The Chelsea side of the late 1990s was becoming adept at winning domestic trophies but on this day, 13 May in 1998, they proved capable of also adding European silverware to the trophy cabinet when they defeated Stuttgart in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in Stockholm.
Gustavo Poyet was reaching the end of his first season at the club. He had made a great start but then suffered serious injury two months in. Happily he recovered in time to bring his big personality and his knack for goals from midfield to the close of that cup campaign.Twenty-two years later he speaks to the official Chelsea website about that European triumph, the part he played in it, and an extremely fired-up winning-goalscorer in the final, Gianfranco Zola.But Poyet begins with his return to playing after six months out…
‘We can talk about me coming on time from my cruciate ligament, knowing that maybe there is something to play for at the end of the 1997/98 season. Not just taking your time and coming back next year – no. I’m coming back as soon as I can, on time, and who knows, maybe there is something to play for. And then there was the semi-final and final of the Cup Winners’ Cup.‘Gianfranco Zola was injured just a few weeks before the final and did an incredible, absolutely top-class recovery – we’re talking 24/7, probably not even sleeping – to be able to be fit and play. And making the manager have to make a decision – and then coming on the pitch as a substitute and scoring the winning goal.‘That commitment of so many players, at the same time, at that level, there’s only one thing that’s going to come – a winning team, a proper team enjoying playing football together.’
The second leg of the semi-final against Vicenza was your first start after your injury. It looked like we were going out (losing 2-0 on aggregate) and then you popped up with a typical Gustavo Poyet goal to make it 1-1 on the night, with the team eventually winning 3-2 on aggregate…‘It was not planned that I was coming back to start a game that day. What pushed Gianluca [Vialli] to play me was that Robbie [Di Matteo and Dan [Petrescu] were not able to play. So that made Gianluca like, “Here you go, mate” and he pushed me in.‘I played a little bit of the game before against Tottenham, but I was not expecting to start against Vicenza. And then, because the game went how it did, I had to play 90 minutes. You can’t imagine how I felt, physically and mentally. I couldn’t move! After the game, in the dressing room, Gianluca told me I would not be involved the next weekend because there was no way I could recover.‘It was special for me to come back from the injury this way, but you need something to happen to give you an extra bit of energy. Obviously the goal gave me something. We were nearly out – losing the first leg 1-0, going 1-0 down so early in the second leg. We threw everything at them. That showed how much meaning there was in that European competition.‘Back then, Chelsea was not the Chelsea of nowadays – Champions League winners, two-time Europa League winners – and back then it was probably not even in the dreams of most fans to win a European competition. To be the ones doing it was special, an extra motivation.’
What about the crowd versus Vicenza that night?‘It was the best I experienced at Stamford Bridge, without any doubt. It was electric. I don’t think the fans stopped supporting us, but as soon as they saw a little bit of weakness in Vicenza – probably after Gianfranco scored our second goal – it was like, wow! It was spectacular, really incredible.‘When Hughesy Mark Hughes scored – wow! What a moment. It was such a special night. I know for the young Chelsea fans everything that happened in the last 15 years is totally different, but if somebody can put themselves in that night, at that moment, on that Chelsea team, it was a really special night.’Let’s move on to the final against Stuttgart, another great night but not a great final. The pitch was shocking.‘The pitch was bad and we didn’t know too much what we were coming into, because it was like a new, bigger situation – with respect to the FA Cup or the Coca-Cola Cup. This was Europe and we had a very good team to play against, that was very difficult. There were people missing too. But at the end of the day, the aim of the game is to win.‘I remember at the end seeing these massive fences around the pitch and there are Chelsea fans trying to get over them and onto the pitch to celebrate with us. I was thinking, “What is going on! These crazy people!”‘There was such a special connection with the supporters. Something unique.’
You have already mentioned Zola’s recovery from injury to just make it to the final.‘Nowadays, you get a hamstring injury like that, people will tell you four to six weeks. Back then, there was maybe a different mentality in terms of taking certain risks, which slowly changed and people try to be more careful nowadays.‘You can’t imagine how much he had to work for that. He went back to Italy for the recovery and it was probably like madness for him. But he was there when it counted.’How angry was he not to be in the starting line-up?‘I was very surprised, because he was the best player I ever played with and you want that player on the pitch from the first minute. I think it’s a massive decision for the manager and the kind of decision I say to you at the beginning of the game that it’s not right or wrong. It’s just a decision and you can make one and be absolutely terrible, or you make one and be perfect.‘After the game, what will people say? It’s the right decision. Gianfranco came on and scored the winner. Maybe if he started, he plays the whole game and doesn’t score. It was a massive decision for Gianluca to make and in the end it worked out very well.‘Look, it was a big decision for him. I’m sure it wasn’t easy and, of course, he had the chance to pick himself, which is a difference as well and influences your mind, no doubt.‘The effort Gianfranco put in to be fit and when he’s fit and he trained with us the two or three previous days, to be left out was tough for him.’
What we can say is that the emotion that came out after the goal told the story…‘Normally he was smiling and enjoying the moment. That one was fire! In the changing room he was so fired up he looked like he wanted to kill someone! We always joke about those pictures of Gianfranco after he scored the goal.’
Fancy listening to a podcast about the 1998 cup wins?