When Claudio Ranieri closed the door on his Chelsea era yesterday with the final agreement on his departure, he ended the most unpredictable period in Chelsea history.
Only Tommy Docherty's reign in the 1960s comes close, but the Doc never had Roman Abramovich replacing Ken Bates. Charles Pratt replacing Joe Mears was a non-event in comparison.
Most supporters hadn't heard of Claudio when he was made head coach in September 2000. He spoke no English and replaced the hugely popular Gianluca Vialli. The Charity Shield had just been bagged, but the first five League games had seen one win, one defeat, three draws and a disappointing dressing room spirit.
The very successful side was ageing, and this was supposed to be a final assault on the Championship. That never happened. Ranieri faced a series of problems.
His chosen staff could not speak English either: assistant coach Angelo Antenucci, fitness coach Roberto Sassi and goalkeeper coach Giorgio Pellizzaro. Only Sassi joined Ranieri in learning it sufficiently down the years to hold conversations.
In his second game he lost the services tragically of Roberto Di Matteo, and suffered unimpressive elimination from the UEFA Cup to St Gallen.
His 'Tinkerman' nickname was actually introduced by himself, telling the media that this is what he was called in Italy and Spain. Quickly, he made that his trademark. At home, often using a 3-4-3 formation, it worked quite well, with notable 3-0 wins over Liverpool and Tottenham, but away the results were poor.
His two signings, £1.7m Slavisa Jokanovic and £7.8m Jesper Grønkjær, didn't settle in the team quickly. Jokanovic's lack of pace annoyed the crowd although his passing was a major bonus. Grønkjær did well when he played but had injury problems.
There were promotions for Carlo Cudicini, John Terry and Sam Dalla Bona to regular first team activity, but it was hard to see where the squad was going. That became clear after victory at Manchester City in the last game of the season which finally clawed a second successive go at the UEFA Cup with a finish of sixth place. Old heroes Dennis Wise, Gustavo Poyet and Frank Lebœuf were sold.
For his second season Ranieri had a new team. In came three midfielders: £11m Frank Lampard, £7.5m Emmanuel Petit and £7.5m Boudewijn Zenden, plus £6.2m defender William Gallas.
It climaxed an incredible year of investment in the new team, and it didn't work immediately. There were problems developing off the field too. After the September 11th terrorism in the USA, four Chelsea players suffered headlines about their drinking activities. Then the team was drawn against Hapoel Tel-Aviv in the UEFA Cup. Six players didn't travel, Chelsea lost and went out in the home leg. For the second year running European elimination was to a minnow. The pressure on Ranieri and the club was massive.
Perhaps that is what pulled the squad together. Story after story appeared in the media, and when an away League Cup tie at Leeds was followed by an way Premiership game at Old Trafford it seemed the knives were drawn for a kill. Chelsea were only eighth in the table, and had been booed off after a home 0-0 draw with Blackburn.
But at Leeds Ranieri went for a strong team: Lampard and Le Saux wide in midfield, Dalla Bona and Jokanovic in the centre, Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen up front. Chelsea won 2-0, and then went to Manchester United with an unchanged team and won 3-0.
Something fell into place. Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen became a wonderful partnership and Chelsea went on a great run, winning seven games by four goals between December and March. But we also lost one by four in that spell, the Worthington Cup semi-final — and not just to anyone but to Tottenham, our first defeat by them in almost 30 games. Still no silverware.
Revenge was gained in a truly climactic week when they were beaten 4-0 in the FA Cup at White Hart Lane, 4-0 again in the League at Stamford Bridge and then Sunderland were dispatched 4-0 at the Bridge.
League results and performances, however, were not making a great impression on the Premiership, and for the second season running we were to finish sixth.
However, in the FA Cup it was different. A marvellous last minute winner at West Ham in a replay presaged the Spurs win, and after a professional victory over Fulham in the semi-final, Claudio took his team to his one English Final. Arsenal were waiting. It was Claudio's fifth game against them, his fifth without victory. Arsenal won 2-0.
But Arsenal were in the Champions League so Chelsea qualified for the UEFA Cup once more.
Before the FA Cup semi-final uncertainty had descended on the club. Managing director Colin Hutchinson, who had earmarked Ranieri as Vialli's successor, announced he was leaving at the end of the season, and Ranieri and his agent started talking about interest from Barcelona. Chairman Ken Bates responded by giving Ranieri a new five year contract announcing it was important to establish long-term plans.
The fear of losing the manager seemed to focus fans' minds on his work so far, and there appeared a shift in attitude towards him. He was finally making his influence felt.
Quickly, new plans were revealed. Trevor Birch, an expert in turning round failing companies, replaced Hutchinson and a determination to develop youngsters was made clear. Summer purchases were cancelled. We were broke. We'd spent both on the team and on Chelsea Village and had nothing concrete to show for it. Ranieri's reputation for regenerating teams was to be used to the extreme now — without cash!
Our only signing that summer was Quique De Lucas, a 'Bosman' from Espanyol loaned from Alavés. Jokanovic retired and Dalla Bona was allowed to leave.
The lack of tinkering with the squad worked. While Liverpool and Leeds fell away, Chelsea thrived. Gianfranco Zola, aged 36, unbelievably produced some of the best football of his career and a healthier Premiership season followed. Lampard, in his second
Chelsea campaign, added surging runs with the ball and good long passing to his box-to-box play, Gallas was outstanding, and by Christmas we were second.
For the first time fans started chanting Ranieri's name. It had taken almost three years.
But there was another poor exit from Europe at the hands of Viking Stavanger, and we came unstuck at Old Trafford in the League Cup.
A poor post-Christmas period left us fourth, but we stayed there for the remainder of the season, and on the last day beat Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League. It was a great moment, an emotional moment and a wonderful footballing moment.
The Champions League would save our precarious economic position. But there still needed to be change. Enter Roman Abramovich.
For the second time Ranieri's brief was changed. But again the pressure started. Chelsea spent over £100m. Was he the man for the job asked the media. Sven-Goran Eriksson was pictured at Ambramovich's house. Was he going to be the man for the job the media asked?
Once again, Ranieri's squad seemed to thrive on outside pressure. With a completely new team, the new season was launched.
By Christmas we were second, but out of the League Cup after a poor display at Aston Villa where tinkering had re-introduced the 3-4-3 formation for the first time that season. But, importantly, we had won our Group stage of the Champions League. A magnificent 4-0 win at Lazio was the highlight.
A poor December and January again left us out of the running for the Championship. FA Cup exit to Arsenal for the fourth time in Ranieri's reign, his 12th game against them without a win, left only the Champions League to battle for.
By this stage the pressure had increased even more. New chief executive Peter Kenyon had been pictured with Eriksson after suggesting that Chelsea fans would not be happy with another trophyless season following the investment of summer.
All that seemed to pull the team together yet again. League form improved, and then Arsenal were drawn in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. It would seem that defeat would spell the end for Ranieri. But Chelsea won over two legs, played some of the best football of his era, and provided him with his most glorious moment in charge.
Reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League meant an even better tournament than Vialli's team had managed. By now, Ranieri had become a cult figure to the fans, a loved manager whose name was regularly chanted.
The team reacted badly after the win over Arsenal and fell away in the League bit finished second with a record number of top flight points for us — 79. We were 11 behind Arsenal.
In the semi-final of the Champions League we lost to Monaco with some second-half tinkering in the away leg not working well, although the conduct of some players probably fired Monaco up as much as the opportunities opened up by Chelsea's tactical changes.
Second in the League was our highest finish for 49 years, our second highest ever. Four years without silverware was a disappointment after all the investment.
Ranieri can point to the form of Lampard and Terry in his final season as proof of his ability to regenerate teams. The new spine was there.