In the latest edition of our new series where we take a Chelsea-related book and review some of the most interesting extracts, our focus turns to Blue Day: The Heroes’ Stories, which features in-depth interviews with the players who led us to FA Cup glory in 1997.
A good book can be a priceless asset in this period of spending so many hours indoors, while a good Chelsea book is even better to combat the lack of football action. Previously we’ve looked back at the autobiographies of Bobby Tambling, Juan Mata, and Frank Lampard.
In this edition, however, our chosen book is not an autobiography. Blue Day: The Heroes’ Stories focuses on the 12 players who appeared, plus manager Ruud Gullit, on 17 May 1997 and wrote themselves into Chelsea folklore by leading the club to FA Cup glory for only the second time. Twenty years on from that famous Wembley triumph over Middlesbrough, the book’s author, Richard Godden, tracked down each of the men who made history that day and spoke to them about their Chelsea memories and how fate and fortune have treated them since.
While the FA Cup win binds all these men together, the book is about so much more than that. The 12 players and Gullit each have their own chapter and when you piece them all together, what you’re left with is a vivid snapshot of Chelsea throughout the 1990s. On top of all that, the foreword was written by Suggs, who tells the story of how he came to write the iconic song which lends itself to the book’s title.
Dennis the Menace
‘After losing in the final in 1994, I believed we were going to win it this time. We all kind of knew it, and you do know. But the relief I felt afterwards… I sat down and there was just this massive feeling of satisfaction that came over me. It’s really difficult to explain. It felt like such an achievement – and it was for everyone really. Obviously the fans, but also for Batesy and his wife Suzannah, and for all the staff.’
Those are the words of Dennis Wise who, before John Terry became Chelsea’s self-styled captain, leader, legend, was the glue to hold the dressing room together during the club’s transformation from also-rans to the Premier League’s cosmopolitan capital.
In a wide-ranging chapter which focuses on Wisey’s unique relationship with both the fans and some of the overseas superstars who he helped adapt to life in west London, the skipper in 1997 also reveals a little about his mindset on the pitch. For all the wonderful moments – six trophies won as captain, second only to JT – it’s the missed opportunities which stand out in his memory.
He also discusses his relationship with Gullit and a frank discussion early on in the 1996/97 season which helped curb what the Dutchman described as Wise’s ‘Crazy Gang mindset’ as he felt Wise was a far better player than he was given credit for.
‘He wanted me to manage the way I was in a better way, which meant I could play more games and be on the field more,’ said Wise. ‘I get what he was saying, but there a balance between taking a bit away from somebody and not. We argued about the whole thing a little bit and at the end of the day it was fine, we ended up speaking and he left out to prove a point to me.
‘It probably taught me a little lesson and that was good, because I knew I had to curb the way I played a little bit to try and help the team. He wanted to play football and he knew I could do it.’
Wise acknowledges that over the course of the next three years he played his best football, culminating with a special campaign in the Champions League in 1999/00 when he scored a goal in the San Siro which is still sung about to this day.
‘They were the best years of my career and my team is Chelsea,’ adds Wise at the end of his chapter.
Luca who’s talking
The chapter on Gianluca Vialli, who came on as a late sub at Wembley, begins with the Italian relaying his first meeting with Ruud Gullit after controversially replacing the Dutchman as Blues boss less than a year after the FA Cup win.
‘I think 10 years, probably even longer, had passed by without us seeing each other when I went over to Bahrain to play in a Pro-Am golf event,’ he begins, setting the scene in typical Luca fashion.
‘I went down for breakfast, got my stuff, turned around and saw there was only a table for two available – and there was Ruud, sat on the opposite side of it! So, I sat down and we talked…’
Imagine for a second the famous scene from Michael Mann’s crime thriller Heat, when two icons of the silver screen, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, are face to face and the tension smacks you right between the eyes. Well, here you have two Chelsea greats, both of whom have waited years to set the record straight, finally with an opportunity to thrash things out once and for all.
‘But we didn’t talk about that,’ comes the disappointing conclusion from Luca, who flashes that familiar grin and laughs heartily.
There are no topics off limit with Vialli when it comes to his time at Chelsea and he speaks at length about the apparent discord within the dressing room which eventually led to his sacking in 2000, just a few months after he had led us to another FA Cup win.
His relationship with his squad is perhaps best summed up by the line: ‘Not all the players were happy, they wanted more, or they were a bit confused to see me as one day their best, one of the chaps, and the next I am leaving them out.’
Of course, no book looking back at the 1997 FA Cup could finish with anyone other than Roberto Di Matteo, whose goal inside the first 43 seconds – then a record for a Wembley FA Cup final – set us on our way to victory.
He looks back to his arrival a year earlier, as a club-record signing who was greeted with minimal fanfare by either the supporters or the media, and how he fell in love with London the very first time he stepped foot in the city.
Four years later, however, after scoring in three separate cup final wins for the Blues, Di Matteo found his career in tatters after suffering a horrific broken leg. He would never play professional football again, an experience which left him traumatised.
‘It was 18 months after the injury that I decided [to retire] after consulting with the doctor,’ he recalled. ‘I didn’t realise at the time just how much it affected me, it was only many, many years later.
‘I went through a depression, I lost confidence. Your life is taken away; your dream is taken away. The dynamic of your life changes. It wasn’t in my plan to retire early.’
Nor did he plan to become a manager, despite getting his coaching badges just in case. Four years after taking charge of his first game, for League One side MK Dons in 2008, he was a Champions League winner with his beloved Chelsea.
As well as looking back at that remarkable triumph in Munich, he provides a definitive answer when asked if the pressure as a manager is comparable to anything he experienced as a footballer.
‘No, with a capital N and a capital O. The responsibility is all with the manager. As a player, you can share it with your team-mates – the enjoyment of the win or the pain of defeat. As a manager it’s just yourself.
‘Nothing compares to running onto the pitch with another 10 team-mates, being able to influence the game and to be part of a winning team. It’s a dream job.’
With that in mind, what does he think is the defining image of Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea: the FA Cup final goal in 1997 or lifting the Champions League in 2012? You’ll have to get the book and find out for yourself…
Blue Day: The Heroes’ Stories was published by Trinity Mirror Sport Media in 2017.