It has become fashionable in some quarters, this website included, to poke fun at our loyal servant Henrique Hilario. With the sort of ‘support’ that Hilario receives from some fans, a neutral could be forgiven for thinking that he was doing something terrible like deliberately dragging out an existing contract in order to line his own pockets at the club’s expense. This is most emphatically not the case.
For those who need their memories refreshing, Henrique Hilario was signed as third-choice keeper by Mourinho back in 2006 during his first spell as manager. As such he is considered one of Chelsea’s ‘Old Guard’ along with the likes of Terry, Lampard, Cech and Cole. Chelsea went on to win a European Cup, a UEFA league title, a Premiership title and 4 FA Cups on Hilario’s watch. No mean feat. Does he deserve any credit for these honors given that he seldom sees any first team action? Yes, absolutely.
To work as a third-choice keeper at any major club has to be one of the most thankless jobs in football. You have to train constantly and maintain a near-perpetual state of match fitness as you can, quite literally, find yourself being asked to step up at a moment’s notice, though this hardly ever happens. In addition to this you can look forward to a life hidden in the wings whilst those above you get to enjoy the praise, recognition and heady moments of glory that team success brings. On the rare occasions when you do get to perform, often in the ‘big’ games towards the end of a season, the fans are seldom happy to see you and spend most of their time lamenting the loss of their injured/suspended first choice keepers. To add insult to injury, back-up keepers rarely receive any winner’s medals or the recognition that goes with them due to regulations governing the number of games you need to play in order to qualify for one; 10 in the case of the Premier League. A few special saves can change the outcome of a whole campaign, whereas youngsters making ten short appearances as a substitute seldom change anything.
Chelsea’s management is not known for misplaced sentimentality, or any sentimentality at all for that matter. The only reason that Hilario’s name has been on the squad sheet for the last 8 years is because he is very good at his job. It goes without saying that no major team can operate effectively without a third-choice keeper. To imply that this keeper works less, has an easier life or is in any way inferior as a squad member is plain rubbish. Our third-choice keeper first saw action back in 2006, in the immediate aftermath of THAT match against Reading, the one that saw Petr Cech nearly have his career prematurely terminated and second choice keeper Carlo Cudicini injured in the same game. John Terry ended up in goal that day; it’s interesting to see who steps up when the poo hits the ventilator, though a bit of a no-brainer at the end of the day. Hilario made his Chelsea debut in the next match, a Champions League game against Barcelona of all people. He pulled off a string of fine saves and kept a clean sheet during a 1-0 victory. During his nearly 8 years at Chelsea Hilario has made a total of 39 appearances, four as a substitute, and kept 18 clean sheets. Team stats for the games in which he featured are W 26, D 8, L 5. Not bad at all for a third-choice keeper.
In recent times Hilario has grown into a figure of almost mythical proportions amongst the Chelsea faithful. Having been released by the club at the end of the 2012/2013 season he was spotted boarding the plane for Chelsea’s 2013 summer tour of America. We can only conclude that he was offered a last-minute (one year) contract extension, but the club have never confirmed or denied this rumor. Given that his name stands on the squad sheet we can further assume that he still lives in England and actually shows up for training occasionally though I am yet to see any solid evidence in support of this. Has anyone seen Hilario lurking around in the background in any footage from Cobham recently? Last but not least is the mysterious matter the missing squad number. In previous years Hilario wore the number 40 shirt. Why does he not still have it? It is not as if anyone else is desperate to get their paws on it. Can you be a squad member without a squad number? Apparently so. Hilario has assumed the mystical role of a footballing King Arthur, ready to rise from the grave to save Avalon (read Chelsea) in its moment of direst need.
There is a small but significant chance that we have not seen the last of Hilario. The frightening possibility remains that we could end up without both Cech and Schwarzer in, for example, a Champion’s League semi or a Premier League do-or-die. Given the choice between Henrique and an academy product on work experience with the big boys (sorry Jamal) I know who I would prefer to see between the sticks. I suspect that Mourinho (fan of promoting youth talent that he is) knows also.
I am sure that I am not alone in wishing to both thank and salute Henrique for his professionalism, talent and loyal service to the club over the last 8 years. Here’s hoping that he remains with us for many years to come, in spirit if not in body.
Note: The official Chelsea website still has Hilario kits for sale, and yes, the shirts have a number 40 on the back of them. Old stock from previous years? Don’t be cynical.