LONDON — Before raising the Premier League trophy aloft, Chelsea's players first decided to lift something just as precious: striker Didier Drogba.
In an unusual, mid-game pause around 30 minutes into Sunday's season-ending match against Sunderland, which Chelsea won 3-1, Drogba was carried to the touchline in a planned flamboyant substitution.
Then in his final moments as a Chelsea player, the 37-year-old Ivorian removed his shirt and waved farewell to each corner of Stamford Bridge and removed the armband handed to him for the day by club captain John Terry.
"It was John's desire to give him the armband and for the players to bring him from the pitch was up to them, they like him a lot," Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said. "He was very good for the young players ... and he made a fantastic contribution for us this season."
Drogba was persuaded to return for one final season by Mourinho, two years after leaving Chelsea following his winning penalty kick in the 2012 Champions League final. This time it really seems to be the end at Chelsea for the former Africa player of the year.
"It's a difficult moment for me," Drogba said in an address to fans after clutching the Premier League trophy he also won three times during his first eight years at Chelsea.
"This one is really special because it's going to be the last one as a (Chelsea) player."
But Drogba, who played for Shanghai Shenhua and Galatasaray before returning to west London, does not want to hang up his boots yet.
"I want to play for at least one more season and in order to play more football I feel I need to go to another club," said Drogba, who contributed seven goals this season. "All the fans know my love for Chelsea and I hope to be back here in the future in another role."
There was no final goal for Drogba on Sunday, with his replacement, Diego Costa, instead quickly scoring from the penalty spot to cancel out Steven Fletcher's Sunderland opener.
Loic Remy then scored twice for the champions in the second half before the title party could begin — with Drogba returning to the field. Blue and white streamers descended from above as the trophy was handed over. It is the fourth league title in 11 seasons, but only the fifth in Chelsea's 110-year history
Mourinho delivered the 2005 and 2006 titles before spending 2007-2013 away from Chelsea.
"This team is at the beginning, they have won one (League) Cup and one Premier League, they have to win more to be better than that," the Portuguese said. "You can win something in a certain moment and that's it, or you can win on a regular basis, that's what makes the difference. Let's try to motivate them to do that."
Sunderland is now waiting to discover if Dick Advocaat wants to stay as manager or retire. The 67-year-old Dutchman was hired on a temporary deal two months ago and completed the task of keeping the northeast club in the Premier League.
"Wait and see," he said. "They offered me already two or three years. But I have to be honest to myself and to everybody what I will do for the future."