Chelsea v Arsenal: Blue truth from the man who saw it all

Before Lampard and Vieira came Hollins. All energy, all class - and still all consumed by the game
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The Independent Football

Consistency. The Hungarian novelist Stephen Vizinczey mocked such a quality, suggesting it was only "a virtue for trains". But then, as far as we are aware, he never stood at the Shed End in sheer wonderment at the dedication to his team's cause of John Hollins. In his day as an attacking midfielder, he was something of a non-stop express. In a dozen years at Stamford Bridge and another four at Highbury, "Holly" exemplified the kind of player whose frame is seemingly fitted with a power-pack of durability, similar to that now embodied by Frank Lampard and Patrick Vieira.

Brian Mears, who was Chelsea chairman from the end of the Swinging Sixties to the early Eighties, eulogises him, referring to the aggres-sion forthcoming from a character of such choirboy features as "a razorblade dipped in cream", and calling him "without doubt the most consistent player Chelsea ever had... a forerunner of Lampard."

Which identifies Hollins as a more than appropriate judge of the Arsenal Ex-Pats and Chelsea Plus-Fours, so to speak, as two of his former teams prepare for an early Premiership confrontation; the one deprived of the herculean Vieira and the addition of, principally, the £10m Alexander Hleb; the other bolstered by the acquisition of a £55m shipment containing Shaun Wright-Phillips, Asier Del Horno, Lassana Diara and Michael Essien.

Jose Mourinho may be in a quandary as to how to act the peacekeeper when surrounded by so many competing factions; Arsène Wenger has the conundrum of how to replace a seemingly irre-placeable captain, the 29-year-old Frenchman Vieira. When Hollins departed Stamford Bridge in 1975, his ready-made replacement was a certain teenager named Ray Wilkins. For Arsenal, the transition may not be quite that smooth.

"When I left Chelsea at 28 and went to QPR," Hollins recalls, "it was because the manager then [Eddie McCreadie] thought I was [he whispers it, in mockdisbelief] A. Little. Too. Old. But he knew he had Ray Wilkins. In their different ways, [Francesc] Fabregas and [Mathieu] Flamini and Gilberto [Silva] will all take over Vieira's role. They have different qualities to Patrick, but there's something of him in all of them. I don't think Arsenal will want or need to change their style of play, although they may have more of a cutting edge to it."

He adds: "Fabregas is some player, the way he gets forward. For such a young man, there's so much intelligence about his play. He may be only 18, but I think he's developed already with Arsenal. He appears to play with arrogance, and that's not bad. He's got a bite about him, and can't be knocked out of the game. I think he could become one of Arsenal's top players. I'd imagine that he's among the first names that Arsène Wenger puts down on the teamsheet."

Just as Hollins was once on Chelsea manager Dave Sexton's roster, having made his debut as a 17-year-old. After periods at QPR and Arsenal, he even came back for a final season at Chelsea, at the age of 37, and later took charge managerially at the Bridge.

Sixteen years and eight managers down that thin blue line along which his successors have always teetered on the brink of opportunity, but more likely uncertainty, stands Jose Mourinho. "You can't argue with what he's done. Maximum points. Won the championship, which no one had done there for 50 years," enthuses Hollins. "[Regardless of the money] you've still got to make those players click. It'llbe tougher, because nobody wants to see Chelsea run away with it again. Everyone will want to frustrate him."

He adds: "Of course, being in a position to buy whoever they want to buy is great for them - and great for the likes of Manchester City. Who else would have paid £21m for a player [Wright-Phillips]? But you still have to buy wisely, and manage well. How will he deal with players asking, 'Why am I not playing?', like [Ricardo] Carvalho, who was a regular last season. The manager has got to be strong. And pick his best team. He did that last year - without a problem. Can that continue?"

Hollins agrees that Mourinho bears a certain comparison with the enigmatic Sexton, who successfully oversaw a group of highly diverse talents. At one stage he placed Peter Osgood on the transfer list "for not trying", the fee a then-staggering £250,000, but had no real intention of losing his iconic forward.

"Dave Sexton would be a fantastic manager in this era," says Hollins. "He was always watching, learning; picking up different ideas. Back then, over 30 years ago, straight after the game, he would give us a chat, and then be out to Italy to watch a game on the Sunday, and be back on Monday morning for training. He would tell us, 'I've found something else new. We're going to do this, or that'. That's what helped us to win the FA Cup [1970] followed by the Cup-Winners' Cup [1971]."

Now 59, Hollins is scouting in the south for Wigan Athletic, though he still retains the enthusiasm for a return to management. This afternoon's derby will evoke many memories, but specifically a January afternoon at Highbury in 1970 when he scampered from his own half and chipped Bob Wilson from the edge of the area.

The ball struck the bar, but he converted the rebound. "Goal of the century" they praised his contribution to Chelsea's 3-0 triumph that day. The moment encapsulated the indomitable nature of a player whom both his former teams would covet were he playing today.