An ode to Marcel Desailly, ‘the rock’ on which Chelsea built their success
“Desailly would stand there, in the team lineup, and say to me: ‘Listen to this Champions League music, this is what you want to hear season after season,’ and he was excited,” John Terry recalled as he was winding down his own playing career.
“He was at the end of his career; a man who had won everything, with no need to be ‘up’ for those games, but he wanted to win and be involved in those big Champions League nights. And for me, even now I’ve got goosebumps on my legs – I will never forget those nights standing alongside Desailly.”
Terry’s predecessor as Chelsea captain, Marcel Desailly, was known as ‘The Rock’ for his commanding displays in the Blues backline – though during his time at Stamford Bridge the France international only won a small fraction of the trophies compared to the academy graduate he helped nurture. But it was a different club then.
Few of Desailly’s career highs came during his six years at Chelsea; prior to his arrival, he’d won the Champions League in back-to-back years with Marseille and Fabio Capello’s AC Milan, featuring in midfield and scoring the fourth as the Rossoneri thrashed Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team 4-0 in the 1994 Athens final.
There were also a pair of Serie A title wins, not to mention the crowning glory of winning the World Cup for France on home soil in 1998, having sealed a £4.6million move to Chelsea just before the tournament got underway.
Before Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, Kai Havertz or Romelu Lukaku, Desailly was the club’s biggest statement signing in the pre-Roman Abramovich era – and that was just before he lifted the most prestigious honour of all at the Stade De France.
Barely a month after wild celebrations in the French capital, Desailly made his Chelsea debut at Highfield Road in Coventry, tasked with stopping the Sky Blues’ front three of Darren Huckerby, Noel Whelan and Dion Dublin. The still very agricultural, punt-it-forward football of the Premier League in the late 90s was a new test.
It was a debut to forget, with Desailly bested by Huckerby and Whelan – the first goal pure route one, the second a set-piece – inside the opening 16 minutes. Coventry won 2-1. In those early months, Chelsea’s ‘Rock’ looked breakable – as Desailly himself would later admit.
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“I suffered. My ego got smashed. I really suffered, honestly. Playing against Dion Dublin, Duncan Ferguson – big guys. The flick, the fighting spirit,” Desailly told The Guardian in 2016.
“Playing against Coventry, Sunderland – the long ball. I was unable to intimidate them. In France and Italy I was a strong guy – I would look the strikers in the eye and show, ‘There is nothing for you today’ – and the player would look down and accept that I had won. But in England, no. The guy is ready for a fight. The striker will tackle you! I was depressed for four months.”
But he soon adapted. A fortnight after the defeat to Coventry, Desailly put in an imperious display to keep a clean sheet in the UEFA Super Cup final against Real Madrid, a 1-0 win which provided evidence that his World Cup-winning partnership with Frank Lebeouf could be just as effective at club level.
No more silverware would follow during that maiden campaign, but Chelsea only suffered a further two Premier League defeats after the opening day loss at Coventry and ended up just four points behind Manchester United’s treble winners.
The 1999-00 season proved more erratic – defeats at Watford, Derby, Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday led to a disappointing fifth-place finish – but Desailly tended to stand tall for the big occasion, an essential cog in navigation through two Champions League groups featuring Milan, Lazio and Marseille.
The centre-back was supremely unruffled in the last FA Cup final at the old Wembley, a 1-0 victory over Aston Villa, and he was back there to kick off the 2000-01 campaign with a 2-0 Charity Shield win over Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham had no answer for Chelsea’s French defensive wall, and nor did Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, introduced for a late push in the final 20 minutes.
But Chelsea’s domestic form continued to falter around the turn of the century, resulting in Gianluca Vialli being replaced by fellow Italian Claudio Ranieri in September 2000. The change in the dugout failed to result in a dramatic upturn in form, and the club’s record in the cups that season was dismal, but gradually Ranieri oversaw progress.
On the final day of the 2002/03 season, Chelsea defeat Liverpool 2-1 thanks to goals from Marcel Desailly and Jesper Grønkjær, the Blues claim 4th place and the remaining Champions League spot, Zola turns Jamie Carragher inside out and Steven Gerrard sees red, May 11, 2003. #CFC pic.twitter.com/VaqaoZhqo8
— Classic Chels (@ClassicChels) May 11, 2020
It was a transitional time for the club, and anything but smooth sailing across two successive sixth-place finishes between 2001 and 2003, but Desailly’s experience – at that point in his mid-thirties and Dennis Wise’s replacement as club captain – proved invaluable in crossing those waters. Lebouef departed for Marseille, while Terry and William Gallas were emerging and needed bedding in.
The club had spent three years outside the Champions League, but Desailly helped guide them back with a fourth-place finish at Liverpool’s expense in the 2002-03 season. Having featured prominently throughout a solid defensive campaign, he scored a vital early equaliser as the Blues beat Gerard Houllier’s Reds 2-1 on the final day.
Desailly only scored seven goals in 222 appearances, but he had a knack for choosing his moments. The victory over Liverpool ensured top-level European football, which was pivotal for the club’s immediate springboard to greater heights when Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003.
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Chelsea were suddenly rich beyond their wildest dreams, but would the likes of Claude Makelele, Juan Sebastian Veron and Hernan Crespo joined that summer without the instant promise of Champions League football?
Come Desailly’s sixth and final season at Chelsea, the only one under Abramovich’s ownership, the time had come for Desailly to step back into the periphery. The veteran defender had proven influential in Gallas and Terry’s development and suddenly they looked better without him.
‘The Rock’ only made 15 Premier League appearances, but he did play a lead part in their run to the Champions League semi-final – though he was denied a perfect swansong as a series of curious tactical decisions from Ranieri proved costly in a 5-3 aggregate defeat to Monaco.
While he departed for Qatari side Al-Gharafa in 2004, in came Champions League winner Ricardo Carvalho, alongside Jose Mourinho, Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben – a clear signal of their rapid ascent to superclub status.
The FA Cup was the only major honour Desailly lifted during his six years at Chelsea, a stark contrast to the imperial phase that would follow, but his role in the club’s journey to where they are today will not be forgotten by their fans.
By Nestor Watach