LONDON - One man who has become synonymous with the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea is Ivorian striker Didier Drogba.
Arriving in 2004 for between £24-26 million his powerful presence up front led the club to unprecedented success and although he also found many critics for his theatrical performances under challenges, Drogba ensured his place as one of the greatest foreign players in Premier League history before he decided to leave after winning the 2012 Champions League title.
When Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 the plan was simple: sign high-profile players for large sums who would guarantee success at a club who had not lifted a top-flight title for 50 years.
The first wave of foreign stars like Adrian Mutu, Hernan Crespo, Geremi, Claude Makelele and Juan Sebastian Veron arrived to be lauded at Stamford Bridge but the 2003-04 Premier League season ended in second place - 11 points behind ‘The Invincibles’ of Arsenal. More was required; a larger presence, and eyes turned towards an Ivorian plying his trade in France.
After a summer of spending which saw Arjen Robben and Matezja Kezman arrive alongside a host of others, manager Jose Mourinho had been coy on who the Blues’ remaining summer transfer targets were.
However, the Portuguese soon revealed his admiration for Marseille’s powerful striker Didier Drogba, who had just scored 32 goals in 55 games in all competitions, despite beginning his career as a right-back.
“I like Drogba a lot because he is different,” said the Portuguese coach. “We do not need players who have the qualities of Eidur Gudjohnsen, because in him we have a special one. With Mateja Kezman and Adrian Mutu - it is exactly the same.”
Having struggled to make an impact early in his career - with former Le Mans coach Marc Westerloppe claiming that “it took Didier four years to be capable of training every day and playing every week” and his year-long break from the game at the age of 15 not helping things - Drogba’s season in the spotlight had won him many admirers as well as a Ligue 1 Player of the Year award.
However, Marseille were seemingly keen to keep hold of their Ivorian asset, whom they had picked up for just £4 million from Guingamp a year earlier.
“It is the summer soap opera,” said OM chairman Christophe Brouchet. “It could be only for fun, or to fulfil the newspapers pages during the transfers’ period.
When it is over with Drogba, it will be [Ruud] van Nistelrooy. I have never received any fax about Didier from Chelsea. I won’t comment on the English press information, as they are not renowned for their reliability.”
For once, though, the English press were on the right track and The Independent’s Alan Nixon wrote that “Bouchet admitted that there could be developments in the next week and had advised his general manager, Pape Diouf, to be “on the look-out” for a replacement.”
When the fax came, it was a large offer: £22 million. A big fee, but not quite enough. Bouchet revealed: “We feel that their offer is insufficient and have refused the deal. We are in a position where we do not have to be sellers.
I have spoken to Didier and everyone knows what has happened and are happy with it. Chelsea have also behaved fairly, we are not trying to push the price up, it is just our decision at the moment.”
But push up the price they did. When the next offer arrived it was larger; buoyed perhaps by the fact that Crespo was set to leave the club for AC Milan on loan.
An offer which was reported to be as much as £26.6 million - “What Chelsea offered was double that of Juventus’ offer. We could not let such an offer go”, according to Bouchet - proved enough to tempt Marseille to cash in and Drogba was on his way to London.
Despite all the spending of recent months, Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon felt the need to defend the outlay, insisting Drogba was worth the money.
“I think his record speaks for itself,” Kenyon said. “I and everyone else feel confident that the money spent on him will be paid back in doing what he does best - by scoring goals. We are happy with the price we will pay. Didier is one of the most exciting strikers around.”
The player himself admitted: “I want to do well with my national team and my club, so I will do my best to be better than I was last season at Marseille. It is a big chance for me to come here and work with the coach, and to play for my new team.”
Drogba made his Chelsea debut in August 2004 against Manchester United. His impact was instant, teeing up Eidur Gudjohnsen for the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win. He didn’t have to wait much longer for his first goal: August 25, against Crystal Palace.
The Daily Telegraph’s Henry Winter wrote: “Just when the Palace fans had been taunting Drogba with chants of ‘what a waste of money’, Chelsea’s tall and quick striker delivered the first repayment on his £24 million fee.
Chelsea lacked an aerial threat last season but no longer; when a wonderful flowing move saw the ball clipped between Cole, Claude Makelele, Mateja Kezman and Celestine Babayaro, Drogba made his move.
He charged into the box, exploiting lax marking by Tony Popovic and Danny Granville, and headed powerfully in: 1-0 to the Chelsea.”
By the end of his first season in England - disrupted for two months due to a groin operation - Drogba had played 41 times in all competitions, scored 16 goals and contributed five assists (including five goals in nine starts in Europe) and helped the club to finish top of the Premier League table for the first time in half a century, while also claiming the Carling Cup.
As a ‘focal point’ of the Chelsea side, Drogba went from strength-to-strength and, although his theatrics earned him some high-profile critics, his place in the side was unquestioned.
The Telegraph’s Paul Hayward wrote: “Drogba is developing into the blue assassin that neither Hernan Crespo nor Adrian Mutu ever became.
Behind all the speculation linking Roman Abramovich’s billions with Thierry Henry, Ronaldo and Andrei Shevchenko, Drogba is said by some to have been Jose Mourinho’s first choice all along.
The Chelsea manager apparently told his £24 million signing from Marseilles that he would turn him into the Henry of SW6.”
What happened next: Drogba’s power and pace helped Chelsea to win the title again the following season when he mirrored his goal tally.
He became one of the best players in the division over the following seasons as he won another Premier League title and Carling Cup trophy; four FA Cups; and ended his career with the Blues by netting the equaliser and winning penalty in the 2012 Champions League final against Bayern Munich.