Gianfranco Zola – “It was a love story between us and him, the fans and him.”

Of course, prices have gone through the roof in the intervening time and yes, he was 30 years-old when the deal went through but just 15 years ago, when Chelsea paid the princely sum of £4.5million to Serie A club Parma, and in return secured the services of Gianfranco Zola, it must count as one of the best pieces of business in the history of the West London club.

At the time, Chelsea hadn’t won a major trophy since the Cup Winners Cup 22 years previously and had spent much of the intervening time bobbing up and down the top tier of English football. With the diminutive Sardinian in the team though things were about to change. Two FA Cups, a League Cup, plus another Cup Winners Cup and a UEFA Super Cup, required the trophy cabinet keys to be located again as silverware and medals were suddenly regular visitors to Stamford Bridge. For all that relative success however, Zola brought so much more to the party. As well as a skill set that would thrill and entertain with magical dancing feet he was also a genuinely nice bloke, respected almost as much for his attitude and demeanour, as for his ebullient talent. It’s difficult to pin down the qualities that define an icon, but all of the above would be in there somewhere.

Gianfranco Zola was no young protégé, who found success at an early age. At 23, he was still plying a low-key career in the third tier of Italian football in Sardinia. It was then though that the then Napoli General Manager, Luciano Moggi, decided to take a punt on the player and took him to the Partenopei where he had the benefits of a finishing school experience under the incomparable Diego Maradona, who eventually anointed the newcomer as his natural successor. It was a golden era for Napoli and Zola was a growing factor in the team that won the Scudetto and Italian Super Cup in 1990 and he ‘assisted’ for more goals than any other player in the 1992-93 season.

A roller-coaster financial situation in Naples however eventually led to an offloading of players to clear debts and Zola moved to Parma. Success followed, with a UEFA Cup triumph in 1995. In 1998 however, Carlo Ancelotti was appointed manager and it spelt the beginning of the end of Zola’s time with the club. The new manager was a firm adherent to 4-4-2, and with Hernán Crespo and Enrico Chiesa being the manger’s preferred pairing, Zola was initially shunted out to a wide left midfield role, and then often to the bench, despite having scored 47 goals in slightly fewer than a century of appearances. It was time to either leave or see a career drift away. Unsurprisingly, Zola chose the former.

Although pre-Abramovich, it was a time of revolution at Chelsea. Glenn Hoddle had been seduced away by the FA, and Ken Bates turned to Ruud Gullit to step up. In the previous half-dozen seasons, Chelsea had finished 11th on four occasions and 14th on the other two. Appointing the Dutchman was a clear gamble. He was just the third man from outside of the UK to take charge of a top flight English club – the success or otherwise of the previous two examples, Jozef Venglos at Aston Villa and Ossie Ardiles at Tottenham, hardly held out the promise of great things to come – but his knowledge of the European game, and particularly Serie A, promised a potential input of quality players. Gianluca Vialli arrived, as did Roberto di Matteo for a club record fee, and in November 1996, so did Gianfranco Zola. There had been rumours of talks with both Manchester United and Spurs, but Gullit’s Italian links swung the deal in Chelsea’s favour. The club and its fans would be eternally grateful for that.

In fairly dismissive tones, The Independent reported that, “It has transpired that Parma have been keen to unload Zola after he fell out with their coach, Carlo Ancelotti, and the Italian club will doubtless be very happy with such a fee for a 30-year-old.” They may well have been, but not as enraptured as the Chelsea fans would be in the following few years.

The season was already 13 games old when Zola made his debut, but his startling success can be marked the fact that he ended the term a single strike behind the club’s top scorer and was awarded the FWA Footballer of the Year award. It was the first time any Chelsea player had received the honour. Gianfranco Zola would change a number of other things in the coming seasons.

Within the club itself, it first appeared to the existing squad members – save for the Italians already in residence there – that this was merely some faded star looking for a last big payday. The assumption lasted until the first time that his team-mates saw him in training.

Scott Minto, who coined the phrase used as the title of this piece, spoke for many. “It wasn’t until he arrived and you saw him on the training pitch that you suddenly realised you were in the presence of something special. His first touch, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Michael Duberry, a young defender at the time, was equally impressed. “We heard we were getting this Italian guy,” he related. “All we knew was that he used to train with Maradona and take free-kicks with him. Spenny (John Spencer) was so popular that we were like, ‘We don’t need him as Spenny’s playing so well’. Then we had the first training session. Wow!”

Speaking recently with Sky Sports, Duberry goes on to illustrate how Zola’s ability also supercharged those around him. “We used to do one-on-ones in training,” he explained. “My attitude was that I always wanted to be the one to go against him. If I could stay on my feet and defend him with all his little chops, the twists and the turns, then I knew I didn’t have to worry about who I came up against on the Saturday. Nothing would be as tough as that.”

It wasn’t only his quality that so impressed the other players, it was also his humility and dedication. Staying late after training to practise free-kicks and a willingness to work with others, quickly showed that there was no ‘superstar’ attitude with Zola. Getting his break in the game relatively late in life had taught him to appreciate the things he had, and he worked hard to maintain them – and also helped others to do the same. Duberry again. “For me, it wasn’t how he was as a footballer it was how he was as a person. Ruud Gullit used to make the young English players go out before training and do a skills circuit. We saw it as a bit of a punishment. That’s how it was seen. Frank Leboeuf didn’t do it. A lot of them didn’t do it. But Gianfranco then came out with us. It just made us feel like it wasn’t a punishment anymore. It was something that would benefit us. It was such a great gesture. Rather than sitting in the dressing room saying, ‘Let them go out and do it’, he took the time to help the young lads. Those gestures were massive and what made him so great. I remember them to this day and I’m 41 now.”

Scott Minto also speaking to Sky Sports, clearly agreed. “He was just a fantastic guy. One of the reasons why I rate him as the best I played with was not just because of his ability but because he was such a team player. He would always try to help you if you stayed after training to do free-kicks with him. He’d tell you how he did it so you’d go off and work at it. Whether it was Christmas parties or other things arranged by the lads, he’d always go. He wouldn’t drink and he’d go home early but he’d stay for the meal and he’d be there. I won’t mention other names, but I’ve been at places where the stars don’t go. He realised what team spirit was about, and played his part, but was the consummate professional as well.” The affection beams through.

The effects were clear on the pitch as well. The goals he scored in that first season made a difference of nine additional points. It meant that Chelsea finished in sixth position. Their first top-half placing for over six years. All that was needed now was some silverware. It was on the way. FA Cup victory in in 1997 with a 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough showed that the club was now moving forwards. The feat would be repeated against Aston Villa in the last Wembley cup final before the old stadium was demolished. The League Cup was added the following year, now under the management of Vialli, after Gullit had fallen foul of Bates, and in May of 1998, Zola provided probably the iconic performance of his time with the Blues.

Chelsea had played their way, not without some trouble into the final of the Cup Winners Cup against VfB Stuttgart, to be played in Stockholm. The run had looked compromised at a number of stages, and the pre-Zola Chelsea may well have yielded, but with their Mercurial striker, there was always hope. The semi-final against Vicenza is a good example. A goal down from the first leg in Italy, things looked grim when Pasquale Luiso grabbed an away goal at Stamford Bridge to put the Italians in total control, but prompted by the little Italian, Chelsea fought back and it was Zola himself with an exceptional one-two with Vialli, finished by a bullet header that squared things, before Hughes hit the winner.

Sadly for Zola, a groin injury sustained against Liverpool cast doubt on his chances of playing in the final. Vialli, not unreasonably opted to play himself and Tore Andre Flo, with Zola on the bench despite his apparent recovery and desire to play. Whilst others may have sulked though, the ever-professional Zola not only accepted the decision but was ready when the call came. There were less than 20 minutes to play, with the game still goalless when he was sent on. Within 30 seconds of entering the field of play, he seized onto a through ball from Wise and fired ferociously on the half-volley past a helpless Franz Wohlfahrt.

Each Chelsea fan will have a golden memory of Zola, but for many, the outrageous joy and explosion of passion as the little Italian celebrated in front of the Blues fans will do nicely for me, thank you very much. And there’s the love affair with the fans encapsulated. There are more moments that other Chelsea fans may cherish with equal warmth. The back-heal flick goal against Norwich. The dribble in his last season when cornered by Liverpool defenders, weaving one way then the other, and putting Jamie Carragher on his backside twice in a couple of seconds and beating four men on a sixpence. The stream of delicious free-kicks. The lobbed goal against City when donned in the all black changed strip. There are so many more.

There’s one final thing to add about Gianfranco Zola, that says as much about the man, as it does about the player. With his contract coming to a close, Zola agreed a deal to return to Sardinia and play for Cagliari. Chelsea had insufficient funds to offer a new deal. Then, out of the blue, and into the Blues, rode Roman Abramovich. Keen to keep the fan’s favourite at the club, he offered Zola a mega-deal. One certainly not befitting a 36-year-old player. Zola was however a man of honour and despite siren calls to stay in West London for one last hurrah, he kept his word. Others may have found a way around things. Not Zola. Not only an amazing player, but an honourable and thoroughly decent bloke as well. And that’s what makes an icon.

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘Relive series on the ‘Open Veins of Football’ website).

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