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Saturday Spotlight: Zenden aims to remind Chelsea of skills
Published : 16 Jan 2010 10:10:51
Sunderland's trip to Chelsea today marks a return to Stamford Bridge for Bolo Zenden. The midfielder can also count Middlesbrough among his former clubs and, as the Dutchman told Chief Football Writer Paul Fraser, the club has changed since his days in London. IT must have been one of the biggest shocks Bolo Zenden encountered in the first decade of his career. When he agreed to join Chelsea from Barcelona for a substantial £7.5m eight-and-a-half years ago, he had left one of the biggest clubs in the world for a new challenge in London. A switch in the last few years would not have been such a culture shock, but back then it was a different scenario. Chelsea were just starting to lift their ambitions, the Roman Abramovich era was still two years away. Zenden, armed with La Liga championship medals after three years at Camp Nou under the illustrious Louis van Gaal, was ready to experience something different, reminding him more of his first club, MVV Maastricht. It was not so much Stamford Bridge, nor was it his substantial wage packet. In fact, it was the training ground. Zenden, the Holland international with a black belt in judo from his teenage years, was back at school. Gone were the days of building up his fitness at Barcelona's plush set-up at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, he had arrived at Chelsea. The Bridge might have been able to hold its own in the Premier League, the Blues' training facilities certainly couldn't. He would regularly chat in the spartan canteen, where Chelsea's players would speak to the press, at the club's Harlington training headquarters, which they rented from the Imperial College in Ealing. The College made the facilities out of bounds for the Premier League stars on Wednesdays and Saturdays. There was not even a radio. Hard to believe there was such an environment at top-flight level, but completely true. It is a far cry from his initial experiences of life at Sunderland, where he was struck by the Wearside outfit's multi-million pound Academy of Light training base immediately when he joined in October. Not that the intelligent Dutchman wanted to draw comparisons. It's not right to compare the two, said Zenden. Different times, different eras. But the facilities Sunderland have are nowhere near what were at Chelsea before the Abramovich takeover. We used to train near Heathrow airport, which was just a rented accommodation from some school. It's nowhere near what it is now (Chelsea moved in 2005). It is not that Zenden has bad memories of his time at Chelsea, where he returns today hoping to have proven to Steve Bruce during four days in Portugal that he is fit enough to face his former club. Chelsea was a good experience and it was the first chance I had to play in the Premier League, spending two years there, said Zenden. It's a good ground to go to, a good ground to play. The club has changed quite a bit since. The good thing for me playing against my old team or teams, is that, in general, I have always left clubs on a good note. I have met some lovely people and that's the same with Chelsea, so it will be nice to see old friends. With the exception of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole, there are few former team-mates still around on the King's Road. That in itself is an indication of the massive transformation that has taken place at Chelsea in the last seven years. After Abramovich bought out Ken Bates in June 2003, Zenden remained on the club's pay-roll for a further year but was farmed out on a seasonlong loan to Middlesbrough. When I was there I had Claudio Ranieri as the manager. I was only there for about a month under Abramovich, said Zenden. On Saturday there will still be Lampard and Terry but everything else has changed. Chelsea basically started again. There have been massive changes, because of Abramovich's money. There's been greater demands, greater targets set. When there is more money invested in a club that side of things is inevitably going to change. There was a new manager, new players, new training ground, they have transformed from a club aiming to be in the top four to playing to win the league every year. Since Zenden moved to Middlesbrough initially on loan in 2003, before signing a one-year permanent deal a year later, Chelsea have enjoyed unprecedented success. Not only are they leading the Premier League when Sunderland head there today, they have won the title twice, the FA Cup twice and the Carling Cup twice. They have also finished runners-up in the Champions League. Does he blame financial intervention for the way it ended at Chelsea In a way it's the money what modern day football is all about, said Zenden. You can now look at Manchester City, with a new owner with deep pockets who has gone in there and changed a lot very quickly. You can bring in the best players and suddenly look to compete at the very top. They have the best facilities, but it's still down to the players to get the results. City is a good example really because they have shown this season that it does take time. You can have all of the stars but it doesn't make you a team. It's still the manager's work that makes a team click. Jose Mourinho obviously did that at Chelsea after I left. It was Mourinho's arrival which signalled the end of Zenden's Chelsea career, with the former PSV winger never returning once he had enjoyed such a successful loan spell at Middlesbrough. Strangely, given his first club was at Chelsea, it was his first year on Teesside that earned him his first winner's medal since helping Barcelona to win the domestic league in 1999. He might be a Sunderland player now, but he will always be remembered down the A19 as the man who scored the winning penalty that secured the first major trophy triumph in Middlesbrough's history in Cardiff in 2004. It was sad to see them drop down last season, said Zenden. You just hope your former clubs do well. I hope Middlesbrough do well. You don't want any negativity around and I can see that's what's happening there now. It's hard to believe that it is nearly five years ago that I left. Having talked about the changes Abramovich brought to Stamford Bridge, Zenden has also been aware of the transformation at the Riverside since Steve McClaren departed in 2006. A lot has changed new faces, new players. Relegation shows you just what can happen in football, said the 33-year-old, who reached the Champions League final with Liverpool in 2007 when they lost to AC Milan. Middlesbrough are trying to get back up, the Premier League is what they are made for. Just look at their facilities and the Riverside. It can be hard to take for certain clubs because they are not built for the Championship. We have been talking about money and Abramovich, and the Middlesbrough chairman's money clearly helped them become what they are. Times have changed and it's as if you need even more money now that's what is happening at other clubs. Zenden might look back on a career that has taken in Holland, Spain, England and France, but he has taken the North-East to his heart and feels at home. Settled, I would say, he said. But having only managed six substitute appearances since persuading Bruce to hand him a contract until the end of the season in October, Zenden is intent on proving he has the energy and the drive for the Premier League. I'm as fit as I can be, said Zenden, who has overcome problems with his hamstring. I have been working hard, doing everything the other lads have been doing in training. It's been frustrating that I have not had a muscle injury in five years and I come here and I have had two. All I want is to be important on the pitch, but with such an injury you don't get the opportunity. It's also been at a time when we have needed fit players. I have been going to the treatment room, picking up a number and waiting for my turn. That's how bad it has been with injuries at this club. It's not been a pleasure. With five months to prove he is worthy of a contract extension, a New Year brings new hope. Whether he finally earns his full debut at Stamford Bridge today will rest with his manager, but the effervescent Zenden feels it would be the perfect place to start.