The Greatest Save of My Life; He Speaks Four Languages, Studies History and Psychology and Is the Premier League's Most Expensive Goalkeeper. but What's Really Remarkable about Chelsea's Petr Cech Is How He Came Back from the Terrifying Head Injury That Nearly Killed Him
Byline: Mike Pattenden
A large cardboard box stands in a corner of the spare room at Petr Cech's Weybridge home. Inside it are hundreds of cards, letters and even a few football shirts. Most are from fans - not just Chelsea supporters - and some are from fellow goalkeepers, including Portsmouth and England's David James, Manchester City's Shay Given and Liverpool's Pepe Reina. All are get-well messages, a reminder of the time Cech almost lost his life to a rash challenge. 'I've kept everything,' he says. 'It was very touching at the time. A real help to me in a difficult period.' 'Big Pete', as the 6ft 5in Chelsea keeper is known, is an imposing figure. A man who bounced back from life-threatening brain damage and can lay claim to be the best goalkeeper in the world.
Serious, thoughtful and intelligent, Cech is a student of history and psychology, speaks English and Portuguese fluently on top of his native Czech, and is learning Spanish because it gives him something to occupy his time in hotel rooms before games.
He's good-looking, though a scar runs from above his lip down his chin, the legacy of 50 stitches following an accidental collision with teammate Tal Ben Haim during training in April 2008.
The metal plate above his left ear, however, is invisible beneath the hairline. On October 14, 2006, Cech was on course to guide Chelsea to a second Premier League title when Reading's Stephen Hunt raced into a challenge for a ball. His right knee crunched into the goalkeeper's head, knocking him senseless. The impact was so hard that a source at the hospital suggested it was consistent with a car crash. Initially the goalie was able to crawl off the pitch for treatment but after several minutes he became incoherent and unable to remember simple details. He was stretchered off to the changing room - inset picture, left - but slipped into unconsciousness before the arrival of an ambulance.
Cech was rushed to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, where it was discovered he had a depressed skull fracture. He was transferred to the specialist neurosurgical unit at Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, at 1am on the Sunday, where two loose pieces of skull were lifted away from the brain and replaced with metal plates. Had they penetrated any deeper he might have died. Happily for him, Cech has little memory of the incident that nearly cost him his life.
'In a way it's a good thing I don't remember because I've no memory of a bad trauma. The last thing I remember is getting changed in the Reading dressing room. Then the third or fourth day after the operation I can recall the whole team coming to see me in the hospital. Everything in between is a blank. That was the first time I could recognise people and remember them. People had been explaining things to me after the operation but I couldn't retain anything I was told. It was as if I'd never talked to them.'
It was swiftly announced that Cech would not play again that season but he set about proving medical opinion wrong. Initially though, the prognosis looked all too accurate.
'I wanted to prove everyone wrong but it was hard. At the beginning I even had difficulty speaking. The words would come out all wrong. I had terrible headaches, headaches so bad I couldn't move. Medication helped but some days I was too exhausted to do anything. Even watching television for more than five minutes was hard.
'Eventually I began to train. We had a recovery programme mapped out for the first four months. To begin with, some days I felt OK and did more. But the following day I would wake up and not want to move. I'd sleep all day instead. I had to learn to give the body a break.'
Nevertheless he defied the odds and made his comeback on January 20, 2007, wearing the head protector that has since become his trademark. It continues to generate speculation, not least that Cech is nervous about playing. However, it's a fact that the keeper is one of triplets and, as a result, has a marginally thinner skull than the average adult male. …