News reached us this week that Eden Hazard announced his retirement from football. Unsurprisingly an outpouring of tributes on social media from Chelsea supporters ensued, some tinged with sadness, all glowing.
It is always sad when a fantastic talent leaves the game; the true greats are few and far between and make no mistake Eden Hazard is a true great of the game, not just Chelsea. But, in truth, as far as many Chelsea supporters are concerned, Eden’s football career ended on 29th May 2019.
For the entire season preceding that date, it was common knowledge that Hazard would be leaving the club he had graced for 7 seasons, to join Real Madrid, the club he supported as a boy and managed by his boyhood idol, Zinedine Zidane.
There was no outrage or shouts of traitor from the terraces, no images of Eden behind crosshairs on social media. It seemed that Hazard somehow transcended this kind of response and after all, most would accept that Real Madrid are a slightly bigger club than Chelsea.
More than that, Hazard had given Chelsea supporters that rarest of things. Unbridled delight and joy at watching a magician wield his craft. Add to that the playful ordinariness and engaging qualities of a man humble in spite of his God like talents. Hazard had also been incredibly tactful to supporters and sensitive to their heartache about his imminent departure. He respected us and the club and in turn we respected him.
But over and above all of that and unlike many players with his mercurial array of talents, Hazard had delivered time and time again for Chelsea.
His arrival was eagerly anticipated with all the drama of a ‘will he, wont he’ romance. He was the most sought-after player in Europe in 2012 and could have signed for any club and there were many to choose from. He revealed on twitter he would be signing for the Champions of Europe and as I recall this was before we kicked off in the final against Bayern Munich on May 19th 2012.
Afterwards we all knew that not only had we won the European Cup but had signed the most promising talent in Europe.
But as we may find out over the next few years, young talent doesn’t always blossom into world class player let alone world superstar. It seems strange to look at this signing now as perhaps the last marquee signing Chelsea have made of a player who was clearly head and shoulders above any of the potential signings being chased down by all of the top clubs.
Hazard was that rarest of players: consummate and irrepressible skill, allied to hunger and bravery and an ability to translate that into goals, victories and trophies for his club.
He made 352 appearances for Chelsea, scoring 110 goals including two hat-tricks. He helped Chelsea win two Premier League titles; one FA Cup; one League Cup and two Europa Cups. He was Chelsea’s Player of the Year 4 times (2014; 2015; 2017; 2019) and the only player to win it 4 times. He won the PFA Player of the Year and the Football Writers Player of the Year in 2014-15.
He scored some of the best goals I’ve ever seen from a Chelsea player. A few of my favourites include his beautiful curler into the top right corner on 83 minutes against Sp*rs in May 2016, ending their title hopes and preserving Chelsea’s 26-year unbeaten home record against our bitter London rivals.
His goal against Arsenal in February 2017 is arguably one of the best goals I’ve ever seen at the Bridge when he received the ball on the halfway line and ran straight toward the goal leaving Coquelin on his arse and giving Laurent Koscielny twisted blood before cooly slotting the ball past his old teammate Petr Cech.
Against Liverpool at Anfield in the Carabao Cup in September 2018 he picked the ball up on the right exchanged several one-twos before darting down the right beating two Liverpool players, cutting inside, nutmegging Moreno and then spanking the ball into the far corner of the net from a seemingly impossible angle past Simon Mignolet. Notably Chelsea’s manager Maurizio Sarri had kept Hazard on the bench until the 56th minute.
And possibly my favourite Hazard goal was against West Ham in April 2019. He picked the ball up just inside the West Ham half and twisted and turned as he beat 5 West Ham players before slotting the ball past Fabianski. This was his penultimate goal at Stamford Bridge; he scored a second on the 90th minute, which was to be his last at Stamford Bridge, but the first was an absolute stunner and encapsulates everything about the player. The Stamford Bridge faithful fully understood what they had just witnessed as they immediately stood up and gave him a standing ovation, perhaps mindful that they would not be seeing such feats for much longer. I particularly enjoyed it as I had moved round from Gate 17 to sit next to my good mate and fellow Chelsea FanCaster Tony Glover in gate 15 in the Matther Harding Upper, so we had a perfect view of it. We both knew exactly what he was going to do when he picked the ball up and ran with it.
It was a goal redolent of the 1960’s and 1970’s when players like George Best, Frank Worthington, Stan Bowles and many others just did their own thing. Expressed themselves and would take on 3, 4 or 5 players beat them and score a superb goal.
They were all mavericks and seemed to play for the joy of it all and loved and responded to the joy they gave us. They couldn’t be managed or coached and frankly when you have that much talent why should you. A canny manager would simply give them the freedom to do what they wanted knowing how much havoc they could cause the opposition.
Hazard was a throwback in that respect. He was a terrible trainer by all accounts and had a weakness for a burger or two and would occasionally come back from the summer break on the tubby side. But it mattered not one jot. He could still run rings around most players, score sensational goals or lay on assists that defied the laws of algebra.
He was also a superb penalty taker which seemed to suit both his talent and nonchalance. He would dink them, pass them, Panenka them. It didn’t matter. The keeper would usually end up going the wrong way or frozen like a rabbit caught in the headlights. When Eden stepped up you knew he wouldn’t miss. He even scored off the rebound when he occasionally did!
What Hazard could do in a flash was win a game for the team, equally important for a player with such outstanding individual talents. He would take responsibility and do it on his terms. He pretty much won the Europa Cup in 2019 on his own; determined to leave the club with a trophy.
Being a maverick, he didn’t like being told what to do by any manager, hence the falling out with Mourinho and subsequent sulk and the hilarious ignoring any instructions given by Sarri when trying to impose his triangular football. No mate: just give me the ball and let me do what I do, and you’ll see!
Players like Eden Hazard should be treasured. The modern game with its set plays, pressing, tactical strategies, multirole players under infinitesimal instructions is coaching the genius and maverick spirit out of players. One wonders if we’ll ever see Hazard’s like again which is why it is so important to appreciate players like Hazard when they play for your club.
At Chelsea we’ve been incredibly lucky with generational mercurial and maverick talent. Charlie Cooke (30 goals) and Alan Hudson (14 goals) in the 1960’s and ‘70’s; Pat Nevin (45 goals) in the ‘80’s; Gianfranco Zola (80 goals) in the ‘90’s and Joe Cole (39 goals) in the noughties.
For me, Eden Hazard is the best of this bunch, and I would add the most talented and skilful player I have ever seen at the club. He also scored the most goals from this grouping and won the most trophies, so he delivered whilst remaining a maverick. Sadly, I fear the line of Chelsea mavericks may well end with him.
Eden, thank you, thank you, thank you for the 7 years of delight and joy you gave us Chelsea supporters. Players like you are the reason we love the game and go week in week out. Enjoy your retirement. You have more than earned it.
First published in cfcuk famzine October 2023