I was fortunate enough to spend half an hour yesterday in the company of Emmanuel Petit. “Manu” joined Chelsea in the summer of 2001, costing £7,500,000 from Barcelona. He stayed at Stamford Bridge for three years before being released by the club at the end of his contract. Having failed to find another club he retired six months later. He kindly granted me some time at the launch of Sony’s first”High Definition Pub” – the Morrison at 648 Kings Road, Chelsea to ask him some questions about his career and time as a player in a royal blue shirt.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of Petit’s Chelsea career was his role in helping secure Champions League Qualification in 2003. At a time of significant financial uncertainty, the cash benefits to be accrued by a Champions League run were self evident. Less obvious, to supporters at least, was the looming figure of Roman Abramovich who would decide to invest heavily in the club only after qualification was ensured. I asked Emmanuel what he remembers about that time, and particularly the final “Champions League Playoff” game v Liverpool at the end of the season:
“During that season we had been second behind Arsenal after Christmas, until we lost 3-2 at Highbury. The club was struggling financially. We didn’t have one new player, except for De Lucas who cost us nothing as he came on loan. Despite this we had a great spirit, we fought and in the last game v Liverpool, we won 2-1. The fact that the club didn’t spend one penny on new players meant we were very close together as a group and that’s probably the key reason why we were able to succeed and qualify from such a pressured situation”.
Petit then recalled the circumstances of his move to Stamford Bridge. I was pleased to hear him tell me that he had options to return to Highbury, and that Alex Ferguson was interested in recruiting him for Manchester United. Given those offers from (at that time) larger clubs, I wondered why he chose to come to SW6:
“First, it was London and because I really liked the way Ranieri sold the club to me. He came to me in Barcelona with a vision; he wanted to build a competitive team to fight for the title. I wasn’t aware at that time of the clubs financial position but I liked what Ranieri was trying to do. I knew some of the players as well, so all together it felt like the right decision to make”.
Having played under both Ranieri and Wenger, I then asked Petit to compare the two and whether he could put his finger on why the Italian never quite reached the career heights that Arsène has:
“Arsène is very close to the players, he has a different language for each of them. He talks first to the group, as football is played as a group, but can then speak with individuals. He knows exactly the personality of each player, he’s interested in the players, and he wants to trust them as people as well as just players. Before being a footballer you are a person, a human being” (we’ll touch on this more later in the interview). “Arsène had the respect of the group – he could get his point across extremely well, but he really excelled in getting to know the individuals”.
I asked him about “the players” & who he most enjoyed playing alongside in midfield whilst at Chelsea:
“I liked, when I played the second year with Frank, I think we were at our best together – there was a good connection between us”.
With Petit’s career having taken in both Stamford Bridge and the Camp Nou, it seemed appropriate to get the Frenchman’s view as to whether his former colleague Lampard should be tempted by a spell in Spanish football:
“No way! He’s a Londoner, made to play for Chelsea. The fans love him. It’s very difficult and very courageous for players to leave a club when you know everybody loves you, maybe too courageous. Every foreign player who goes to Barcelona has problems, even Ronaldinho, even Eto’o, Thierry Henry. Frank should stay”.
Perhaps the most controversial part of Petit’s Chelsea career came when he chose not to travel to Israel for the Hapoel Tel-Aviv tie, which we eventually lost. I asked him what he remembers of that time, and whether he felt that the media treated him and the other’s who stayed at home fairly
Emmanuel told me, “Of course not! A year later, the government refused to let the England football team play in Israel. I have nothing against Israel – I have nothing against anyone, but it was straight after ‘nine-eleven’, a politician had been shot in the head in our hotel, a plane was shot down by Russian missiles, so all together it was a difficult time. There was no reason to play the game there, I didn’t want to die for football. If we were at war, then yeah, I go to Israel, but I’m a footballer not a soldier so I stayed at home.” He also explained that his wife was expecting their first child at that time, and this all contributed to his decision. He noted how soon after this, Israeli sides were forced by FIFA to play their “home” ties at neutral venues. It’s clear that Petit stands by his decision and that significant thought had gone into deciding not to travel. He’s aware that the fans didn’t like him for it but his personal concerns unashamedly came first. “I know that I wasn’t accepted by the fans, but that wasn’t my worry”
Petit’s final year at Stamford Bridge was marked by a succession of injury problems. He told me it was “A nightmare, I don’t wish for any player to finish his career with injuries, especially when I’d had so few injuries before in my career. Going into that last season, I felt very good physically, my muscles, my ligaments, everything was very good but the bones!”
Did that mean, I wondered, that we didn’t see the best of him in a Chelsea shirt?
“The first year was difficult, because of the politics surrounding me; some players didn’t like me as I had previously played for Arsenal. But even that was a good season. The second one was the best one, but the last one I had three operations and it was a disappointing end to my career”.
I moved on to ask Emmanuel for his views on the French game. He watches a lot of French football and particularly rates the Marseille goalkeeper (Steve Mandanda). “He’s like a cat, very agile, and he’s not afraid of the physical contact, he’s intelligent and the kind of player who could definitely make a career in the English game if he wishes”.
Having watched the recent friendly in Paris, I wondered if Petit had a view on why the English national side was doing so poorly when English club sides are dominating Europe. He told me:
“Every player plays too many games, the level of physical and mental pressure is simply too great, the pressure to avoid injury too great. Players are being forced to pick and choose which games they give 100% to as its simply not possible to go all out every game and maintain a long career”
Conversation turned to the changes in Management at Stamford Bridge this season.
“Mourinho was a huge character for Chelsea and it’s always difficult to replace such a successful manager. When France won the World Cup in 1998 with Aimé Jacquet it was a huge job to replace him. But you can’t say that Avram’s doing a bad job – OK you lost the Carling Cup Final, but you’re still fighting for the title, in the Champions League, and when you’ve lost players like Drogba, John Terry and all the others – all together I think he’s doing a good job”.
I asked if Petit would have enjoyed playing in a Jose Mourinho team. “I think so – he had the link between the players, like I was saying with Arsène Wenger previously. You have to be very close to the players, but you have to be able to show them that you are the boss, and that has to be natural, not imposed. Jose had that”.
With his playing career at an end and with no aspirations “at the moment” to become a manager, I wondered how Manu fills his time. “I’ve spent two years to qualify, and have just gained the qualification necessary to become a Chief Executive of a football team in France. I’m involved in the TV company in France who put on the recent Brazil v Sweden friendly at ‘The Emirates’ and have been for four years now, and I do lots of things outside football too”
Finally, I couldn’t resist in asking Manu to reminisce about what it was like to play alongside Gianfranco Zola. “It’s really rare to find an equation between the celebrity of the player and the way he really is as a man. Sometimes we judge the player as a wonderful person and we forget that as a human being he can be less than great. Gianfranco, whether on the pitch or off it was ‘Pure Class’.
A big thank you then goes out firstly to Emmanuel for his time, patience and good company, and to Sony – Manu was speaking at the launch of Sony’s first, specially designed “High Definition” pub – The Morrison at 648 Kings Road, SW6.
Opening on 2nd April for the Fenerbache vs. Chelsea quarter-final first leg, Sony have signed Chelsea legend Roberto Di Matteo to host the evening and watch the match with fans answering any questions they may have.
Achieving a ‘live’ game atmosphere through the latest Sony BRAVIA TVs and surround sound systems, further pubs will be given a High Definition makeover to allow fans to experience the full glory of every kick, foul and goal in this year’s thrilling Champions League competition. This unique viewing experience will be complemented by a host of ‘game themed’ entertainment for the best possible match day experience outside of the stadium. For the first night in recognition of Chelsea’s opponents there will be a Turkish food theme as well as amazing prize giveaways of Sony products and Playstation 3 consoles set-up for a warm-up game before the match kicks-off.
To experience the game in High Definition glory in your own living room, Sony have an exciting range of products. The exceptional range of BRAVIA TVs are capable of displaying up to 1080p High Definition images and in addition, movies can now be seen the way the Director intended, with the range of Sony Blu-ray Disc players featuring true 24-p True Cinema and amazing detail. Combined with the DAV-IS10 BRAVIA Home Theatre kit, the Sony High Definition range delivers an entertainment experience like no other.