1998 to 2000
Juventus forward Gianluca Vialli had been in talks about moving to Chelsea as Gullit was being appointed manager, and was in discussions of a different kind two weeks before the Dutchman’s reign ended abruptly 22 months later.
Charming, self-effacing and determined, with at first an idiosyncratic grasp of English, the European Cup-winner, from a wealthy background, had frequently been sidelined under Gullit – Dennis Wise had once revealed a vest to the bench saying ‘Cheer up Luca, we love you.’ When he took the reins at Stamford Bridge a few days before the second leg of the League Cup semi-final at home to Arsenal, the Italian selected himself and toasted the occasion with pre-match champagne.
The touch of class that Gullit brought to the Bridge would be further extended under Vialli, who also had the happy knack of winning important matches. Arsenal were overcome and the Blues won the League Cup final, swiftly followed by the Cup Winners’ Cup, Gianfranco Zola scoring the winner against Stuttgart in Stockholm. When victory over Real Madrid added the UEFA Super Cup to make a unique 1998 treble, Vialli had eclipsed his illustrious predecessor.
With Marcel Desailly and Albert Ferrer added to the squad, Vialli was also able to mount a serious title challenge. Three successive draws in April finally put an end to that, and the Blues also took defence of the European title as far as Real Mallorca in the semi-finals.
Chelsea’s habit of gambling on inexperienced managers would again bring mixed blessings. In that 1998/99 season his side lost just three league games and as he learned his trade Vialli tended towards a more cautious approach. Many felt the Londoners ought to end the long wait for a title the following season, especially with the acquisition of the usually prolific £10m striker Chris Sutton and much-heralded winger Gabriele Ambrosetti. Neither proved the hoped-for success and the 5-0 hammering of Manchester United, plus a dour triumph over Aston Villa in the 2000 FA Cup final, were highlights in an underwhelming domestic season.
It was Europe, and our first ever Champions League season, from which the enduring memories of 1999/00 came – especially a 1-1 draw against AC Milan in the San Siro, a 5-0 thrashing in ‘Hell’ of Galatasaray, and a home quarter-final win over Barcelona before succumbing in the second leg in Camp Nou.
The board could hardly be accused of failing to back their manager that following summer, with Mario Stanic, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Carlo Cudicini and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink among the new arrivals. The 2000/01 campaign began, though, with not all well between Vialli and existing players; results quickly dipped and on 12 September Vialli was sacked. Once the chants lamenting his departure at the Bridge had stopped, perhaps the dapper Italian’s most lasting legacy was to hand John Terry a debut. As eloquent as ever – and less stressed – Vialli now works for Sky Italia TV as an analyst.