Concluding our series of features celebrating 20 years since the arrival of Gianfranco Zola at Chelsea, we speak to him about the moment his career in London truly caught fire and about the man in charge today...
It was two decades ago today Gianfranco Zola scored a stunning individual goal against West Ham United, his first from open play for the Blues, to light up a London derby at Stamford Bridge on a chilly December afternoon.
When a goal is celebrated in song by supporters for many years, it means the strike was either of the highest importance or one of pure quality.
Dennis Wise’s equaliser against AC Milan at the San Siro, during our maiden Champions League campaign in 1999, and Wayne Bridge’s winner at Arsenal in the same competition five years later both fall into the first category.
Zola’s against West Ham, scored in a standard Premier League encounter, is most definitely remembered for its sheer brilliance.
Collecting a Mark Hughes pass deep inside the opposition half, Zola ran at Julian Dicks, the retreating Hammers' left-back. Our forward went inside and outside the defender, before getting away from him one last time courtesy of an audacious nutmeg and crashing a powerful drive beyond goalkeeper Ludek Miklosko.
‘It was the first game in which we played that formation, with me and Sparky [Mark Hughes] as strikers,’ Zola tells the official Chelsea website. ‘Then we did it again in the next match, away to Aston Villa, and it worked very well because we won 2-0 [Zola scored both goals].
‘We played very well in that game against West Ham, it was a great goal but Sparky also scored two good goals that day.
‘It was a good performance, the partnership started working really well and from that game onwards Ruud Gullit didn’t change it.’
To coincide with the 20th anniversary of his debut for the Blues, this website recently ran a poll asking supporters to choose their favourite Zola moment.
Of course, there were plenty to choose from, but it was the goal against West Ham which came out on top.
‘That makes me feel good,' he says, 'it’s pleasing for me that the fans acknowledge that. It was a great moment for me. In that game I really played well and it felt as though I was able to do whatever came into my mind.
‘I have a very good memory of that goal but at the time I didn’t realise how dangerous it was to do what I did to Julian,’ he laughs.
The current Chelsea team, led by Zola’s compatriot Antonio Conte, are flying high at the top of the Premier League table right now.
The two men know each other well having been opponents many times during their playing days in Italy. When Zola’s Parma faced Conte’s Juventus in the 1990s, there was always plenty at stake.
‘We had a few big games against them and they were always high-level matches because we were playing for trophies and the top spots,’ he remembers.
‘Antonio was one of those people you never wanted to play against because he was tough and he would never give up. He was the type of player you would always respect because you can only admire the character and personality of players like that.
‘I also played with him for the national team at the 1994 World Cup. He was a good team-mate and when you had him alongside you on the pitch you always knew you could rely on him. It’s important to have players like that in the team, they make a side more solid and more together.’
Zola, now back managing in England having taken charge of Championship side Birmingham City last week, had every faith Conte would do well in the Premier League, but admits the speed with which he has taken to the challenge has surprised even him.
‘I’ve been very impressed because I didn’t expect him to achieve what he has so early, but I know Antonio, I know his qualities as a coach and I had no doubt he was going to do a good job.
‘What is good is that he’s been able to get into the system so quickly. I hope they continue with the way they’re going because the challenges this season are big, both for him as a coach and Chelsea as a team, so I hope they can keep that consistency and continuity until the end of the season.’