up to me to choose."

Once he did, the local side Viktoria Plzen snapped him up for their youth team, only to let him go on a contractual technicality to Chmel Blsany, the village team who somehow manage to this day to remain in the Czech first division. Cech's form while still a teenager prompted Sparta Prague to pay a hefty £400,000 for him, but after only one season he would prove too good to hold on to.

Following an international debut at 19 and a famous run of 1,120 minutes in all competitions without conceding a goal - almost 13 games - he defied France with two penalty saves in the final of the 2002 European Under-21 championship, catching the eye of Rennes, who immediately shelled out £3.3 million. Arsenal's scouts had spotted him too, but despite his admiration for English football, he was sensible enough to gain experience in France for the next two seasons.

That proved invaluable once Chelsea came in with a lucrative pre-contract in January last year, securing his services after Euro 2004. In the Premiership, as Cech well knew, the pressure on goalkeepers was stronger, both physically and mentally; he was so well prepared that instead of playing understudy to the talented Carlo Cudicini as expected, he went straight into the first team, began the season with seven clean sheets in eight games and carried on from there to win the championship medal he missed at Sparta.

It was necessary to learn only to endure long periods of boredom while Chelsea kept the ball at the opposite end of the pitch, interspersed with an occasionally crucial save. Three in one game last season, the epic 4-2 Champions' League victory over Barcelona, stick in the memory, while critics have logged only two errors leading to goals, against Bolton and Birmingham at Stamford Bridge.

Significantly, perhaps, each came from set-pieces by two of the more direct Premiership sides, another of whom Cech will face at Everton this afternoon. "My game is all about concentration, this season even more than last season," he said. "In a number of matches there were a couple of difficult saves, but this season we've been really brilliant in defence. Often for the goalkeeper it's difficult, because one shot can change the whole story of the game.

"Everton have got [Duncan] Ferguson and other players good in the air, so my job will be to come for the crosses. If you compare the English League with others, the physical presence here is much bigger. The referees like to let you play a physical game, because that is the English mentality. In the box, you have to fight for every cross and protection is not as high as in France for example."

Once the ball is safely down at the other end he can find time to admire Chelsea's football: "You have to look at what the defensive line is like, what might happen if we lose the ball and if they're in a good position to recover. But if it's all OK, I can watch what's happening in front. The quality of our players is that we don't need five chances to score a goal, only one or two. Every team who give us the chance to score are punished. That's great for our confidence."

He would much rather do his spectating, however, from the penalty area than the dug-out, as was the case when Cudicini was given a rare appearance against Real Betis last Wednesday, and will probably be so for the Carling Cup against Charlton on Wednesday. "I don't like being on the bench because I'm so nervous. It's the worst feeling that you can't help your team, so for me this is horrible, just sitting and watching. But sometimes it's good to be rested, because the programme is very difficult and you know Carlo's going to play well."

The one disappointment last season was, of course, defeat in the Champions' League semi-final at Liverpool by what Chelsea will always insist was a phantom goal. Cech was a key figure, crashing into Milan Baros after his compatriot touched the ball past him, and watching in anguish as a linesman ruled that William Gallas had failed to hack away Luis Garcia's follow-up in time. Had the goal not been given, Cech might conceivably have conceded a penalty and even been sent off, thereby losing any chance to play in the final.

His take on the worst moment of his Chelsea career six months later is: "It's a question for the referee. Sometimes it's a yellow card and penalty, sometimes not. He [Baros] touched the ball first but jumped with his legs quite high, so you could say, was it a fair challenge? I cannot say if the ball was in, but people kicking the ball off the line were sure it was not. It was very, very disappointing because we knew we were good enough to beat Liverpool and go through to the final. But it was only one thing during the whole season."

Now there is a whole new set of trophies to play for, including this time the World Cup. Currently third in Fifa's rankings, behind Brazil and Holland, the Czech Republic were hugely unfortunate to draw the Dutch, their bogey team, in the qualifying group, and after losing to them twice now face a play-off against Norway.

"I think we've got enough quality to beat them," Cech said. "I'd love to be in the finals and I think this is the best possibility for the Czech Republic because the generation of players like [Karel] Poborsky, [Pavel] Nedved, Koller and [Valdimir] Smicer may finish after the World Cup."

With the world's best goalkeeper between the posts, they have a chance. Thanks to The Boy Who Didn't Turn Up.

LAST SEASON'S STATS

13 GOALS only conceded in 35 Premiership games

1,025 MINUTES without conceding a goal: 24 clean sheets, 10 in succession from 12 Dec to 5 March

THIS SEASON'S STATS

3 GOALS conceded in 8 Premiership games. Cudicini played in other.

5 CLEAN SHEETS in 8 Premiership games, saving 12 shots on target out of 15.

2 CLEAN SHEETS in 2 Champions' League games.

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