As Chelsea prepare for another handover this summer, another relaunch, who better to listen to than the man who has played through so many eras already? Antonio Conte, barring any hitches, will be Branislav Ivanovic’s ninth manager at Stamford Bridge, with the incumbent Guus Hiddink having coached him twice.
With John Terry off to seek his fortune in Asia this summer, Ivanovic will become, with all due respect to Jon Obi Mikel, who does pre-date him, the senior player and professional at the club. Ivanovic has a natural authority and sense of responsibility that makes him the likely replacement for Terry as captain, in what will be his 10th season at the club.
He is the great grizzled survivor of modern Chelsea, the man who, with Terry leaving, has outstayed all of the pillars of Jose Mourinho’s first team. These are the men – Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba – who held the club together during the six-year interregnum between Mourinho’s two reigns.
Ivanovic has lived through a lot here, including the collapse of the second Mourinho era, for which he is strikingly apologetic. He certainly has a sense of perspective. At one point in our interview at the training ground, he gives a complete narrative history of his near-decade at Chelsea, taking in 350 appearances, two Premier League titles, a Champions League, a Europa League, and thoughtful character assessments of every manager he has worked for, all in just over five minutes.
Even in the Avram Grant era, when Ivanovic never played, as he slowly adjusted to English football and language, he was “happy without playing”, as “everything was massive for me”. Ivanovic is almost excessively positive, taking responsibility on behalf of the players for even the failed managerial tenures, such as that of Andre Villas-Boas.
Yet Ivanovic speaks with the most warmth about Mourinho, the man who won the title in May 2015 before leaving the club in tatters seven months later.
“He is the Special One, he is the Perfect One,” Ivanovic says, with genuine enthusiasm. “Completely different from anyone else, from anything else. Sometimes I had a feeling, in the first two years, that he sees football ahead [into the future], he sees three games ahead. He made some decisions when everyone would just turn and look and say, ‘Wow, is this real? Nobody could see that.’”
Ivanovic remembers how he played with a heavily bleeding foot against Liverpool in the Capital One Cup last year, only to feel so proud when he heard of Mourinho’s post-match praise for him that he did not notice. “When it happens like that,” he says, “you are so happy that you cannot feel the pain.”
Why, then, did it all go spectacularly wrong this season? Chelsea put up the worst title defence in modern history before Mourinho was sacked just before Christmas. Ivanovic is honourably keen to absolve Mourinho of blame and take it all upon the shoulders of the players instead.
“Jose told us the hardest season in football is the year after you win because everyone else has extra motivation,” he says. “We lost control of our game, of our minds. We didn’t know what was going wrong around us.”
Ivanovic admits that Chelsea could not “deal with the pressure” as their season unravelled, but denies that the pressure came from Mourinho himself. “He did not change anything,” he says. “He was the same. I think, player by player, we could not deal with the pressure of what being champions of England means.”
This is why Ivanovic says that only contractual logistics spared the players while costing Mourinho his job. “Football is all about players,” he says. “The managers are not on the pitch. It is 11 against 11, simple as that. The players are more responsible for that situation than the manager. It is difficult in football to change halfway through the season 25 players. But I think at this club, if Roman Abramovich could have, he would have changed all of us as well. It is difficult to say it is only one guy’s responsibility.”
But it was Mourinho who paid the price, and the results under Hiddink have vindicated Abramovich’s decision. “We had Jose as a shield in front of us, to protect us, to be criticised first,” Ivanovic says. “Changing the manager woke us all up, and scared us, and now we think we cannot blame someone else, it is only us, and we have to start winning games, which is the aim of the club. The only people who can change the situation are the players. Now we are doing well and we are trying everything to save the season.”
Chelsea are moving in the right direction again, and may well continue to do so with Ivanovic as captain next season, although he says that he “does not like to think about the future”. But Ivanovic is captain of the Serbian national team, and clearly understands what leadership means.
“A good captain needs to be successful and win trophies,” Ivanovic says. “Winners are always right. You need to have leadership inside. On the pitch you need to be the person all the other players look at. For example, when we concede a goal, we always look to John and see his reaction. You always expect a positive one. When you are one of the older guys in the team, everyone looks at you.”
There was a time, not very long ago, when Chelsea was full of players from that mould. That is why the team kept winning even as the managers continued to change, although that era is ending.
“In the last couple of years we have lost some leadership, because we had big players who built this team,” he admits. “We were winning and when you are winning, you make new leaders. We have enough resources to make more leaders. But in my opinion we have lost a bit of leadership with the big names in the last couple of years.”
Ivanovic remembers with real warmth the welcome he got when he arrived in January 2008 as an unknown. Then, as now, the club was trying to piece itself together after Mourinho’s traumatic departure. But the players found time for their new recruit from Lokomotiv Moscow.
“People welcomed me,” Ivanovic remembers with a smile. “I don’t think half of the team knew my quality when I arrived. I was 24 and came from Russia. But they welcomed me, and I felt part of the team even if I didn’t play.”
Andrei Shevchenko, a Russian speaker, was especially helpful, but he was not the only one. “You would expect the big guys to pay no attention to the guy who just arrived, but Frank, John, Didier and [Claude] Makélélé were so welcoming. Sometimes I felt ashamed, like I couldn’t ask them what I really needed, but any problem I had they would come and help,” he says. “The things they did for me I will never forget. This is the mentality of the club.”
This is why Ivanovic feels an obligation now to the new players in the same position as he was in 2008. “Responsibility comes with age and how long you are in one club,” he says. “Sometimes it comes to you and you have to deal with it. I try to be there for the young guys in a good way and make them feel good.”
Having barely played under Grant, then infrequently under Luiz Felipe Scolari, it was in Hiddink’s first reign seven years ago that Ivanovic became a true Chelsea player. “I really grew from a small baby to a big man in that moment.” Ivanovic credits his goals against Liverpool in the Champions League as transforming his Chelsea career.
With every manager, Ivanovic has improved in performance and importance to the team. “After that came Carlo [Ancelotti],” he continues, “he just gave me confidence, I was very close to him. I thought I would like to finish my career working with him, he was so nice.”
Then Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafael Benitez, and the moment that means more to Ivanovic than any other, scoring the winner in the 2013 Europa League final. “I did not have the luck to play the [Champions League] final in Munich, then the next year I saw how a final works, it is like a night from your dreams,” he remembers. “I hope I have time after my career to think about it, but things run so quick, you don’t have time to feel that moment.”
He has seen more Chelsea than most, and it will not end quite yet.
Branislav Ivanovic is supporting Chelsea’s annual Game for Equality which takes place against Stoke this weekend. Chelsea will be celebrating their equality and diversity work that tackles discrimination in all forms