Ahead of our next home game, Mikael Forssell is the latest player to remember life in SW6, which began and ended in memorable fashion…
Few players have made as instant and as eye-catching a Stamford Bridge debut as Mikael Forssell. The Finnish striker was just 17 years old when he was selected to lead the line alongside Gianfranco Zola in an FA Cup fourth round replay against Oxford United in February 1999.
He wasted little time announcing himself to his new supporters with two goals of exceptional quality in a 4-1 win. For the first, he intercepted a short backpass and calmly curled into the top right-hand corner; for the second, he received the ball 30 yards out, created some space for himself before thumping a vicious, bending strike into the very same part of the net.
‘I felt at home straight away,’ Forssell remembers when the official Chelsea website catches up with him this week.
‘For the whole crowd to sing “There’s only one Forssell” after the goals was unbelievable. Looking back, for a 17-year-old to experience something like that was amazing, I have to say.
‘That day was pretty special. I knew I was going to start. Tore Andre Flo was injured. Vialli was thinking if he should play himself, but I did really well in training so I think he thought he was ready to give me a start.
‘It was an evening game. In the first half Zola put me through one-on-one, and I tried to go around the keeper but it went pear-shaped and I couldn’t get a shot in.
‘I came in at half-time and I was so angry at myself. Everyone told me to calm down and said I would score in the second half and everything would be fine. In the second half it wasn’t long until I scored. They were confident finishes, because I had done finishing my whole life.’
It was Forssell’s ability in front of goal at such a young age that had first attracted the attention of Chelsea and a host of other top European clubs. His maiden experience of Stamford Bridge helped tip the balance in our favour.
‘Chelsea had already offered me a contract but they wanted to push me over the edge by saying “come and train with us, we really want you”, and they happened to be training at Stamford Bridge that day.
‘I was doing some shooting practice with Ed de Goey, and I can promise you I had the best training session of my life! I put a scissor kick in the top bin, and people were amazed. I had some interest from other teams, but that whole experience was such an amazing thing I decided to sign for Chelsea.’
Having one of the greatest strikers in the modern era, Gianluca Vialli, as his player-manager was also hugely beneficial in Forssell’s formative years.
‘I learned massively off him. I was 17 and I didn’t quite have the understanding how to move when we didn’t have the ball. I was great when we did have it around the box, I knew what I would do, but he showed me football is so much about when you don’t have the ball and what you should do to get it.
‘That I had not understood when I was so young. I didn’t get that coaching in Finland, so that was really good to learn from Vialli. I was training with Gianfranco Zola and Tore Andre Flo every day, too, and that was amazing. They taught me a lot which helped me shape my career.’
After a productive first half-season at the club, in which Forssell made 13 appearances as we finished third in the Premier League, he spent a couple of years on loan at Crystal Palace before establishing himself as an important member of Claudio Ranieri’s squad for the 2001/02 campaign.
‘That season was a great one for me in the sense I scored nine goals altogether,’ Forssell recalls.
‘I had tough competition with Gudjohnsen and Hasselbaink having an unbelievable season together. Zola was there at the time and Ranieri was putting me on before Zola sometimes. That was a big step from him to show me the confidence he had in me. I appreciated that.’
Five of those nine goals were scored at Stamford Bridge, and each of those in front of the Matthew Harding Stand, the end we traditionally attack in the second half of games. That was because Forssell had the canny knack of scoring off the bench. All of his nine goals in 01/02, including the winner in our first home league game against Fulham in nearly 20 years, were as a sub.
‘Analysing it afterwards, having played in different teams, at a big team like Chelsea it was always very easy to come off the bench because you had players like Lampard and Zola who would always play the ball forward, and always create a chance for you. It was up to you to take it.
‘When you play for a smaller team and come off the bench, that 20 minutes maybe isn’t enough to create a chance. At Chelsea these guys always supported me when I came off the bench and said “get the ball to him and let him score a goal because he deserves it”. That was amazing.’
After further productive loan spells, in Germany with Borussia Monchengladbach, and then closer to home at Birmingham City, where he struck 18 Premier League goals in 2003/04, Forssell returned to Stamford Bridge as we closed in on our first top-flight title in 50 years.
‘I had been injured for a long time and I had had a good season before that at Birmingham. I remember meeting Mourinho before that season, when I had signed for Birmingham on loan again, and he said “you have to come back, you have to come back” and the charisma he showed me at the time was amazing, even though I was injured for about eight months.
‘He told me things were not going well with Mateja Kezman and he said he needed me back on the pitch as quickly as possible. I still had some pain in my knee, but when a manager like that says that to you, you do everything in your powers to try and get back on the pitch. He showed me confidence, and even if I didn’t play much I was always travelling with the team.
‘I came on for the game against Charlton and to be on the pitch when we won the championship, and to celebrate with all the guys - obviously they deserved it more than me - but to be a part of that team was brilliant. The atmosphere was euphoric. I don’t think anybody in the stadium could actually believe “hey, we have won the league”.’
That was Forssell’s last experience of Stamford Bridge as a Chelsea player, and what better way to bow out than as a Premier League winner.