2000 - 2004
Most Chelsea supporters hadn't heard of Claudio Ranieri when he was made head coach in September 2000. He spoke no English and replaced the hugely popular Gianluca Vialli. The FA Cup and then the Charity Shield had been won at the tail end of Vialli’s reign but league form was poor, as was dressing room spirit.
A very successful side was ageing and the newly appointed Italian who had knockout cup success at Fiorentina and Valencia on his CV, came with a reputation for building teams. That would be further required when in his second game he lost Roberto Di Matteo to a career-ending injury.
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 big wins over Liverpool and Tottenham, but away the results were poor.
His two signings, Slavisa Jokanovic and Jesper Gronkjaer, didn't settle quickly but there were promotions for Carlo Cudicini, John Terry and Sam Dalla Bona to regular first team activity and after victory at Manchester City in the last game of the 2000/01 earned UEFA Cup qualification, old heroes Dennis Wise, Gustavo Poyet and Frank Leboeuf were sold.
For his second season Ranieri was handed significant funds to rebuild. In came three midfielders: Frank Lampard, Emmanuel Petit and Boudewijn Zenden, plus defender William Gallas.
Reconstruction of Stamford Bridge was completed too with the opening of the West Stand but for the second year running European elimination was to a minnow – Hapoel Tel-Aviv.
The pressure on Ranieri and the club was massive but with successive good wins at testing grounds – Elland Road and Old Trafford – something clicked.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen became a wonderful strike partnership and Chelsea went on a great run although in a League Cup semi-final we lost to Tottenham for the first time in almost 30 games. Revenge came when Spurs were beaten 4-0 in the FA Cup and 4-0 again in the league and although the Premiership ended with a sixth-place finish for the second season running, we made the FA Cup final in Cardiff – ultimately losing to Arsenal despite having the better of long periods of the game.
The following summer there was no more money for investment in the team but the lack of tinkering with the squad worked. Gianfranco Zola, aged 36, produced some of the best football of his career and Lampard and Gallas developed immensely. For the first time fans started chanting Ranieri's name but there was another poor exit from Europe at the hands of Viking Stavanger, and it needed a draw on the last day of the season to finish fourth and pip Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League. On a special Stamford Bridge afternoon the Blues beat the Reds to initially steady the finances but also pave the way for the arrival of Roman Abramovich.
Chelsea spent over £100m on new players and by Christmas 2003 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. We had won our group stage of the Champions League, a magnificent 4-0 win at Lazio the highlight.
Poor winter form dropped us out of the running for the league and there was an FA Cup exit to Arsenal for the fourth time in Ranieri's reign, but the Gunners were memorably overcome at Highbury in a Champions League quarter-final on the manager’s most glorious night at Chelsea, his name now regularly chanted.
In the semi-final at Monaco came his least auspicious evening, with second-half tinkering not working well, but second in the Premiership was our highest league finish for 49 years.
Ranieri was replaced with Jose Mourinho as a new Chelsea sought silverware but the outgoing manager can point to the form of Lampard and Terry in his final season as proof of his ability to regenerate teams. A very solid base was there for the success that followed.