Alexey Smertin, a member of our Championship-winning squad in 2005, returned to Stamford Bridge recently on business. Now a technical director at Russian side Dynamo Moscow – where Dan Petrescu is currently the manager – our former midfielder had time for a chat with the official Chelsea website while in London…
15 August 2004. A landmark day for Chelsea Football Club ends with a 1-0 win over Manchester United. The afternoon had begun with John Terry leading the team out at Stamford Bridge as permanent captain for the first time. A new face occupied the home dugout, too. In his first competitive game as manager, Jose Mourinho handed four players their full Chelsea debut. Alongside future Chelsea legends Petr Cech, Paulo Ferreira and Didier Drogba stood Alexey Smertin, a 29-year-old Russian midfielder who had signed for the Blues a year earlier and spent a season on loan at Portsmouth acclimatising to the English game.
‘I lived in the hotel here at Stamford Bridge at that time,’ recalls Smertin. ‘After my first game I came back to my room, lay down on my bed because I was tired and I said to myself: ‘Alexey, this is unbelievable, it was you playing against Manchester United and we won’.
‘I still don’t believe it happened. It was incredible. I remember those feelings so well.’
In the end, Smertin’s time as a Chelsea player was limited to that glorious first term under Mourinho. He was loaned to Charlton the following season but ended his spell at the Valley prematurely to sign for Dynamo Moscow, for £1 million, in March 2006. As we speak in the West Stand, in sight of the gleaming Stamford Bridge turf, there is no doubt his year in west London left a lasting impression.
‘It was the most successful season for me, and of course I keep it in my mind,’ he smiles. ‘I remember we won two trophies which was important for Chelsea and for myself. Winning the Premier League was the biggest achievement of my career along with representing my national team in the World Cup. We achieved something and that is the most important thing for a footballer. Participation is good but winning is the most important.
‘It’s fantastic to come back with my memories, to think that I scored in this goal (he points to the Shed End where he volleyed in his solitary Chelsea goal against Porto, pictured below) and that I played here. I feel homesick to be honest. Stamford Bridge was like a theatre. It’s my favourite stadium and of the four teams I played for in England this is where I felt the most comfortable.’
We ventured into that 2004/05 campaign having not triumphed in England’s top flight for 49 years. Our manager was new to the Premier League and our closest challengers for the title, Arsenal, had just gone a whole season unbeaten. According to Smertin, who made 25 Chelsea appearances that year, the brilliance of Mourinho paid instant dividends.
‘It felt like we would win the league from the very beginning,’ he stresses. ‘When we played against Manchester United on the opening day it was an average game in terms of football but anyway we won 1-0 and after this, step-by-step, we just kept on winning, winning, winning.
‘We had so many fantastic players. It was an amazing squad of 20 or 25 real stars who wanted to win trophies. Before every game I had the impression that we would definitely win and it only depended on what the score would be!
‘All of that is thanks to Mourinho. He’s a leader who motivates players very well; I remember when we were playing teams lower down the table he motivated us even more, saying that even though you have lots of skill if you don’t make the biggest effort you won’t have a chance. That is why we won almost all the league games that season.
‘Aside from motivation his biggest point is leadership. He is able to create a team very quickly, as you can see from his first season at Chelsea when he won two trophies. He also knows how to analyse games, especially at half-time. That made a big difference.’
Following regular Chelsea Champions League heartbreak – including in his homeland in Moscow in 2008 – he says he was as delighted as anyone to see us finally lift the European Cup in 2012. With his former manager back at the helm our former no.5 admits he is keeping an extra close eye on our progress this season. The Russian is particularly interested to see how our boss is succeeding in implementing classic Mourinho traits – such as the burning desire to win which characterised his first spell in charge at the Bridge – to a largely new group of players.
Smertin’s connection with Chelsea continues in his native Russia, too. Now working for Dynamo Moscow, where Dan Petrescu is the manager and Yury Zhirkov a player, he reports Petrescu is doing a fine job at a club that has never won the Russian Premier League but has aspirations to qualify for the Champions League this season.
The Russian also expects his national team to qualify comfortably from their group at this summer’s World Cup under Fabio Capello (a manager he compares with Mourinho). When the football festival in Brazil is finished attention will turn to the next edition of the World Cup, to be held in Smertin’s homeland in 2018.
‘I was an ambassador for the Russian bid. Beckham was an ambassador for the English bid, Figo was for Spain’s, Cruyff for Holland and Belgium’s but we won and I am very proud about that.
‘It will be very important for us in terms of infrastructure and legacy. We will attract the best players and the best games which will be very important for the Russian people. It will be like a football revolution in Russia.’
For now, though, Smertin is more than happy to reminisce about the football revolution he saw unfold before his eyes in SW6 nearly 10 years ago.