Didier Drogba: Remembering the Chelsea Legend's First Year as a Professional

Didier Drogba
Didier Drogba is a Chelsea icon and spent two spells at the club | Clive Mason/Getty Images

Didier Drogba + Samsung Logo + Stamford Bridge = goal. That was the formula for Chelsea's success for a number of years in the early Roman Abramovich era, as the Blues emerged as the new (albeit very rich) kid in town.

The Cote d'Ivoire international became an icon, and arguably the most fearsome striker to have graced the Premier League. He may not have been as prolific as Thierry Henry or Alan Shearer, but few defenders relished the task of marking such a powerful and intelligent forward.

Before he became a Chelsea legend and the 'King of Finals' though, he was simply just Didier Drogba – a young man plying his trade in the lower echelons of French football - and a player few thought destined for the top.

Didier Drogba, Jacob Lekgetho
Back when Didier Drogba was skinny enough for a shirt to be baggy | GEORGES GOBET/Getty Images

The forward began his career as an apprentice at Le Mans, making two first team appearances for the club in Ligue 2 in the 1998/99 season, with his major breakthrough coming the following season.

It was that 1999/2000 season that Drogba first tasted regular game time and the superstar that we adore today was born.

Well, kind of.

The striker did make great strides in his first full season with the first team - making 30 Ligue 2 appearances - but it wasn't without its struggles.

He was plagued by injury and just rotten bad luck in his first two years as an apprentice, breaking his fibula, an ankle and two metatarsals. On top of that, his lack of involvement in any youth academy had left him struggling to cope with the intensity of regular training at Le Mans. While this did not stop him being offered a professional contract in 1999, there were serious doubts about his potential.

To make matters more complicated, he was also undergoing change off the pitch. The forward was having to deal with the birth of his son as well as completing a degree in accounting, all before he had turned 21.

Even with all these distractions and obstacles, 'Tito' enjoyed something of a positive entrance into senior football, scoring seven times in the second tier of French football that season.

The boy from Abidjan was living his dream, but the realisation of that dream was not without some turbulence, as the next few seasons saw him lose his place in the starting XI before he was shipped off to Guingamp. It wasn't until he was 24 that he actually tasted top tier action, but that didn't stop him making the move to England just two years later.

As that 1999/2000 season proved - and as he would show frequently at Stamford Bridge - his eye for the big moment more than made up for the fact that some strikers were a little more prolific.

Didier Drogba
Drogba is the all-time top goalscorer for his country | Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The young Drogba wasn't yet the physical specimen who dominated the Premier League years later, but he was raw and relentless. The forward wasn't someone who'd beat defenders with tricks and flicks, but had the desire that few other young talents could contend with.

If ever there was an example of a player needing time to develop, it's Drogba. Every time he stepped up a level, he proved up to the challenge.

In truth, Drogba's his first year as a professional wasn't the most remarkable, yet his strength to come through so many challenges is a real testament to his character and perhaps what makes him so great.

Didier Drogba
Drogba scored the winning penalty as Chelsea claimed their first Champions League trophy | Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

In a way, it's knowing that he had such a fight to get to the top that makes that header against Bayern Munich, or all those FA Cup final goals, even more special.