It’s often joked that Chelsea don’t have any pre-Roman Abramovich history. That’s obviously not true, but there’s no denying that there were some tough times at Stamford Bridge before the Russian’s arrival in 2003.
The 1970s saw Chelsea plummet down the football league and financial struggles even saw the Blues face being forced to disband. The 80s and early 90s were all about just sorting things out, but Chelsea began thriving after Ruud Gullit took over as player-manager in 1996.
Gullit looked to the continent to bring in the likes of Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo and Frank Leboeuf, but the real turning point was the £4.5m signing of a diminutive Italian by the name of Gianfranco Zola in November 1996.
Seen as one of the Serie A’s top talents, Zola handed in a transfer request at Parma after none other than Carlo Ancelotti declined to use him in his preferred position, and Gullit made sure Chelsea did not pass up on such a bargain.
Then 30 years old, it was clear that Zola’s time at the Bridge wasn’t going to last forever, but with Chelsea looking to re-establish themselves as a genuine force in English football, any time with Zola was better than none.
Chelsea fans, and fans of English football as a whole, needed very little time to realise that the Blues had struck gold with this deal.
Switching between a striker and an attacking midfielder, Zola’s agility and dribbling made him nearly untouchable. He turned Stamford Bridge into his playground and there was absolutely nobody who could stop him.
Sir Alex Ferguson knew Zola as a “clever little so-and-so”, Claudio Ranieri described him as a “wizard” and Chelsea fans called him Magic Box as they watched Zola lead Chelsea to FA Cup glory – their first in 25 years – in his debut season.
What was even more incredible is that Zola was named as the Premier League Player of the Year, despite not actually starting the season in the division. To this day, nobody has ever repeated that feat.
He had made Chelsea a name to be feared by the end of the 1996/97 campaign and he continued his good work into 1997/98, leading his side to the League Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup and the Super Cup. Sure, they weren’t the most high-profile of trophy victories, but a treble is a treble – just ask José Mourinho.
Zola earned Chelsea their first appearance in the Champions League, steering the Blues all the way to the quarter-final and netting a stunning free kick against Barcelona, and he even added another FA Cup before 1999/00 was over.
Not only did Zola create fantastic memories of Chelsea as a unit, but his individual highlight reel is simply stunning.
You’ve got that Barcelona free kick, the Cup Winners’ Cup final goal with just his second touch, screamers against both Wimbledon and Liverpool, the free kick against Spurs, and who could forget his flick against Norwich? That’s worth of its own spot in the Blues’ Hall of Fame.
In 2003, shortly before his six-year spell at the Bridge came to an end, he was voted by fans as Chelsea’s greatest-ever player, and it was hard to argue with that at the time. The level of quality which he had brought to the club had never been seen before and has rarely been seen since.
Eden Hazard has a genuine claim to that title, while Frank Lampard, John Terry and Didier Drogba should all be in the conversation, but there’s no doubting Zola’s impact.
His number 25 shirt was unofficially retired after his departure, and that’s the least he deserved for making Chelsea winners again. Without Zola, the Blues wouldn’t have been in a position to impress Abramovich.
Chelsea owe their recent success to Abramovich’s investment, but Zola is the reason the Russian even knew who the club were, and the Blues will never forget that.
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