Only a brave man or a fool-hardy one says no to Sir Alex Ferguson. Although he insists he is neither, Emmanuel Petit did just that this summer. Following rumours that the Frenchman was about to sign for Chelsea, Ferguson launched an audacious bid to try to prise the World and European Championship winner away from the London club's grasp. "I was flattered," Petit admits, "but I told Alex Ferguson that I had already given Chelsea my word and would not break it." That is Manu all over.
Promises can often mean very little in modern football, but Petit is a man of honour. Thoughtful and intelligent, he has never been the type to change horses at the last minute. "I had lots of contacts," he says, "but if you tell somebody you're going to do something, you owe it to them to honour that pledge."
Most major European clubs coveted Petit's signature. Having decided he would leave Spain, three firm options presented themselves: France, where the league is of an average standard; Italy, where Petit feels he would not fit in; or England, where he enjoyed the best four years of his career. There was no contest.
"My heart was set on a return here very early on," he says. "I realised this year how much I missed England. Irrespective of football matters, it is the way of life which I enjoy. I've only been at Chelsea for a few weeks, but I already feel more at ease than I did in my 10 months at Barcelona."
The Chelsea manager, Claudio Ranieri, may have his detractors, but the Italian is clearly a skilled negotiator. He first decided to approach Petit in May and, though he was warned that the Frenchman was not interested in discussing his future, he still managed to speak to the player face-to-face. That meeting all but sealed the deal.
"A number of clubs had been trying to reach me to find out what I was planning to do," Petit recalls, "but I had decided to ignore all the calls because I felt I should finish the season with Barcelona and give them a chance to shed some light on my situation. But then Claudio came out to see me, at a time when Chelsea were busy, and I was very touched. I sensed there and then that the club had serious ambitions, so I gave them my word."
The other Premiership clubs to show an interest included Tottenham and Petit's former employers, Arsenal. Although keen to work with the man he used to worship in his early playing days when they were both at Monaco, Petit had to tell Glenn Hoddle that he could not sign for the Gunners' oldest rivals. "I like Glenn a lot, but I could not bring myself to join Spurs," he says. "Coming back to a London club is difficult enough without me making life even harder for myself." Sol Campbell is becoming only too aware of that fact.
So far as Arsenal are concerned, Petit says he never seriously considered rejoining his mentor, Arsène Wenger, at Highbury. "They did come into the bidding," he says, "but, to be honest, I couldn't see myself returning to a place where I'd had so much success. I still have fond memories of Arsenal and their wonderful fans, but going back is always dangerous because people then make continuous comparisons."
Petit may have chosen not to rejoin his old club, but he was keen to rediscover London. "It's a city which I know well and appreciate," he says. "My life is different now that I am married, and London allows me to be as anonymous as I choose. I love the fact that I can go cycling with Agathe in Richmond Park on a Sunday without being disturbed by anyone. That's important to me."
Has the capital changed in the year since he last lived here? "Not really," he says, before offering a typical slice of Petit thinking, "except for the bombs blowing up. When I was here last, the terrorists were threatening; now they're actually planting devices."
Petit's big dream is for his "years with Chelsea to be as fruitful as those at Arsenal". Whether it comes true remains to be seen, but Chelsea have at least invested heavily and, more importantly, wisely this summer. William Gallas is a promising France Under-21 defender, with Champions' League experience while with Marseille, who will learn quickly alongside his national and club captain, Marcel Desailly.
Frank Lampard, who signed on the strength of Petit's arrival, could offer the perfect balance to central midfield, while Boudewijn Zenden, one of Petit's fellow high-profile bench-warmers at Barcelona, will add pace to the attack. "Chelsea have set out their stall and I believe the race for the title will be tight," Petit says. "I get the feeling that Manchester United's domination is about to finish. They've had a great run, but they're reaching the end of a cycle."
Petit is far too experienced to make any wild predictions, but his decision to turn down Arsenal, Manchester United and a clutch of Italian clubs, suggests that the Frenchman is planning on silverware at Stamford Bridge. "Of course I want us to be competitive," he says. "This is an important year for me ahead of next summer's World Cup. At this stage in my career, I have to make the right decisions – I can't afford any more mistakes. That's why I want to be part of a winning team."
In truth, Petit will just be happy to be part of a team. After his disappointing season at Barcelona, where he was inexplicably played out of position or, worse still, left out of the side, the 31-year-old wants to rediscover some stability. "To this day," says arguably the best left-sided defensive midfielder in the world, "I could not tell you exactly what went wrong in Spain. When you look at Barcelona you see a big club, but once you're inside it's very different. I was forced to play in the centre or on the left of defence [he made 23 appearances in total], and was never given any explanation for the way I was being treated."
Petit's nightmare has finally come to an end and the Frenchman is now raring to make the most of a fresh start. "After a season like I've just had," he says, "you learn to appreciate the good times more. Never again do I want to have the feeling that I wasted time. That's why I'm here to have great years with Chelsea." Just talk? Unlikely. Manu has shown before he is a man of his word.Reuse content