Life in the old Drog yet at Chelsea
On July 20, 2004, Didier Drogba signed a contract that ignited one of the greatest of all Chelsea careers. The big man swapped Marseilles' Stade Velodrome for Stamford Bridge in a move that would see his cult status in the south of France ultimately evolve into the global icon that he is today.
Ten years later, almost to the day, Drogba has returned to Chelsea, the club that he never wanted to join in the first place, such was his affection for the Ligue 1 giants. He will do so in order to end his playing days under the manager he holds in the highest regard, in front of the fans who revere him the most.
With Jose Mourinho, his original Chelsea manager, and club captain John Terry in situ in west London, the sense that Drogba will be experiencing his very own Groundhog Day is obvious. But while some things remain the same, much else is different both for the player and his employers.
The club Drogba first joined was full of ambition, with a new young owner at the helm whose limitless wealth burned a hole in his cavernous pockets. Chelsea had not won the league for almost half a century, and only their third-ever campaign in the Champions League was about to be undertaken. Although hardly a kid at 26, Drogba was still relatively green when he arrived at Stamford Bridge. He scored 11 goals in European competition in the previous campaign, which clearly hinted at inherent talent, but his signing was still greeted with a certain amount of scepticism by the supporters. They ultimately felt uneasy, given his club-record transfer fee of 24 million pounds, which was an astronomical amount back then and is still sizable today.
Fast-forward a decade, and this time he will be welcomed as a conquering hero, a genuine legend not just at Chelsea but on the entire continent of Africa. Drogba's football ability combined with his humanity and philanthropy have seen him set apart from the controversies and damaging headlines so often generated by the modern game. He will return to a club whose trophy cabinet is now bursting at the seams thanks in no small part to his magnificence on the big occasion.
While a mutual love-in between the player and the fans will clearly ensue should he confirm his official reacquaintance with the Blues, Drogba's acquisition is not born solely out of sentimentality. There is an enormous mutual respect between the Ivorian and Mourinho, with both often expressing the feeling there is unfinished business in their professional partnership. Indeed, Drogba wept upon hearing the Special One had left the club in September 2007 and briefly threatened to follow him through the exit door, such was his disillusionment with the turn of events.
Mourinho trusts Drogba and sees him as one of his generals in the squad. The departures of England international centurions Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole this summer have meant a marked decrease in senior figures, with just Terry and keeper Petr Cech remaining as the natural leaders on the playing roster. Drogba's familiarity with the club's ethos and the physical surroundings means that no adaptation will be needed and he can slot seamlessly back into life in London.
Among all the platitudes, the most pressing and pertinent aspect of any potential deal is that Drogba would essentially be joining, initially at least, on a playing contract, and therefore a sound case for his presence in that capacity is needed. It is clear that at 36 he will not be asked to lead the line on a regular basis, especially considering the club's successful pursuit of Diego Costa, who is in the prime of his career. Drogba would be used as an experienced backup option for when the game situation demands either a cool head, a bulky physical presence to unsettle opposition defenders, or simply to relieve the burden on his fellow strikers.
The main fear that has been articulated by supporters about his possible return is that he risks tarnishing his legacy. That, however, is surely impossible. Something would have to go horribly and spectacularly wrong for his place in Chelsea folklore to be threatened, such have been the gifts he has bestowed upon the club. Football fans might be renowned for being fickle, but it would take something beyond comprehension for the Stamford Bridge faithful to turn on their talisman.
For many, his final act as a Chelsea player should remain with him wrong-footing keeper Manuel Neuer from the penalty spot in the Champions League final, and as a spot of romance it is hard to argue with. Ample time has passed now, though, and he will no longer be expected to haul the team along on his broad shoulders. The fans will surely understand that his best years are behind him and calibrate their demands accordingly.
The Ivorian is such a totemic figure that his drive and professionalism will be a boon for the coaching staff. He can be a guide for young strikers Patrick Bamford and Romelu Lukaku, who is openly reverential in his admiration for Drogba.
Indeed, Drogba's return could be crucial in regards to Lukaku's future at the club as he decides whether the opportunity to be mentored full time by his hero outweighs his prospects in pastures new. If the Belgian has any sense, he will stay put and learn from one of the best in the business.
Despite the concerns of some, Drogba's return to Chelsea should not feel like a retrograde step. Instead, it can represent the first step in the creation of a dynasty that can hopefully be extended with the incorporation of Lampard, Terry and others once they call time on their playing careers. Chelsea's golden era that ran from 2004 until 2012 should not simply be consigned to history.
A legacy must remain, and that can start with the return of the club's greatest striker ever.