The transfer window has been known to throw up its fair share of rumours and speculations. Managers, players and fans alike are dragged through weeks of uncertainty and never-ending confusion. This past off-season was no exception to this, and one of the transfer stories that dominated those long weeks was around whether or not Belgium international Thibaut Courtois would make his much awaited return to his parent club Chelsea, having been on loan at Atletico Madrid in Spain for three seasons. One man who was tracking these developments more closely than most was long-standing Blues number one Petr Cech, who was well aware of the potential impact Courtois’ arrival could have on his career. Courtois, who was said to have previously stated his unwillingness to play ‘second fiddle’ to the experienced Cech, had built himself a reputation in Spain that had the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona eavesdropping on conversations surrounding his future. The Chelsea management team, who saw Courtois as a long term replacement for the 7 time Czech Footballer of the year, were convinced he was ready to stake his claim, and took the decision to bring young Thibaut to Stamford Bridge. But before we delve into the ramifications of that decision, allow me to reflect on a story that now seems to be more significant than ever.
It’s the 1999/00 season, and one Carlo Cudicini has just arrived at English club Chelsea, looking to solidify what had been a rather shaky career. Having been on the books of the likes of AC Milan and Lazio, the Italian had struggled to establish himself as a first team player, and the loan spell to Chelsea presented him with an opportunity to rediscover himself as a goalkeeper. While his first season provided limited chances to do so, it was enough to convince the Chelsea management to sign him on a permanent basis, and allowed him to challenge then no.1 Ed De Goey for the ‘first choice’ spot; a challenge he accepted and excelled in achieving. Now the new no.1, Carlo put together a string of outstanding performances that saw him voted Chelsea’s player of the year in the 2001/02 season, and the ITV Premiership Goalkeeper of the season award the following season. Now finally an established first team goalkeeper, Cudicini’s luck turned on its head when an elbow injury saw him miss the bulk of the 2003/04 season. The arrival of Jose Mourinho and Petr Cech for the 2004/05 season, meant it could only get harder for Cudicini to reclaim his spot. Cech, 22 at the time, had impressed during his time at French outfit Stade Rennes, and during a trial with Chelsea in 2003, and was seen as a potential long-term goalkeeping solution for the London outfit.
Hopefully the significance of this story has revealed itself at this stage, but needless to say, Petr Cech challenged Cudicini for the number one spot, and once his spot was relinquished, the latter had to content with a spot as Cech’s number 2, until eventually leaving the Bridge for fellow Londoners Tottenham in 2009. While his seemingly premature rise to first team prominence may have surprised many, Cech was quick to impress the fans and management alike, displaying the kind of goalkeeping abilities that would all but ensure the end of Cudicini’s reign as Chelsea’s No.1. He proved he was no flash in the pan one save wonder, and went on to cement his place in the side through consistent displays that saw him win the golden glove in the 2004/05 season, as well as levels of maturity that would see him become one of the best goalkeepers in the world. A head injury in 2006 threatened to jeopardise a sparkling career, but it was a setback Cech would overcome to become a world-class stopper for both Chelsea and the Czech Republic. He then went on to win the Premier league Golden Glove again in the 2009/10 and 2013/14 seasons, along with the Czech Golden ball in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. Add this to his 7 Czech Republic Player of the year awards, and his 2 PFA Team of the year appearances and you have enough to convince you that Chelsea’s goalkeeping future is in safe hands, and that the decision to elect him over Carlo Cudicini was indeed an inspired one.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ‘posts’, another story was being written. The Year 2009 had seen the formal introduction of 16-year-old Thibaut Courtois to the Racing Genk first team in the Belgian Pro League. Having started his career at left back, the Genk youth development product made the switch to goalkeeper early on in his career, a switch that would later prove to be a masterstroke of note. His debut in 2009 was followed by a remarkable 2010/11 season, which saw the youngster help his side to league glory by conceding just 32 goals in 40 matches. This feet was enough to earn young Thibaut the goalkeeper of the year award, and the Genk Player of the year award. More than this, the youngster had announced his arrival on the scene, and when the likes of Chelsea came knocking, it was clear that a gem had been unearthed. The move to Stamford Bridge was sealed in July of 2011, but his tender age and relative inexperience made a loan spell to La Liga outfit Atletico Madrid, who have a long-standing reputation for bringing the best out of young keepers, the most sensible move. Regular game time allowed Courtois to emphasise his statement of quality, and he didn’t disappoint, helping the side to a Europa League triumph in his first season. His performances inspired a 12 month loan extension, during which the youngster continued to shine, helping Atleti to a third place league finish, a UEFA Super Cup triumph over parent club Chelsea, as well as the Spanish Cup trophy.
As if this wasn’t enough to assure the footballing world of the Belgian’s talent, Thibaut was awarded the Ricardo Zamora award, an award given to the La Liga keeper with the best goals conceded per game ratio. Having made almost 100 appearances for Atleti in 2 seasons, to such good effect, it came as no surprise when a third season loan spell was announced, and it was then that he would all but cement his place as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. In a league that had been dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, it was somewhat unprecedented for any other team to be crowned Spanish champions. But Diego Simeone’s men, thanks in large to Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa, managed to clinch the title on the last day of the season, and with a Champions League final against rivals Real Madrid to follow, there was much hope that the Atletico Madrid fairy-tale would see it’s happy ending. It wasn’t to be though, and for Courtois, another Ricardo Zamora award meant he had more than proven himself as a world-class keeper, and it was then that Chelsea took the decision to bring the young lad to Stamford Bridge.
Courtois’ return meant that Jose Mourinho was once again faced with a selection dilemma, and when the first game of the season saw Courtois in between the sticks, it looked like the decision had been made. Now 30 games down the line, Courtois’ 25 league appearances vs Cech’s 5 have confirmed the sequel to the Cudicini story of 2004. While chances have been few and far between for Cech, it must be noted that of his 5 appearances, he has not conceded a single goal, while Courtois has managed 8 clean sheets and conceded 25 goals in his 30. Many might see this as reason to reinstate Petr as number 1, while the opposing side will argue that Courtois is the best option where the future is concerned, and should therefore keep his place. The rumour mill has suggested that Cech is too high a quality of player to be second best, and that he is likely to move once the window opens, but until then, Jose Mourinho has the best goalkeeping dilemma in world football, with one of the best goalkeepers in the world on his bench and the best young goalkeeper in between the sticks. Mourinho holds the next chapter of this story in his hands, and while it would be sad to see someone of Petr Cech’s quality leave, it is probably more sad seeing him on the bench, but at least Chelsea fans can rest assured knowing that should the skull-cap wearing Petr depart Stamford Bridge, the future of their goalkeeping department is more than safe in the hands of in 22-year-old Thibaut Courtois.