Saul Niguez adds to the extensive list of players to drop two thirds of the red, white and blue of Atletico Madrid to join Chelsea. We look back at a man who made that same move, for a club-record fee, 21 years ago this summer.
Had the rivalry between Chelsea and Leeds United not been quite so intense, and had Gianluca Vialli got his way, this feature would not be written.
At the end of a 1998/99 season in which his Blues side had been a prolific goalscorer short of being crowned champions, the Blues’ Italian manager had set his sights on the man who he was convinced would fire us to glory. That player was not, however, Chris Sutton, who Vialli would soon be sat alongside in the stands at Stamford Bridge, smiling for photos and holding up a club scarf, as was customary at unveilings in those days. It was Hasselbaink, fresh off a season when he had earned a share of the Premier League Golden Boot.
Having made it clear he wanted to leave Leeds United, the most serious interest in Hasselbaink was coming from two clubs: Atletico Madrid and Chelsea. As talks between the player and his current team became increasingly fraught, the then 27-year-old issued an ultimatum.
‘Come on then,’ Hasselbaink recalls saying to the Leeds board, a story he relays in his autobiography Jimmy [Italics]. ‘Why don’t you negotiate with Chelsea?’
Thanks to Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale steadfastly refusing to even negotiate with Chelsea and Los Rojiblancos agreeing a fee with the Whites after the Dutchman handed in a transfer request, Hasselbaink missed out on becoming the first player since Jim McCalliog in the 1960s to have traded life at Elland Road for Stamford Bridge, instead moving to the Spanish capital.
He was joining a club that, despite only being three years removed from a famous league and cup Double, was on the wane. They’d finished the previous season 13th in La Liga, although there was decent progress in the cups, as they reached the UEFA Cup semi-finals and were beaten finalists in the Copa Del Rey.
Hasselbaink’s most memorable moment as an Atletico Madrid player was a two-goal display in a 3-1 victory at Real Madrid in the 1999/00 season, when he received a standing ovation from both sets of supporters after being substituted. It had been 10 years since they had won at the home of their city rivals and the wait for the next victory would be even longer – finally arriving in 2013/14, when they shocked La Liga to claim the title. This season, however, would be very different, as things swiftly went south.
In the spring, with the club 17th in the standings, a tearful Ranieri resigned. Hasselbaink eventually finished with 24 La Liga goals to his name, but that proved to be half of his side’s tally in the league, and they were relegated. Too good to go down? This was one of the more extreme examples of that.
Speaking on the Sky Sports Transfer Talk podcast two summers ago, Hasselbaink revealed he already knew his next destination before taking to the field for the club in the Copa Del Rey final, which was Atletico’s final chance to salvage any pride from the season. He received a phone call on the way to the stadium and on the other end of the line was none other than Vialli.
‘He said: “I know you have a game, I just want you to know that we are interested. Concentrate on your game but afterwards let's talk.”’
Atletico were defeated 2-1 at Valencia’s Mestalla stadium, a last-minute goal from Hasselbaink proving to be nothing more than a consolation – although it was his 33rd of the campaign, a tally he would never better in his career. For the first, and only, time on a football field, the Dutchman shed tears.
After Sutton’s disappointing campaign at Chelsea, which would eventually lead to the striker joining Celtic that summer, the Blues stepped up our bid to replace him with a striker who was now arguably the no-nonsense centre-forward in Europe. One chance, one goal – and, more often than not, he was smashing in shots from a range that wouldn’t even fit into the category of half-chance. He was, quite simply, a goal machine.
A deal was quickly agreed between the two clubs, and Hasselbaink, despite rumoured interest from Real Madrid and Rangers, only had eyes for Chelsea. A five-year deal was signed by the player, with the words from Gianluca Vialli ringing in his ears: ‘With you, we will become champions.’ A club-record fee of £15m reflected their faith in him and after what had gone on before at Leeds and with the club desperate for a prolific marksman, the pressure was on.
‘Because of how I left Leeds and the whole hoo-hah and the perception that people had of me when I left Leeds and all those lies,’ he told this website two summers ago, ‘for me to come back to England there was more pressure on me to straightaway hit the ground running, because I knew that if I had not hit it running then all that Leeds stuff would come back.
‘That was more the pressure of it, not the £15m. At the end of the day that was great negotiation by Atletico Madrid and Chelsea was willing to pay that. If you want to become a top player, or you want to hit the top and stay there, then those figures are going to follow you. If you can’t handle it then you are not destined for the top.’
It took Hasselbaink no time at all to prove himself to the Chelsea fans and, more importantly, his new team-mates. He fired us ahead against Manchester United in the Charity Shield, ensuring that piece of silverware made its way to Stamford Bridge for only the second time, and a debut strike against West Ham United was followed by a stunner against Arsenal.
Three goals in five games was a solid return, but after the sixth, a goalless draw with Newcastle United, Vialli was sacked. The football world was stunned.
‘Vialli was a factor in me signing, big time,’ Hasselbaink told Chelsea magazine a few years back. ‘He was, and still is, an icon in football – especially in my position. It was a big club who had a chance, and a desire, to win the Premiership, which made it such an easy choice for me.’
While one door had closed for Ranieri during his time working with Hasselbaink in Madrid, another was to open for him in London alongside the striker who had been one of the few successes of his tenure with Atletico, as Chelsea chairman Ken Bates decided to hand the reins to him, despite the fact the Italian spoke very little English.
While some struggled under Ranieri, Hasselbaink thrived. He netted a half-volley against Manchester United – later chosen by the man himself as his best-ever goal for the Blues – in his new manager’s Premier League opener, which was a thrilling 3-3 draw, and was on target in handsome wins over Liverpool and Tottenham, as well as bagging the only four-goal haul of his career against Coventry City.
‘At the end of the season they will look at the goals I have scored and from that they will say you have done well or you have done badly,’ was his matter-of-fact response when asked about his form around this time.
Well, come the end of the campaign you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone who said he hadn’t done well. Hasselbaink went on to finish with 23 goals in the Premier League, which was enough to secure him the Golden Boot for the second time in three seasons in the English top flight. It was also the first time a Chelsea player had netted 20 goals since 1990, which ensured his price tag was never mentioned and he was an instant Blues legend.
‘Chelsea were gagging for a No9 that was going to score between 15 and 25 goals yearly and they had not had one for a few years, so it is all timing,’ he said last summer. ‘That is why when I came in and it all worked, and especially the first year, winning the Golden Boot, it made the fans even more appreciative of me.’
That we were – and the feeling was more than mutual. Hasselbaink spent the next three years of at Chelsea, netting 87 times in 177 appearances, which meant he played almost twice as many games for the Blues as he did for any other club. They were, he has said numerous times, the best years of his career.
So, we guess it’s true what they say – the best things do come to those who wait…