Graeme Le Saux : Chelsea, my Chelsea

The Premiership champions are a club synonymous with money and success. but, only two years ago, life at stamford bridge was very different
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There were the new changing rooms, transformed from the grotty, unhygienic places I had once known into black slate, five-star masterpieces complete with Molton Brown toiletries. And then out in the tunnel, it was the line-up of new players in blue shirts. I looked at the faces and realised I knew only four of them personally from my time there.

The transformation of Chelsea in the space of two years, from the debt-ridden team that I played my last game for in that crucial Champions' League place win over Liverpool in May 2003 to today's Premiership champions has been incredible. But to understand just how incredible that story is you have to know how bad it was at times before Roman Abramovich took over. The strange characters who became part of the club, the disputes over contracts and the awful, sub-standard training ground. In fact, a lot of it came back to that wretched training ground.

Chelsea had been riddled with contradictions. In Ken Bates. we had a chairman with whom we had great times - including FA Cup and European success - and bad times as well. As a club, Chelsea was synonymous with style, and yet they scarcely embraced their history. They signed some of the most famous names in Europe but made them train in facilities that would have shamed a semi-professional side. When you went into the dingy old changing rooms at Stamford Bridge you felt like there should be a surgical hand-scrub offered on the way out.

I played for Chelsea for six years before joining Blackburn Rovers in 1993, and when I returned to Stamford Bridge in 1997 I was excited about the potential of the club, the players and the manager. Unfortunately, what would hold us back was that little had changed at Harlington, our miserable training headquarters down by Heathrow airport. It was the kind of training ground that could change a sunny mood into a dark one as soon as you drove through the gates. The pitches were dreadful, the changing facilities poor and, worst of all, the grounds didn't even belong to the club. We shared it with a London university and because it wasn't private land, anyone could wander in.

I had just come from Blackburn, where the club had invested in their luxurious new Brockhall training ground. At Harlington there wasn't enough pressure in the pipes to water the main pitch - a rock-hard, pitted surface that was a constant source of injuries. While, in the changing rooms, the showers were so unpredictable that you had to drain off the hot water first to prevent yourself getting a serious scalding.

I will never forget one journey home from Old Trafford on the coach when the senior players began to discuss the deficiencies at Harlington. Gianfranco Zola wondered whether, as players, we should club together and buy some of the new lightweight goals on wheels that could be moved around far more easily than the ancient iron versions that took 10 of us to carry. It seemed like a good idea and I suggested that, while we were at it, maybe we should put a bit more money in and improve the showers as well.

As we raised the stake from £500 each to more than £1,000, Frank Lampard, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Marcel Desailly made other suggestions as the tone became lighter. Like, if we were going to change the showers, why not add a bit more and get a jacuzzi installed? Professional footballers are well paid but it is because of that they sometimes feel they don't have the right to complain about facilities. We began to add a few more items to the list before Eidur Gudjohnsen chipped in. "Let's go the whole way," he said. "Put in £100,000 each and we'll buy Ronaldo!"

At the time it was funny and absurd but no more absurd than when you think that if Chelsea decided now that they wanted Ronaldo there would be little to stop them paying whatever Real Madrid asked.

When Abramovich arrived he didn't just buy new goals and new showers, he bought a brand new training ground in Surrey and a whole new team as well. When I heard Chelsea were leaving Harlington last season I knew that would make as much difference as any new player. Finally they had the facilities to match their status and when you no longer dread your place of work then anything is possible.

I left Chelsea for the first time after six years at the club - I had joined as a trainee from my home in Jersey - and my departure wasn't a particularly pleasant experience. The newly-appointed manager, David Webb, called me into his office and told me I wasn't in his plans. Webb had a bizarre way of going about business and it came as little surprise to me that his subsequent time in charge of Chelsea was brief and inglorious.

Webb obviously had a certain procedure for telling players he didn't want them and it wasn't particularly sensitive. He said that he always divided those he sold into two categories - those who would go on "to do OK" elsewhere and those who he never expected to hear of again. "And," he added, "I don't think we'll be hearing of Graeme Le Saux again."

Webb was relieved of his duties in less than a year. When I returned to the club, signed by Ruud Gullit, I realised that the attitude had changed considerably - much to the credit of Bates and chief executive Colin Hutchinson. They had invested in the team and it continued to be a more professional, ambitious place under Gianluca Vialli and Claudio Ranieri, but we were still held back by the limits on resources. No-one realised, until Abramovich took over, how close Chelsea were to insolvency. Given those circumstances, improving a training ground where the manager's talks were often interrupted by the roar from Concorde taking off must have been a very low priority.

Even during my second spell at Chelsea, the training ground was still frequented by all manner of strange characters who devoted their lives to watching our sessions. There was a lady called Felicity, who would bake every player a cake for his birthday - we were never quite sure if they were safe to eat. She took great pride in her gifts and you can only have imagined her face when John Terry accidentally dropped his. Luca gave her one of his manager's coats and, from then on, she never took it off, even though it was far too big for her.

Then there was Alan, a retired British Airways worker, who would appear on his bike every day and collect any of the balls that found their way into the bushes behind the goals. He just turned up out of the blue once and, this being Chelsea, before long I would bump into him into the tunnel at Stamford Bridge. Later the players found out that he had been put in charge of picking up the Uefa delegates from Heathrow and bringing them to Champions' League matches. I have no idea if he was paid for this service.

One official who is still held in the greatest affection by the players, and continues to serve under Jose Mourinho, was Gary Staker. You will see him at Stamford Bridge around the tunnel, a cheery bloke who started off as a match steward but, because he had Italian parents, ended up as the official translator for the Italian players and, eventually, Ranieri. Now he takes care of all the details around the club's travel and helps out with players' individual needs. Of course, all these people had to be approved by Bates, and at Chelsea in those days you never knew who would become a club official.

I bet no-one works for free at Chelsea these days. And I wonder whether Felicity still makes the journey down to Cobham to the new training ground where the long drive is protected by security guards and the perfectly prepared pitches are hidden by trees. I would imagine that Mourinho has never called her over on a Monday, as his predecessors once did, to plant a kiss on the cheek of the weekend's goalscorer. It was a guaranteed way of embarrassing even the most experienced professional footballer.

When I came to leave Chelsea for a second time in 2003 I am sorry to say that my departure was no happier than it had been six years earlier under Webb. This time the culprit was the-then chief executive Trevor Birch, who has earned himself a reputation as one of the game's better administrators. I have to say that I found his treatment of me, at such a critical stage of my career, deeply disappointing.

Throughout the 2002-2003 season the players were constantly reminded of the financial imperative of qualifying for the Champions' League. Of course, then we weren't to know that it would be our dramatic last-day victory over Liverpool that clinched that fourth place that would play such a major role in convincing Abramovich to save the club. But while we battled for that place during the season, Birch told us that all talk of new contracts would have to be postponed until after we knew our fate.

Players like myself and Franco Zola respected that. Although we were coming to the end of our careers, and wanted to plan for the future, we did not complain and we gave everything to the cause. I had one year left at the club but I knew that I would need an extension or have to look elsewhere if, as proved right, I had two years' football left in me. In the meantime, Birch became increasingly involved in the team's preparation for matches as the stakes for qualifying for the Champions' League became higher.

Maybe because he was a player himself - I'm not sure where - Birch thought it would be a good idea to give us a motivational speech the night before the Liverpool game from an American friend of his who also happened to be a Vietnam veteran. After an hour of stories about night patrols and " seeing your buddies being shot", I wasn't sure whether it was Michael Owen I should be concerning myself with or abseiling out the hotel window and searching Hyde Park for errant members of the Vietcong.

We won that crucial game and I was named man-of-the match, but when I went to see Birch two weeks later the offer he made me for a new contract was derisory. There were threats too about how if I didn't co-operate and go to Southampton as part of the Wayne Bridge deal I would be left to play my last year in the reserves.

Privately, I didn't mind going to Southampton. What I resented was being forced to do so by such unpleasant tactics. When the deal was done, Birch rang me to apologise. It was a phone-call I never bothered taking. Sadly, Franco felt equally poorly-treated and that marred the departure of a player who is arguably the greatest in the club's history.

So ended my time at Chelsea, but although I missed out on a second Premiership title I will say one thing for the Abramovich revolution: there's plenty of reflected glory. When I tell people who have no more than a passing interest in football that I played for Chelsea for 12 years they're a lot more impressed than they would have been two years ago. And at last the club seems to have become interested in its history.

This season, Chelsea will celebrate its centenary year and it will do so as the brave new, power in English football. Great new players, a fabulous manager and a training ground that must make the squad glad to come to work in the morning. There will be lots of celebrations for the centenary next season and already my wife Mariana and I have been invited to dinners. It's great to be able to celebrate the new Chelsea success with my fellow ex-players - even if there is little we recognise about our old club these days.

Le Saux: The Chelsea years, Part I ('87-'94)

* 9 Dec 1987-88

Played: 0 games. Team finished: 18th in old Division 1 (relegated)

* 1988-89

Games 1 Goals 0

Finished Champions Div 2

* 1989-90

Games 20 Goals 1 Finished 5th in Division 1, won the Zenith Data Systems Cup

* 1990-91

Games 28 Goals 5

Finished 11th

* 1991-92

Games 43 Goals 3

Finished 14th

* 1992-25 March 1993

Games 14 Goals 0

Finished 14th

(Joined Blackburn for £700,000)

Part 2 ('97-'03)

* 8 Aug 1997-98

Games 34 Goals 3

Finished 4th, won League Cup and European Cup-Winners' Cup

* 1998-99

Games 48 Goals 0 Finished 3rd, won European Super Cup

* 1999-2000

Games 14 Goals 0 Finished 5th, won FA Cup

* 2000-01

Games 26 Goals 0 Finished 6th

* 2001-02

Games 40 Goals 2 Finished 6th

* 2002-21 July 2003

Games 34 Goals 2 Finished 4th

Overall Chelsea record: Games 302

Goals 16