Golden Oldies: Chelsea's Best Premier League Veterans
Last Saturday at Newcastle, Frank Lampard scored his 10th Premier League goal of the season for Chelsea, with a trademark thunderbolt from outside the box. Incredibly, it’s the 10th season running that the Blues’ midfielder has hit double figures in the league—a feat unmatched by any other player since the Premier League began in 1992.
Yet, even more incredibly, the powers that be at Chelsea have shown zero interest in retaining Lampard’s services for next season, declining even to open contract negotiations with the Stamford Bridge legend.
Of course, Lampard is no spring chicken—he will be 35 this summer—but does that necessarily mean he is completely past his best? While considering that question, it is perhaps worth remembering that a number of players have represented Chelsea with distinction in the Premier League era while aged nearer 40 than 30.
Here’s our pick of that select group, listed in order of their age when they made their last appearance for the Blues, starting with the youngest first.
10. Claude Makelele: 35 Years, 92 Days
In the summer of 2003, shortly after Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea, the Blues went on a spending spree unprecedented in British football. Perhaps the most significant signing was Claude Makelele, a £16.8 million recruit from Real Madrid, who then-Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri famously described as "the battery" of his new team.
However, it was under Ranieri’s successor, Jose Mourinho, that the French international truly flourished, helping the Blues win two league titles and three domestic cups while putting his stamp on the defensive midfield position to the extent that it became widely known as "the Makelele role."
Makelele’s last appearance for the Blues was in the 2008 Champions League final against Manchester United in Moscow, after which he moved on to Paris Saint-Germain. He played on in France until the age of 39, before becoming PSG’s assistant manager in 2011.
9. Carlo Cudicini: 35 Years, 119 Days
A bargain £160,000 signing from Italian minnows Castel di Sangro in 1999, Carlo Cudicini took a couple of years to establish himself as Chelsea's premier goalkeeper but eventually saw off the challenges for his position posed by the likes of Ed de Goey and Mark Bosnich.
Although he sometimes struggled to deal effectively with crosses, Cudicini was a brilliant shot-stopper who could turn the course of a game with a point-blank block or spectacular save. Voted Chelsea Player of the Year by the fans in 2002, Cudicini was widely regarded at this point as one of the best keepers in the Premier League and was even proposed by some pundits as a possible solution to England's goalkeeping difficulties following the retirement of David Seaman.
The arrival of Petr Cech in the summer of 2004 limited Cudicini's first-team opportunities, although he stayed on as the Czech's backup until January 2009 when he moved across London to Tottenham. After four years at White Hart Lane, he joined LA Galaxy in January 2013.
8. Ruud Gullit: 35 Years, 149 Days
Signed from Serie A side Sampdoria in the summer of 1995 at nearly 33, former World Footballer of the Year Ruud Gullit belied his years with some outstanding performances for Chelsea over the next three seasons.
Initially employed by boss Glenn Hoddle as a sweeper, Gullit later moved into midfield to stunning effect, and he also played a few games for the Blues as a striker. Wherever he appeared on the pitch, his exceptional talent was always evident.
In the summer of 1996, Gullit became player-manager of Chelsea. In his first season he led a wonderfully entertaining team featuring the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Roberto di Matteo and Frank Leboeuf to victory at Wembley in the FA Cup. Sadly, the dreadlocked Dutchman's London adventure ended on a distinctly sour note just nine months later when he was controversially sacked by then-chairman Ken Bates.
7. Nigel Spackman: 35 Years, 151 Days
A hard-running midfielder who only rarely appeared on the scoresheet, Nigel Spackman was an unheralded signing when he arrived at Chelsea from Bournemouth in 1983, but he made an instant impact at the Bridge, helping the Blues win the old Second Division in his first season at the club.
After four years in West London, Spackman moved on to Liverpool in 1987; he later played for QPR and Rangers before rejoining the Blues in 1992. A much-changed player, Spackers Mark II was more of a holding midfielder, adept at breaking up opposition attacks with either a sharp tackle or intelligent interception, the all-action dynamism of his previous incarnation just a distant memory.
Although an off-the-ball clash with Arsenal hardman Martin Keown in 1995, which led to Spackman receiving a red card, provided perhaps the most vivid image of his second spell at the Bridge, he deserves more to be remembered for the calm efficiency he showed when dropping into Chelsea's backline while sweeper Ruud Gullit rampaged forward. The following year Spackman moved to Sheffield United, later becoming player-manager of the Blades.
6. Marcel Desailly: 35 Years, 230 Days
Shortly after helping France win the World Cup in 1998, Marcel Desailly pitched up at Stamford Bridge from Italian giants AC Milan to join an increasingly cosmopolitan Chelsea squad.
"The Rock," as he was known for his defensive strength, power and unflinching commitment, proved to be a huge asset to the Blues, helping the club gain qualification for the first time to the Champions League in his first term in England.
The Ghana-born centre-back was also a key component of the Chelsea side that won the FA Cup in 2000, the Blues defeating Aston Villa 1-0 in the very last final to be staged at the old Wembley stadium. Desailly played on for the Londoners for another four seasons, often captaining the team, making his last appearance for the club in a 2-1 defeat at Newcastle in April 2004.
By then, though, he was clearly well past his best, and it was no surprise when he ventured off that summer to play in Qatar, a well-renumerated haven for old footballers with impressive CVs.
5. Ed De Goey: 36 Years, 15 Days
After Ruud Gullit used no fewer than five different goalkeepers in his first season in charge, it wasn't a surprise when the Chelsea boss splashed out £2.25 million to sign Feyenoord's Ed de Goey in the summer of 1997.
It proved to be money well spent as the lanky Dutchman helped Chelsea win both the League Cup and the European Cup Winners' Cup in his first term at the Bridge. Two years later De Goey added the FA Cup to his list of honours, in the same season that he kept a then-Chelsea record of 27 clean sheets in all competitions (a tally later surpassed by Petr Cech).
The arrival of Carlo Cudicini, though, soon saw De Goey relegated to a backup role, and by the time of his last Chelsea appearance, a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough in the FA Cup in January 2003, he was very much a peripheral figure. Later that year he moved to Stoke, for whom he played for another three seasons before retiring.
4. Kevin Hitchcock: 36 Years, 217 Days
Signed from Mansfield Town for £250,000 in 1988, Kevin Hitchcock was one of Chelsea’s longest-serving players of the modern era, staying with the club until 2001.
Throughout his time at the Bridge, Hitchcock was rarely first choice between the posts, making slightly fewer than 100 league appearances in 13 years. A decent shot-stopper, "Hitch" was a reliable enough backup, but a tendency to flap unconvincingly at crosses meant that most Blues fans were happy to see him return to the bench after his increasingly occasional first-team outings, the last of which came in an entertaining 2-2 draw at Tottenham in May 1999.
Two years later he moved to Watford, taking up a position as goalkeeping coach under former Chelsea manager Gianluca Vialli. Hitchcock later fulfilled the same role at Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, West Ham and Fulham and is currently employed by QPR.
3. Mal Donaghy: 36 Years, 233 Days
The news in the summer of 1992 that Chelsea had signed Manchester United defender Mal Donaghy for £100,000 didn’t exactly have Blues fans singing from the rooftops. After all, the Northern Irishman hadn’t been a regular at Old Trafford for some time and, approaching his 35th birthday, was clearly not going to be part of the Stamford Bridge scene for very long.
However, as it turned out, Donaghy proved to be a fairly useful asset for the Blues, starting all but three league games in his first season and then playing the majority of matches in his second. However, he failed to make the Chelsea squad for the 1994 FA Cup Final and announced his retirement shortly thereafter.
Capped 91 times by Northern Ireland—a total only beaten by Pat Jennings and David Healy—Donaghy is now coach of his country's Under-19 side.
2. Gianfranco Zola: 36 Years, 310 Days
The Blues signed Gianfranco Zola from Parma in November 1996, and the little Italian proved to be an immediate sensation, his skill and flair earning him the Football Writers' Footballer of the Year award in his first season at Stamford Bridge.
More significantly, he helped Chelsea win the FA Cup in 1997, and the next year it was his thunderous drive from 20 yards that clinched the European Cup Winners' Cup for the club in Stockholm.
The passing of the years failed to dim his supreme talent, and in his final game for Chelsea in 2003, he helped the Blues claim Champions League qualification for the following season with a 2-1 victory over arch rivals Liverpool. Despite last-ditch attempts by new owner Roman Abramovich to keep him at the Bridge, Zola moved on that summer to Cagliari in his native Sardinia, leading his new club to promotion in his first season before hanging up his boots in 2005.
A true Chelsea legend, Zola is currently the manager of Watford, having previously been the boss of West Ham.
1. Glenn Hoddle: 37 Years, 198 Days
Glenn Hoddle took up the post of Chelsea player-manager in 1993, shortly after leading Swindon Town to promotion to the Premier League. He immediately installed himself in the Blues' team as sweeper, earning rave reviews for his sublime ball control and visionary passing, skills that had seen him hailed as the most creative English player of his generation in his 1980s heyday.
At the end of his first season in charge, Hoddle led the Blues to the FA Cup Final, the club's first appearance in the Wembley showpiece for 24 years. The following campaign he continued to make occasional cameo appearances, most notably in Chelsea's run to the semifinals of the European Cup Winners' Cup.
Hoddle made his last appearance as a pro in a 2-1 victory against Arsenal at the Bridge in May 1995, a match in which his assistant Graham Rix became the oldest-ever Chelsea player in the Premier League era (aged 37 and 202 days) when he came on as a second-half substitute.
A year later, Hoddle left Chelsea to take up the position of England national team coach. He has since managed Southampton, Tottenham and Wolves.