THE STORY OF CHELSEA
CHAPTER 7: The only place to be, every other Saturday
‘The arrival of Ruud Gullit has already caused Gullit-mania at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea have eight phone lines at the club office and they have been jammed with fans wanting season tickets for the last 48 hours. Chairman Ken Bates anticipates that three-quarters of next season’s games will be 27,000 sell-outs and already the club shop has been inundated with requests for new club shirts – with Gullit on the back.’
- Hammersmith & Shepherds Bush Gazette, 2 June 1995
In the early 1990s, football changed seismically before evolving into the modern sporting experience we would recognise in the 21st century. Structural reorganisation meant the formation of the Premier League as England’s new top flight and, across Europe, the Champions League launched to replace the former European Cup. That meant more teams and more games and, with some irony, clubs no longer needing to be league champions to feature.
The English game also witnessed the demolition of the old standing terraces and Victorian and Edwardian grandstands, making way for all-seated replacements and, in some cases, entirely new stadiums. The hooligan problem of the previous decades was diminishing significantly and crowd numbers were on the up, as was TV interest with more and more games broadcast live, bringing in game-changing revenue.
Football was becoming fashionable again yet Chelsea, so often at the forefront of trendy appeal and located in the swishest of locations, was not yet the place to be.
The spark was missing. The imagination was not fired. Our style of play was basic, our team lacked genuine stars, our stadium was being left behind by others, while success on the pitch was sporadic and silverware elusive. Yet that burning ambition that had blazed through our history remained, and as the game was changing and other clubs were growing stronger, we were determined not to be left behind.
Selected to begin a mini-revolution on the playing side was former England midfield star Glenn Hoddle, hired as player-manager. This seed of change had been sown when Hoddle, between clubs and injured, took the opportunity to get fit by training at Chelsea. He then prolonged his playing career by taking over at Swindon Town, leading them to promotion to the top flight. Such was the admiration for the passing style of football Hoddle instilled at the Wiltshire club, his appointment as the new man at the Chelsea helm in summer 1993 met with widespread excitement among the Blues support rather than disquiet over his Tottenham past.
As well as his football ideals, Hoddle brought an holistic approach to nutrition and preparation for games, gleaned while playing for Arsene Wenger’s Monaco. Team-building changes were made at Chelsea’s rudimentary training facility near Heathrow Airport and Hoddle raised standards and expectations. While there were struggles during the first season on the pitch as the players came to grips with his approach – ‘control the ball or the ball controls you’ – an exciting FA Cup run took the club to a first major final since the early 1970s.
Though that May 1994 Wembley showpiece was lost heavily to Man United, the appetite had been whetted, a level had been regained, and for the rest of the decade progress was made season upon season.
‘Keep the Blue Flag Flying High’ had been the song of that cup run and, crucially, we now flew the flag in Europe for the first time in a generation. Being FA Cup runners-up was enough to qualify for the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup with the revenue, status and exoticism that brought. Despite lacking experience of playing against overseas sides, and with a squad stretched to its limits by regulations restricting non-English players as well as injuries, the Blues reached the semi-finals.
Most memorably in that campaign a tie was won in Vienna with diminutive striker John Spencer scoring the crucial goal with an 80-yard run with the ball at his feet from the edge of his own penalty area.
Hoddle and his squad, strengthened cleverly, were overachieving but at boardroom level, a crucial decision was made to make a genuine push to join those regularly challenging for honours and filling stadiums.
Statement signings and Village life
Matthew Harding, a lifelong Chelsea fan as well as highly successful businessman, was now part of the picture, lending the club millions to kickstart the first phase of a long overdue redevelopment of Stamford Bridge and underwrite player purchases.
He had also become a director and in a meeting in May 1995, later dubbed ‘the Marriott Accord’ (after the Heathrow hotel that hosted it), Harding joined chairman Ken Bates, managing director Colin Hutchinson and Hoddle.
Ambition filled the room. All present shared a desire to ensure the momentum built over the previous two seasons was not lost and Chelsea could compete at the top in this brave new world of football.
Eye-catching, headline-grabbing and fan-exciting new signings were wanted with Ruud Gullit and Paul Gascoigne the targets. We were successful with Gullit, able to capture the Dutch master on a free transfer due to the ‘Bosman ruling’ change to transfer regulations. He was a statement signing that put Chelsea on every back page in Europe.
Gullit at one time had been considered the best player in the world and brought with him great stature and status. At his unveiling press conference it was announced that revered striker Mark Hughes would be signing from Manchester United too. Chelsea were genuinely going places. It had echoes of the star recruitments made between the wars.
In his third season in charge, the Blues were now equipped to play Hoddle’s way, crystalised further by another classy new signing, wing-back Dan Petrescu. The clever, versatile Romania World Cup star had even publicly stated his desire to play for ‘Glenn Hoddle and Chelsea’ – the club’s prestige was suddenly back.
The team were winning plenty of other admirers and again Chelsea was chiming with the times. It was the era of Britpop, Cool Britannia and a boom-town London, and the fashionable-again Blues seemed in step. In the battle of the bands between Blur and Oasis, Blur’s front man Damon Albarn could be found in the stands at the Bridge on matchdays, as could actor Phil Daniels. This was their ‘Parklife’ on a Saturday afternoon.
What could have been a major setback when Hoddle left to become boss of the England team in 1996 was seamlessly negotiated by Gullit accepting the player-manager role. It verged on appointment by democratic election, as during the last game of Hoddle’s reign the Stamford Bridge crowd made it abundantly clear they preferred the Dutchman to the other person touted in the media for the job, former Arsenal man George Graham. Graham was famed for his pragmatic and defensively style of play despite being an elegant attacker when a Chelsea player in the 1960s; the fans wished the club to keep sailing in the direction Hoddle had steered us.
Once Gullit was in position, his status helped recruit Serie A stars Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola, plus stylish French defender Frank Leboeuf. British players like Dennis Wise, Steve Clarke, Eddie Newton and Frank Sinclair were growing alongside them as a cosmopolitan Chelsea that would endure was forged. As captain, Wise was especially important in pulling the different cultures together for a unified tilt at honours, with everyone buying into the Chelsea spirit. For those who arrived from the goldfish bowl existence of the football star in other countries, London offered a relatively stress-free way of life.
The Euro ’96 tournament that had been held in England proved to be a colourful football pageant in which the home side captured the hearts of the nation before falling at the semi-final stage. It was another shot in the arm for football’s fashionability with comedian and Chelsea fan David Baddiel prominent as co-writer and co-singer of England’s ‘Three Lions’ anthem. His satirical Fantasy Football League TV programme and the new game it was loosely based on added to the sense of soccer being cool.
No team of that time deserved the cool accolade more than reinvigorated Chelsea, and our first home game of the 1996/97 season was won with a Di Matteo goal and iconic celebration to follow. All was set fair for the Blues, but there was a massive cloud on the horizon.
Director Harding, a key figure in Chelsea’s re-elevation, had been in the headlines along with chairman Ken Bates when they fell out badly over several matters. It even led to Harding being banned from the directors’ box with him watching games with his family from the North Stand instead. There was a reconciliation however, with Harding becoming vice-chairman, but then on 22 October 1996, after a League Cup defeat at lower division Bolton, there was a genuine rather than a mere sporting disaster.
While returning south from the game in his helicopter, Harding and four others lost their lives in a crash. Chelsea FC and the wider world that had come to know his stands-to-boardroom story were in a state of shock. The team paid the tribute he would have appreciated in the game that followed by defeating Tottenham at the Bridge, with the Spurs fans playing their part respectfully.
The video below was produced in 2016 to mark the 20th anniversary of Matthew Harding's passing...
With football life continuing, the just-signed Zola and established Hughes were forming an effective and entertaining partnership upfront, and although the developing team were looking more top-six challengers than genuine title-chasers, we embarked on an FA Cup run to remember.
There was an unforgettable turnaround in the fourth round. Despite Liverpool leading 2-0 at half-time, the Blues ran out 4-2 winners with Vialli scoring twice, a season highlight for the Italian who was no longer first choice in attack. Wimbledon, something of a nemesis previously, were brushed aside in the semi-final with Zola scoring one of the all-time great Chelsea goals. It set up a meeting with Middlesbrough in the final. Unlike three years earlier against Man United, Chelsea were the favourites and ready to win.
‘Blue Day’, one of the best Chelsea cup final songs, hit the charts. Sung by lifelong Chelsea devotee and Madness frontman Suggs, with its Britpop style and memorable opening line – ‘The only place to be every other Saturday, is walking down the Fulham Road’ – it remains a matchday favourite at Stamford Bridge.
The only place to be at 43 seconds past 3pm on Saturday 17 May 1997 was Wembley Stadium in north-west London. That was the moment a dipping Di Matteo shot, launched from outside the penalty area after a run from his own half, cannoned down off the Middlesbrough crossbar and into net.
Less a minute from the start, with what was then the quickest strike in an FA Cup final, the stylish Italian had given Chelsea the lead in the most stylish fashion, and much of the tension had eased. Victory was duly completed by a late goal from former youth player Eddie Newton and a long and painful 26-year wait for a major trophy was over. How our part of London and beyond partied that night.
To house the newly successful Chelsea team, a new Stamford Bridge had been taking shape.
At the start of the 1997/98 season, a new stand at the Shed End was opened, replacing the old home terrace. It was added to the earlier new stand at the north end, now named the Matthew Harding Stand in honour of the man who had done much to finance it.
A West Stand reconstruction would follow, completing a new closed-in stadium for the first time, in contrast to the old open bowl.
Significantly, and continuing the ambition shown when Stamford Bridge was first conceived and when the aborted 1970s reconstruction was begun, there was more to the development than met the eye.
With the stands closer to the pitch than ever before, there was greater space beyond their walls, and Bates was determined to make the whole Stamford Bridge site generate money throughout the week and all year round – not just on match days. Chelsea Village was conceived.
‘Ken Bates called a few of us into his office and showed us a model of his vision for Stamford Bridge, which would make Chelsea the biggest club in London,’ former player Tony Cascarino recalled in his autobiography Full Time. ‘We looked at each other and thought, “Yeah, all right Ken”.’
With the battle with the property developers won in December 1992, Chelsea were finally at liberty to develop our property on our terms, although the balance of priorities between Chelsea Football Club and Chelsea Village was one of the sources of friction between Bates and Harding.
There was a share float for Chelsea Village and finance raised via a Eurobond loan, and not only were Chelsea able to spend on stars in the transfer market, we constructed hotels, apartments, a health and fitness club, restaurants and bars, a visitor attraction and an underground car park, all within the boundaries of our 12-acre location on the Fulham Road.
The benefits to the atmosphere of the closed-in stadium were certainly felt on special nights against Arsenal and Italian side Vicenza as two more cup finals were reached, the League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup respectively.
The second leg of the first of those semi-finals against the Gunners was the debut for Vialli as Chelsea manager. A short and sharp decline in results and a contract dispute heralded the removal of Ruud Gulllit, a shock at the time and big international news, but the transition from one player/manager to the other proved relatively seamless.
Vialli victorious and the foreign legion
In the 1998 League Cup final at Wembley, Middlesbrough were again the opponents and the same as the previous season, the result was a 2-0 victory for the Blues. Di Matteo was again a goalscorer, with the opener coming from the head of Frank Sinclair.
Sinclair joined his friend and fellow homegrown player Eddie Newton as a cup final goalscorer, redemption for both players who had conceded penalties in the 1994 FA Cup final.
The 1997/98 trophy count was doubled against German side Stuttgart in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup, in front of a huge Chelsea following who had made the trip to Stockholm, vastly outnumbering the opposition fans. Starved of success for so long, Blues everywhere were gobbling up this golden feast.
One goal was enough to lift the second European trophy in our history and it was one goal of pure drama. Zola was rapidly achieving Chelsea legend status and here he cemented it even more.
The Italian maestro had won an against-the-odds race to be fit for the final after a rare injury for him, but was only named on the bench, forced to bide his time until the 71st minute. When his moment came, he did not hang around. A mere 20 seconds after coming on, the little maestro lashed a great ball from Dennis Wise (himself at one stage an injury doubt) high into the Stuttgart net, and the celebrations began.
The UEFA Super Cup followed, with Real Madrid defeated 1-0 in Monaco, and this cosmopolitan Chelsea made history on Boxing Day 1999 when we became the first to name an all-overseas starting 11 in an English league game. By now we even had World Cup winners in our squad in the impressive shape of Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps and Leboeuf. Others were attracted from as far and wide as Uruguay (Gustavo Poyet), Norway (Tore Andre Flo) and Nigeria (Celestine Babayaro).
In 1999/2000, Chelsea qualified for the Champions League for the first time (over 40 years after we had been denied our chance to be part of the first edition of that competition’s earliest format).
Dining at European football’s top table at last, the experience did not disappoint. There were memorable nights against the likes of AC Milan, Galatasaray (a 5-0 win in the Turkish side’s stadium of ‘Hell’) and Barcelona, ushering in a new and significant rivalry in the tournament.
We impressively made it as far as the quarter-final stage at the first time of asking, and that historic season was crowned by another FA Cup triumph. Cup-final goal king Di Matteo did it again in a 1-0 victory over Aston Villa in the last final played at the old Wembley Stadium.
Chelsea were playing winning football like never before, although cracks behind the scenes widened sufficiently for Vialli to be removed from his job. The run of inexperienced player-managers came to an end with the appointment of seasoned Italian Claudio Ranieri.
The Blues by now were established in the upper echelons of the Premier League. In the season we won the FA Cup with Gullit we had finished sixth, followed by fourth, third and fifth as Vialli took control. At times we were genuine title challengers and achieved some mighty league victories – 6-1 at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane, 5-0 at home to Man United just a few months after they had won the treble.
Turning to 'the Tinkerman'
In the first three of Ranieri’s four seasons the high-place finishes continued with sixth, sixth and then fourth, but stability in the league table was not matched by our finances, the team selections and tactics, and the senior make-up of the squad.
Soon after Ranieri took the reins, long-serving skipper Dennis Wise moved on, as did the influential Gustavo Poyet and Frank Leboeuf. To replace them in defence came William Gallas plus in midfield, Emmanuel Petit, Bolo Zenden and, most crucial of all, a young player of potential from across London – Frank Lampard.
Steadily, a new team began to take shape with two of Vialli’s later signings, thunderbolt-shooting striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and skilful Icelander Eidur Gudjohnsen, forming a devastating partnership upfront.
Vialli had also brought through a central defender from the Chelsea system by the name of John Terry and under Ranieri, the east Londoner became more prominent. Played alongside Gallas and with agile goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini behind them, a formidable defence was forming.
Also growing were problems away from the pitch, with the debt that financed the Chelsea Village development weighing heavily.
Chelsea reached the 2002 FA Cup final under Ranieri but lost to Arsenal in Cardiff, and our manager earned the nickname ‘the Tinkerman’ due to the frequency he would change his team line-up and formation. He believed flexible teams were the way forward in football.
But the money for him to spend on new signings dried up, and then the very real prospect of selling some of the team’s most valuable stars to fight the financial difficulties was on the cards.
There was, however, a lifeline in the form of Champions League qualification and its associated revenue. Our European campaigns under Ranieri had been a let-down with a succession of early exits against small clubs in the UEFA Cup, but as 2002/03 drew to a close, a second season in our history in the lucrative Champions League beckoned.
All we needed to do was stay ahead of Liverpool in the league table on the final day of the season but the fixture list conjured up pure drama, as we were scheduled to play the Reds at Stamford Bridge.
Before kick-off chief executive Trevor Birch briefed the Chelsea players that defeat could see the team broken up, along with other economies. To add to the tension, Liverpool scored first but early, allowing plenty of time for reply. Chelsea ran out 2-1 victors.
Jesper Gronkjaer’s winner is often and falsely described as a multi-million pound goal although as we needed just a draw to stay in fourth place, Marcel Desailly’s equaliser would have been sufficient to claim the financial benefits that came with Champions League qualification. As Gronkjaer set up Desailly for his headed leveller, the Dane’s assist was actually more vital than his goal.
At the moment those goals hit the Liverpool net, few knew the true extent of Chelsea’s rising fortunes. Not only did the result secure European football and financial security, but we were just weeks away from a seismic change which would supercharge the club’s ambition, potential, power and send shockwaves around the global game. Football was about to change again.