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Sir Steve Redgrave: Sing When You're Winning

"Rowers tend to row because they can't run, or catch, or kick a ball," says Sir Steve Redgrave, explaining in a nutshell why he spent the majority of his career in boats rather than boots. "I was too uncoordinated for a centre-forward so I ended up in goal, because I wanted to be in the heat of the action. You're in the firing line when you're a keeper."

The five-time Olympic champion is famed for putting his body on the line for his sport. When bone-crunching blows saw Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini carried off against Reading earlier this season, Redgrave was one of the few watching Chelsea fans not crying foul. "Sometimes you have to put your head in where it's going to hurt," he observes, philosophically. "Injury wouldn't make me want to stop being a goalkeeper."

Such bravery, in a 6ft 5in frame, made Redgrave perfect goalkeeping material – or so you would have thought. "I always fancied myself as a goalkeeper," he smiles, "but in truth I wasn't very good."

Instead, Redgrave's football focus turned to Chelsea, but he bristles at the suggestion that he's one of Stamford Bridge's nouveaux supporters. He started watching football in the late '60s at his local side Marlow Town – "We used to sneak into the only stand in the ground alongside six men and a dog and then get turfed out because we hadn't bought our tickets" – but a move to south-west London left him facing a tricky choice.

"Craven Cottage was half a mile closer to where I lived, but Chelsea appealed to me more than Fulham. They had more characters and were a vibrant team. Everyone thinks I support Chelsea because we're doing well but in the late '70s and the mid-'80s, I had to look at the Second Division table."

Peter Bonetti and Peter Osgood were his early heroes, but by the time he was old enough to visit the Bridge on his own Redgrave had other priorities.

"I started rowing seriously in 1976," says Redgrave, 14 in that year, "so every Saturday I'd be out practising and it was tricky for me to get to games."

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When it was a big game he would make the effort. Like in 1990, when the then double Olympic Champion went to Wembley for the Zenith Data Systems Cup Final against Middlesbrough. His agent also represented Tony Dorigo, who met Redgrave in the players' tunnel.

"I never thought I'd find him but he turned up and gave me two tickets," recalls Redgrave. "But this being the old Wembley, I was stuck behind a pillar." It was Dorigo who scored the game's only goal from a free-kick, but Redgrave missed it. "I had to be told who scored because all I could see was the pillar."

As he continued to conquer the rowing world, just keeping up with the latest scores became difficult, though not for want of trying. While training in Australia in 1996, he called his wife for an update on the FA Cup Third Round Replay against Newcastle. It was to be an expensive decision: he phoned at half-time, with Chelsea a goal down; at full-time, when the scores were level; at the end of extra-time, when it was 2-2; and he hung on while his wife commentated on the penalty shoot-out. "Chelsea won but the standard of commentary wasn't exactly John Motson," he chuckles.

The Blues won the FA Cup the next season, and Redgrave believes that it was during this period that Chelsea's new era flickered into life. "A lot of the current situation is down to Glenn Hoddle, Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli," he says. "Ken Bates should get some of the credit and Matthew Harding deserves thanks as he was a controlling influence, and it was his money and vision that helped turn the corner. But it was Glenn, Ruud and Luca who played a big part in putting the club back on the map. They had ambition and made Chelsea more appealing."

In the era of Jose Mourinho, Peter Kenyon and Roman Abramovich, 'ambition' has become the Chelsea buzzword. Redgrave has enjoyed the back-to-back Premiership titles, but it's not quite a case of 'no one likes us, we don't care'. "Sometimes it is frustrating because Mourinho can take it a little bit too far," he says, ruefully. "I admire him a lot and his comments are a tactical ploy to take media attention away from his players, but he has to be careful."

Redgrave's appreciation of Mourinho's mental focus, however, is total. "It's crucial in any sport but harder in football with so many games, whereas I used to train for just six races a year."

Redgrave says a third Premier League win is more important than the Champions League and he's worried Manchester United may sustain their early form.

He also wonders what the future would hold "if something happened to Abramovich". If it did, he could always go back to being a not very good keeper supporting a not very good team...

Interview: Ben Lyttleton. Portrait: Alan Walter. From the February 2007 issue of FourFourTwo.