1996 - 1998
When superstar of the beautiful game Ruud Gullit first set foot in Stamford Bridge as a player in 1995 it had been like some dignitary gracing a far-flung outpost.
Less than a year later he would become football’s first democratically elected manager. Glenn Hoddle’s departure was confirmed before the final home match of the 1995/96 season and the newspapers suggested Ken Bates’s favoured successor was the recently departed Arsenal boss, George Graham. In response, entire stands at the Bridge chanted at length as to where the chairman might stick Graham, followed by chants for Gullit.
The people had spoken and Bates listened, ushering in yet another player-manager on the Fulham Road on 10 May 1996. Charismatic and insightful, demanding a flowing, attractive brand of the game, Gullit instantly charmed the media and supporters alike with his deftness of touch. When ‘superfan’ and club investor Matthew Harding died in a helicopter accident midway through the season, Gullit was articulate enough to use the tragedy as an inspiration to reach the FA Cup final and win it ‘for Matthew.’ He also had the vision to bring the best out of effervescent new signing, Gianfranco Zola.
After the Blues beat Middlesbrough 2-0 at Wembley in 1997 it felt bigger than simply the club’s first major success in 26 years. The supremely confident Gullit – the first overseas, not to mention first black manager to lift the trophy – represented the consigning of an old Chelsea to the past in many more ways.
Suddenly Chelsea were fashionable for the first time since the days of the ‘King’s Road swingers.’ As ever, Gullit had the words for it: ‘I get a lot of satisfaction,’ he said, ‘when I hear people behind me screaming their delight for this “sexy football”’ – a term he had initially coined when a TV pundit covering Euro ’96.
The magic was not to last. As a boss the Dutchman was inexperienced. He could be aloof, off-the-cuff and was not always concerned with the administrative details of his new role, nor the niceties of man-management.
Stories emerged in autumn 1997 of tension caused by Gullit’s disdain for the usual board/manager protocols. When performances and results dipped in January 1998, negotiations over a new contract that removed him from the players list became difficult. Infamously, there was a dispute over whether the salary figure was gross or ‘netto’.
Chelsea felt there was no way to accommodate Gullit’s needs and on 12 February 1998, with the Blues second in the league, he was sacked, instantly replaced by Gianluca Vialli – one of the ‘losers’ during the Dutchman’s winning regime.
Afterwards Gullit continued in management, albeit briefly at Newcastle, Feyenoord and LA Galaxy, before embarking on a successful TV career. He maintains the Chelsea years were ‘the only time I really had fun.’