A Robert Fleck World
Inside Blue Tue 16 Jan 2018
With the Blues welcoming Norwich City to west London this week, we look back at the story of a striker who left the Canaries to sign for Chelsea in a club-record transfer.
In the summer of 1992, English football was about to embark upon the Premier League era. Back then, we were a middling side under the tutelage of manager Ian Porterfield and a big statement was made on the eve of the new campaign when we spent £2.1m on Robert Fleck, smashing our transfer record by £500,000.
He'd been a hit at Rangers, winning silverware in Scotland; represented his country at the 1990 World Cup; scored a hatful of goals for Norwich City, becoming the club's fourth-highest scorer of all time. Perhaps most notably, as far as Blues fans were concerned, he'd netted an absolute belter in front of the Shed in a 3-0 win for the Canaries.
'It was a special moment to score at the Shed End and for the fans to stand and applaud me,' recalled the 52-year-old in an interview with Chelsea magazine a few years back. 'I thought, “Wow, what a pleasure and a privilege this is!” They were proper football fans who recognised a good goal and applauded it, even if it was against them. That sticks in my memory.'
Little did we know that would prove to be the last league goal he would score at Stamford Bridge. He struck only four times in 48 appearances for the Blues during his three-year stint in west London – one in the League Cup, which was at the Bridge against Walsall, and three in the Premier League.
'I can honestly say [the club-record fee] wasn't any sort of burden,' he said of his struggles in front of goal. 'It didn't bother me at all because all I wanted to do was play football for a team that I really wanted to play for. Because it was quite a lot of money, it was something people talked about – but when you're on the pitch it's not something you think about, you just want to play the game.'
While the lack of goals is always the focus when it comes to Fleck's time at Chelsea, it should be noted that it was far from a huge issue when we were motoring in the first half of that maiden Premier League campaign.
We went into Christmas in fourth place and the strike partnership between Fleck and big Mick Harford was proving fruitful. While the latter hit the ground running on the goals front, the former was laying on plenty at a time when, unfortunately for him, assists weren't really registered in a game which had to become obsessed with statistics.
'Unfortunately the goals didn't come, but in my first six months I probably had more assists than Dennis Wise – and that says a lot because he was the assist king,' recalls Fleck.
After a dreadful run post-Christmas which cost Porterfield his job – becoming the first manager to be sacked in the Premier League era – Fleck would only play 15 more games for the club.
He recalls playing far more matches at Kingsmeadow – the current home of our Ladies side – which was where our reserve team used to play and though his time at Chelsea yielded only the four goals, he was immortalised by a terrace chant: “We all live in a Robert Fleck world,” sung to the tune of Yellow Submarine.
'It was a very good song,' he said, with genuine delight in his voice. 'It's just a pity the move didn't work out as well as I expected it would, but that's just life sometimes. But it's not a move I've ever regretted and if I had my time again I'd still do it.
'I think the fans always appreciated my hard work. That's always been my philosophy because I was never the greatest footballer, and I wasn't the greatest goalscorer, but as long as you give your all the supporters will respect you. That's all I did through my career – work hard and play hard.
'And Chelsea is a lovely club, everyone there was very friendly and always nice to me. When things weren't going well the fans were always behind me and supported me, so I can't complain about the bad times I had here.'
The days of Chelsea signing Norwich strikers for a club-record fee may have been consigned to a bygone era, but when the two sides meet on Wednesday night, Blues fans of a certain vintage can recall a time when we all lived in a Robert Fleck world.