Anyone knowingly comparing himself to the legendary Brazilian may initially be perceived as being somewhat ambitious in his self-appraisal. Despite the title of this article being borrowed from the player’s autobiography however, such an assessment of Ray Parlour would be wide of the mark. Not adverse to a slice of self-deprecation, Parlour certainly doesn’t rate his abilities as a footballer as comparable to Pelé. It’s a nom de guerre spoken with tongue firmly in cheek, allegedly gifted to him by Dutch former tam-mate Marc Overmars. Continue reading →
Interviewed by ‘FourFourTwo’ in May 2019, Rafael van der Vaart remarked that, “I shouldn’t have left Tottenham, but AVB wasn’t the right coach for me.” Despite the recent success and progress now being enjoyed under Mauricio Pochettino, it’s a sentiment that so many Spurs fans would sympathise with, as when van der Vaart was at Spurs, Dutch magic lived at White Hart Lane.A Maverick player is often idolised by fans and that was certainly the case with van der Vaart at Tottenham. Continue reading →
On 23 January 1939, Gustav Hartman knocked on the door of his friend’s flat in Vienna. By almost any definition, at the time, Vienna was a city under occupation. Hitler’s Wehrmacht had swept across the border in March of the previous year in what was portrayed as the Anschluss. Previously independent Austria was swallowed up and redefined as merely part of the greater Germany. The situation in Vienna was anything but normal therefore, and for Hartman standing outside the flat, waiting for someone to respond to his insistent demands for attention, things were about to become even more sinister. Continue reading →
In 1981, at the age of 33, Ray Clemence decided to leave Liverpool. He had been with the club since 24 June 1967, when Bill Shankly paid a reported £18,000 to Scunthorpe United to take the goalkeeper to Anfield. Across the next 14 years or so, Clemence would accumulate enough silverware to fill the most ostentatious of trophy cabinets. Five League Championships, FA Cup and League Cup triumphs and five Charity Shields added up to a sizeable domestic haul, but there was also substantial success in Europe. No less than three European Cups came his way, along with two UEFA Cups and a UEFA Super Cup. With that lot bringing towards 20 medals, it’s a good job that Clemence had pretty safe hands if he was ever required to hold them all at the same time. Continue reading →
The fortunes of FC Barcelona and St Mirren Football Club may seem a million miles apart. Well, geographically, the distance between Paisley and the Catalan capital is a tad more than 1,300 miles actually, but in footballing metaphorical terms, the gap is much wider. Strange as it may seem to some however, there are more than a few links tying the two clubs together. It’s one of those ‘strange but true’ scenarios that only football seems capable of throwing up, involving bidding for a Brazilian, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and an invitation to a new home. Continue reading →
In May 1996, Barcelona were a club in turmoil. Having experienced the delirious heights of success with Johann Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ delivering no less than eleven trophies in eight seasons, including the Holy Grail of the European Cup, the relationship between Catalan club and revered Dutchman had been torn asunder. Any divorce between an employer and the emotional, impulsive, and often combustive Cruyff would always be messy, but this split would make ‘Kramer versus Kramer’ look tame in comparison. Continue reading →
After a period partly obscured from the mainstream publicity of the game, Fernando Hierro returned to the football world’s attention when he stepped into the breach to take over control of Spain’s national team at the 2018 World Cup. It was a crisis time for the squad after Julen Lopetegui had been dismissed as coach of El Roja just two days ahead of the tournament opening. The coach had been summarily removed from his post when it became public knowledge that he intended to take the managerial chair at Real Madrid after Spain’s interest in the World Cup came to an end.
As Sporting Director of the Spanish Football Federation, and a past player of almost regal standing, Hierro was the obvious choice to come to his country’s aid. When asked, he stepped up and, despite the relative failure of Spain’s efforts in the tournament – going out in the Round of Sixteen – Hierro’s noble admission of accepting full responsibility was typical of the man, and ensured that very little of the opprobrium was visited on the former Spain and Real Madrid skipper.
Hierro’s experiences at the tournament have therefore left his reputation largely untarnished in Spain, and there’s a corner of the Greater Manchester area of Lancashire where a similar respect for the former star applies. It may sound unlikely to any unfamiliar with the history of the times, but a player who graced La Liga, World and European Championships is also hailed a hero in Bolton.
After spending a couple of years at Real Valladolid, Hie Continue reading →
South America has long been a cradle for many of the world’s most celebrated footballers. Names such as Pelé, Maradona, Messi and Di Stéfano trip from the tongue, and there are so many others who would comfortably fit alongside such exalted company. It is however probably true to say that the fame such luminaries of the game have enjoyed was made possible by either competing in World Cup tournaments, joining top European clubs, or both. Would any of those stellar names be so well-known without those circumstances being in place?
If, instead, let’s say for example an outstanding forward was born in one of the less internationally successful South American countries, and hence was denied an opportunity to play in the global extravaganza of a World Cup tournament, or was denied the chance to cross the globe and earn the money available and fame at one of Europe’s premier clubs, would that make him a lesser player, or merely a lesser-known one? Continue reading →
There’ll be fearsome arguments about who is the best ‘foreign’ import to British football. Some will argue for Cantona or Schmeichel at Manchester United, Henry or Bergkamp at Arsenal. Others will tout for their particular favourites. Chelsea fans would perhaps posit Drogba. What may be less contentious though is the most likeable of imports to the British game – or perhaps the least disliked anyway. Is there much argument that such accolade should fall to Gianfranco Zola? In the nineties, the little Sardinian was exceptional at three clubs, covering the decade; two in Italy, Napoli and Parma, and then when donned in Chelsea blue at Stamford Bridge, he charmed so many fans of all clubs with incandescent magic in his boots and an infectious smile on his face.
Stardom came late to Zola. At 23 years of age, he was still playing third tier football in his native Sardinia, when Lucciano Moggi took him to Napoli. If taking a gamble on an unknown player that had seemingly slipped through the net of so many other clubs seemed strange to many, the astute Moggi would reap huge dividends on the move. At the time, the Partenopei were enjoying a golden period at the San Paolo, with the incomparable Diego Maradona in his pomp and sweeping all before him, aided and abetted by the razor-sharp finishing of Brazilian striker Careca. For a player plunged into the torrid world of Serie A from the more sedate backwaters of Sardinian domestic football, it was a finishing school par excellence, and one that benefitted Zola immensely. He would go on to be the anointed successor to the Argentine magician and the club would win the Scudetto and Italian Super Cup in his time there. In his final season with the club, the impish Zola would accumulate more assists than any other player in the league.
In four seasons with Napoli, he would increase both the number of games played, and amount of goals scored in each succeeding term. Financial strife hit the club however, and Zola was one of the more marketable assets available to bring in much needed money. Parma paid some ₤13 million for him and, after scoring 32 goals in slightly more than a century of appearances, he moved to the Crociati.
At the time, Parma were riding the crest of a sponsorship wave that would, later, come crashing down around them. When Zola joined in 1993 however, success was still the order of the day, and under the charge of Nevio Scala, a UEFA Cup triumph was secured in 1995. The following year however saw the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti, and the end of Zola’s time in Parma would quickly follow. Wedded to a rigid team structure of 4-4-2, and convinced of the virtue of playing Hernán Crespo and Enrico Chiesa at the spearhead of his team, Ancelotti’s decision pushed Zola out to a wide midfield position that hardly suited his abilities. After two seasons under Scala when he scored 22 goals in 51 games, and then followed it up with 28 in the same number of appearances, being shunted out to the flanks – and even the bench on occasions – inevitably blunted Zola’s striking sharpness. In the 1995-96 season he would net a dozen times in 36 games and in the following term, things deteriorated even more. He would score twice in 12 games. Zola had a choice. At 30 years of age, he could see out his time in Italy and watch his career dwindle into anonymity, or he could he could look for a new club. He chose the latter.
In West London, Glenn Hoddle had moved on to the England hot seat, and Ken Bates had installed Ruud Gullit in his place. Having played in Serie A, the Dutchman had significant contacts in Italy, and used them to persuade Zola to come to England. A £4.5million cheque secured his services. At the time, many thought it a foolhardy gamble to pay out for a player already arguably past his best and into the latter years of his career. They would be proved to be so very wrong. This was still the time when nobody at Stamford Bridge had heard of Roman Abramovich, and the club hadn’t secured a trophy for more than two decades. The arrival of the little Italian would change all that though. An FWA award of Footballer of the Year in his first term in England speaks of the impact he had on the club – and the game in general. Not only as an outstanding player, but apparently a thoroughly nice bloke as well.
Mention the name of Zola to any Chelsea fan and a misty-eyed glance into the middle distance will be accompanied by a gentle sigh of reflective appreciation. Not only did he bring success to the club, but he did so with a smiling countenance and a professionalism that would set new standards. A brace of FA Cup victories, a European triumph in the Cup Winners Cup when a half-fit Zola came off the bench to win the game with a sumptuous strike, and a UEFA Super Cup required space to be found in a Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet more accustomed to the acquisition of dust rather than silverware.
There were goals, of course, but there was magic too. Eighty strikes for a team that was never really threatening the major powers of the game is success enough, but for so many fans, it wasn’t the number of strikes that made Gianfranco Zola such an icon of the time, it was his ebullience and sheer entertainment value. Dancing feet, and the ability to beat the same player three times in a telephone kiosk were the entrancing memories that he brought, and when he scored goals, so many were gems that still warm the hearts of fans inclined to reminisce wearing blue-tinted spectacles.
Ask Chelsea fans to recount their favourite moment of Zola magic and you may get a variety of answers, such was the stardust sprinkled on his play in so many games. The thumping strike that won Chelsea’s first European trophy for more than 25 years. The back-heal flick from a corner that bamboozled Norwich. Any number of poetically converted free-kicks curled past befuddled goalkeepers. The time that he was hemmed in by the corner flag by Liverpool defenders, but danced away from them, putting Jamie Carragher on his backside twice in quick succession. All were moments were to savour.
A somewhat spiteful fate conspired that the arrival of Abramovich coincided with the departure of Zola. A club in financial trouble couldn’t afford the offer of a new contract, and Zola agreed to return to Sardinia and Cagliari. Legend has it that Abramovich offered a hatful of money for the 36-year-old to stay with the club, but Zola, ever the honourable man, had given his word to Cagliari and wouldn’t renege in his vow. Hardly anyone would have expected anything different from Zola. He would arrive there and see them to promotion in his first term – of course, he would. It was just one more piece of magic from the incomparable Gianfranco Zola. Icon of the nineties.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Names of the Nineties’ series on These Football Times website).
Whilst some may contend that it isn’t true of a particular team, it’s one of those enduring truisms that all teams, especially the more successful ones of recent times, that each had at least one player of this type. He’s the player that your own fans take to their hearts, but supporters of other clubs look upon with a disdain bordering on contempt. You love him for his commitment. Others loathe him for a perceived overstated ability and an indulgence in the dark arts of football’s muck and nettles. They’re the players you love to hate, but also the guys you’d want next to you in the mythical trenches so often referenced in such evaluations of worth. Manchester United had Roy Keane. Arsenal had Patrick Viera. Chelsea had Dennis Wise. Continue reading →