The forging of a captain can take time. Eight years in the case of Cesar Azpilicueta but he was never one of those fools with an urge to rush in.
As a child in Pamplona, he soon figured out the best way to enjoy the annual running of the bulls was from the safety of a balcony and, when he joined Chelsea at 22, he knew his place and waited with eyes and ears open.
His patience and progress was rewarded with the captaincy last summer and he will lead his team out at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup final on Saturday, although this strangest of seasons did not start well.
‘I was not playing at my best,’ admits Azpilicueta. ‘It was a new situation because it was my first time with a former team-mate as the manager and things were happening that were not planned.’
There was a hammering at Manchester United followed by defeat in the UEFA Super Cup when Tammy Abraham was the target for online racist abuse after missing a penalty in the shootout against Liverpool.
Abraham’s ordeal shook the Chelsea dressing room and by the time Sheffield United fought back from two down to take a point at Stamford Bridge, they had one win in five and the skipper was making uncharacteristic errors.
‘Personally, there was one moment,’ he recalls. ‘After the Sheffield United game I couldn’t see myself at my level and I felt really down.
‘I tried to speak honestly in the dressing room. I don’t have a problem holding my hands up. There are times in life when you have to be humble and accept it. That’s the way I felt at the time.
‘It was the international break and I went and spoke to my wife. I switched off the phone for four days and enjoyed the time with my family. From that moment, I felt the pressure release.
‘Sometimes you have to take it in the face and stand up again and fight for what you want.
‘I wanted to be successful. To help my team. To help the club. I was not doing that and not because I didn’t want to.
‘Sometimes in life that happens. I spoke and it was a turning point for me, personally, and, as a team, we improved a lot from that moment.
‘I think it made me a better person, a better captain and everything.’
When Chelsea paid £7million to Marseille for Azpilicueta they were European champions and you could barely move for captaincy material.
There was John Terry, the self-styled ‘captain, leader, legend’ and Frank Lampard, now his boss, and Petr Cech, now back at the Bridge in the executive tier. There were Gary Cahill, Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic, and the presence of Fernando Torres was a major factor for a young Spanish player.
‘Most of them didn’t know who I was,’ says Azpilicueta, 30. ‘There wasn’t a big fee or a lot of talk about me as a player. I knew I would have to fight. I knew many players came here and had to go on loan because they couldn’t find their place. My first game in a Chelsea shirt was for the Under 23s on an academy pitch. I remember it well. My first months nearly every time on the bench. I didn’t play a lot but I didn’t think to quit.
‘This was a massive opportunity for me and from the bench, I thought I could start to learn and understand the English game.
‘Ivanovic was in my position. Branna was an amazing player, great passion and desire and I watched how he would counter-attack on the set-plays. We scored lots of goals like this. So, in the League Cup against Arsenal, in my second year, I tried my luck and that’s how I came by my first Chelsea goal.’
This was the campaign when Azpilicueta dislodged Cole as the regular left back following Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge.
Versatility was always a strength. He started as a striker and made his debut for Osasuna as a winger before converting into a full back at 17. Still, as a senior pro, he has shifted across the back line this season.
‘With Chelsea and Spain, I’ve played right and left back, centre back in a three, centre back in a two, I’ve played wing back, in the semi-final of the Champions League against Atletico Madrid I played as a right winger. It was something I did as a kid. I was never unhappy to play in different positions. I was always ready to adapt and improve.
‘When Mourinho trusted me to play left back it cannot have been easy for Ashley. He had been there for such a long time and won absolutely everything with over 100 caps for England and I was on the left and I was not even a left back.
‘He never said a bad word to me or showed me a bad face. Completely the opposite. He was a top guy, he gave everything. To see this behaviour from the best left back in history is a very good memory. I learned a lot from him.’
Azpilicueta is the longest-serving player at Chelsea and, if Willian follows Pedro out of the club next month, the final dressing room connection to the era of Terry, Lampard and Co.
With this honour comes a duty to instil the same standards in those young players who are breaking through — Mason Mount, Reece James, Fikayo Tomori, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Billy Gilmour and Abraham.
‘You feel the responsibility,’ says Azpilicueta. ‘I have played with the past generation who won all those trophies. Football changes and this is a time for change. They have done the first steps.
‘They went through the academy and the process of going on loan. They trained hard and did well but it is different to going into the first team, to have an impact and be consistent. You’re not going to have a clear path. There will be bumps and you have to take them and be stronger for the next one.
‘It is important to have confidence in them. Our future is bright. They won trophies with the academy. Most of them won the FA Youth Cup. Now we will see if they can replicate these trophies with the first team. They have the opportunity to go to Wembley and fight for the FA Cup as a senior.
‘At Chelsea we fight to be at the top. It is important to develop players who were not in the Premier League last season. They have played in the Champions League but we know there is a gap of more than 30 points to Liverpool and that means we can be better.
‘It’s up to us to close that. We can do it by being humble and accepting when we don’t do it well we must train harder to make it right.’
Who better to offer these lessons? Azpilicueta has won six trophies in eight years in west London. He may not have been the most gifted but he made the grade while others came and went.
His form has recovered to its dependable best after the early-season wobble. He had found his voice as a captain and his head coach knows young players adopt the mentality of those around them in the dressing room.
‘His attitude, his application every single day is an absolute standard for any young player,’ said Lampard recently, when asked about Azpilicueta. ‘He is the epitome of the club. He is the one the fans look at and say, ‘that is how we feel about Chelsea’. He is captain for that reason.’
During the lockdown, Azpilicueta maintained regular contact with each player and attended to the individual needs of their families.
He represented Chelsea at the Premier League captains’ video conferences and was active in the initiatives such as Players Together, raising millions for the NHS, and promoting Black Lives Matter. And he told the club’s community and education departments he was at their disposal 24 hours a day.
There have been phone calls and Zoom meetings with children through the ‘Make a Wish’ charity and he has personally funded 500 exercise packs, containing footballs, skipping ropes and other items, and 300 school meals for the children of key workers in Hammersmith and Fulham.
Somehow, there was still time to delve into his online studies as he and goalkeeper Willy Caballero work towards diplomas in business management at the Berlin School of Business and Innovation, ahead of plans to start an MBA next month.
‘I started my degree when I was an Osasuna player but I didn’t have the time to carry on,’ he explains. ‘It was a subject I always liked and there was time to do it when I was not with my kids or home-schooling.’
Always learning could be his motto. All while keeping fit.
They are proud of Azpilicueta at Stamford Bridge. What a campaign it has been from its inauspicious start and what better time to hail Cesar and the making of a Chelsea captain. Now for the FA Cup final.