Wayne Bridge was one of the first signings of both the Chelsea and Manchester City modern eras, yet the former England international admits he never really believed in himself.
When you speak to most footballers about the most memorable moments of their career, they’re likely to bring up a famous goal or lifting a trophy. Wayne Bridge’s mind doesn’t work that way, though.
The former left-back retired in 2014 with 36 England caps and a Premier League winner’s medal to his name, as well as playing a big part in Chelsea’s run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2004, but the lower moments – such as a West Ham debut to forget in 2011 – are the ones that stick with him more.
“Everyone else has got the highlights, scoring for Chelsea and things like that, but most of my things I always think about are the mistakes I’ve made in games,” Bridge says.
“The West Ham one stands out, playing someone onside and giving the penalty away to Theo (Walcott, during a 3-0 defeat).
“The worst thing about it is I’d only just got with my wife then, and her mum’s a West Ham fan and her dad’s an Arsenal fan, so her dad was buzzing and her mum was booing.”
This attitude is consistent with a man who has clearly held himself to incredibly high standards, some would say unfairly high, and explains why moves to two of the biggest clubs in the country brought self-doubt more than they did pride.
Manchester City spent more than £100million on three new full-backs in the summer of 2017, bringing in Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo.
Yet when Bridge joined the club in January 2009, as one of the first arrivals of the Sheikh Mansour era, he felt transfer fees were already beginning to get out of hand.
“Even I pinch myself at the career I had and the money you can earn, but I almost find it embarrassing to talk about,” he says.
“When I was going for £12million to Man City I remember speaking to Jamie Redknapp about the price, and saying, ‘I think they’re paying too much.’
“He was like, ‘Nah, you’re quality,’ but I didn’t see it.
“But the prices you’re talking about these days for full-backs, £50million, I can’t get my head around it. I never would have thought it would keep going up and up and up and up, but it’s still going. You think, ‘When is it going to stop?’ And I really don’t know.”
As well as being one of the first players to move to the Etihad Stadium after the takeover, he was one of the first signings made by Claudio Ranieri in the summer of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea takeover.
Of course, the sums of money flying around during those windows feel almost like a pittance compared to the outlay made by even the smallest Premier League clubs this summer, but Bridge doesn’t come across as the sort of player who was motivated by money.
I meet him in Ireland at the PokerStars Festival Dublin, and it’s instantly clear he takes poker very seriously, as is often the case with sportsmen looking to keep that competitive mentality going after retirement.
Bridge knows he has a long way to go before he can think of reaching the top in this particular discipline and is relishing being an underdog with, as he puts it, “a lot to learn”.
He shares that enthusiasm with other current and former footballers, including Gerard Piqué, who has taken to the game as a duck to water. Indeed the World Cup winner is a regular fixture at PokerStars tournaments, winning €129,000 at a recent event in his native Barcelona.
— Wayne Bridge (@WayneBridge) September 30, 2017
Throughout Bridge’s career, he has found himself in situations where he has started out unsure of himself, having to convince himself that what others see in him is valid, and he has consistently valued safety in numbers when it comes to removing that media and fan focus and allowing him to quietly grow into a role.
This was best seen at Chelsea, where the pressure of a big move away from his boyhood club, Southampton, might have been greater were it not for the volume of others moving to West London the same summer following Abramovich’s takeover.
Hernán Crespo and Adrian Mutu were high-profile attacking signings, while Claude Makélélé arrived with plenty of pressure having claimed top honours with Real Madrid, meaning the likes of Bridge – whose £7million fee might still have been significant for other Premier League clubs – was able to settle far more easily.
“When there’s a group of you, you don’t feel as much pressure,” he says. “I think if there’s just one or two there’s more of a spotlight on how you’re going to do, but it takes a bit of pressure off you personally.”
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That clearly seemed to benefit him in his first season with the Blues, during which time his winning goal against Arsenal helped the club reach the semi-finals of the Champions League.
This will be many fans’ fondest memory of the left-back, especially as it came against a Gunners side in the middle of their Invincibles season.
But, true to form, Bridge has a far more vivid recollection of the semi-final disappointment against a Monaco side who played much of the first leg with 10 men.
“The game against Monaco we were just terrible, then to come to Stamford Bridge and get the early goal we were in it, we were winning, but to throw it away like that was disappointing.”
Chelsea eventually earned the Champions League title that might have been theirs in 2004, of course, beating Bayern Munich on penalties in 2012, but for Bridge, he’ll have to live with the ‘what ifs’.
By Tom Victor
This article was originally published on October 1, 2017.