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).
There were mitigating circumstances to be sure. Leeds were missing their inspirational skipper Billy Bremner and the dancing feet of Eddie Gray; both injured, and Allan Clarke turned out despite medical advice to the contrary, carrying a feverish temperature. Leeds wanted the FA Cup though. The defeat to Chelsea in a physically bruising battle the previous May had been hard to take, and the fourth-round draw against lowly Colchester seemed like a ‘gimme’ passage. It wasn’t to be though and the team of veterans, wannabes and never-going-to-bes defied the odds and brought 16,000 fans crammed into Layer road to their feet in a tumultuous tie. Continue reading →
If the sobriquet of ‘Dolly and Daisy’ sounds like a double act from an Old Time Musical Hall playbill, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that, thanks to their manager, it was in fact the nom de guerre of the most successful central defensive pairings of the early Premier League years. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were the pair in question, and they would write their names large into the history of the most successful football club of the time. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance that the pairing had on the development of Manchester United’s domestic dominance, when Sir Alex Ferguson built his dynasty of success. Suffice to say however, that the unassuming pair at the heart of the Old Trafford backline was the rock upon which the Scot relied over a seven-year partnership jammed full with trophies. Continue reading →
“If you can meet with triumph and disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same.” Arsenal’s testing four days in May 1980.
Using that particular quote from Kipling is a well-trodden path and, to illustrate its relevance, I’ll lean a little on another master of words, Oscar Wilde, whilst at the same time apologising for mangling his famous couplet, ‘to lose one cup final may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’ Across four testing days in May 1980 however, that’s precisely what happened to Arsenal. Continue reading →
Let’s be honest, we all love a bit of giant-killing in the FA Cup, don’t we? That is, of course, so long as it isn’t our particular team on the wrong end of David’s slingshot. Over the years, there have been many famous – or should that be infamous – occasions when the ‘mighty’ have been cut down to size by a team who, on any other day, wouldn’t be on the same pitch as their more illustrious opponents. Who can forget Ronnie Radford’s goal for Hereford United against Newcastle, the outside left wheeling away in celebration, both arms aloft. What about Bobby Crawford rolling back the years to down Don Revie’s Leeds United for Colchester. Even last year, the then non-league side Lincoln City visited Premier League Burnley and came away with a famous victory. All these, plus many more you can probably conjure up from memory, are worthy of a place in the pantheon of momentus cup upsets, but arguably, the greatest ‘turn up for the books’ happened way back in 1933, on a cold January afternoon in the industrial heart of the Black Country in what is now the West Midlands. Continue reading →
After the murder of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has Mark Antony’s deliver a soliloquy wherein he selects this particular phrase to enflame the wrath of the masses against the assassins of the dead Emperor and implore them to deliver dread vengeance, even invoking the spirit of the departed Caesar to rise up from the dead and echo his call.
It’s doubtful whether either Don Reive or Dave Sexton dipped into their ‘Complete Works of Shakespeare’ in search of such emotive prose to inspire their teams ahead of the 1970 FA Cup Final between Leeds United and Chelsea, but given the events in the game that followed and the subsequent replay at Old Trafford some 18 days later, they may well have done so. Continue reading →
Nobody likes losing and, as with banging your head against a brick wall, the best thing you can say about it, is that it’s nice when it stops. Like some love-lorn teenage boy returning yet again from the bright lights of the coolest disco in town without having landed a dance with the best-looking girls, Arsene Wenger now appears to be lowering his sights from the Champions League, to the Europa League, the school disco of European club football. Perhaps Arsenal could be belle of the ball there. Some may call it a realistic assessment, Arsenal fans may well have a different description for it. Continue reading →
That was then. Remember the moment? All those years ago. John Motson, he of the sheepskin coat, collar turned up against the chill, screaming “Ronnie Radford” as the Hereford United left winger peeled away, both arms aloft after firing in an improbable 30 yard equaliser on a mud-bath of an Edgar Road pitch against Newcastle United in the FA Cup. Radford was quickly engulfed in a fan invasion of the pitch, but with mud-splattered shirt, he became a ‘forever hero’ of almost every Hereford fan. It’s one of those iconic moments, and in the very definition of a cup shock result, Ricky George later pivoted to turn in the winner and vanquish the Geordies, Malcolm McDonald – who reportedly had forecasted a double hat-trick for himself – and all. But that was then. This is now. Continue reading →