As Chelsea prepare to head to Wembley once again this weekend for our 10th FA Cup semi-final in 19 seasons, it is easy to forget just how special an occasion it is to reach the last four of the oldest club football competition in the world.
Familiarity perhaps breeds complacency in that respect but that certainly wasn’t the case back in 1997 when the Blues were aiming to lift the trophy for the first time in over a quarter of a century. For a recent signing from Parma getting his first taste of the unique thrills of FA Cup football, they were the most exciting of times.
Gianfranco Zola was only two months into his Chelsea career when he played in the FA Cup for the first time but his special talent was already taking him into the hearts of the Stamford Bridge faithful and his involvement in our run to the final that year was quite significant.
After scoring in the third round against West Brom, the little Italian was instrumental in one of the all-time classic Chelsea FA Cup ties in the next round as we came from 2-0 down at half-time against Liverpool to triumph 4-2.
Speaking on the latest episode of Match of the Day’s Top 10 podcast, Zola recalled the electric atmosphere of that famous comeback win, selecting it as his favourite game of his entire career.
‘I didn't know how important the FA Cup was,’ he revealed. ‘When we played against Liverpool, at that time they were very strong and we were just getting better as a team. After 45 minutes we were 2-0 down but then we came back in the second half and the atmosphere was unbelievable.
‘Mark Hughes came on and he was brilliant for us. After a few minutes, we scored to make it 2-1 and there was electricity on the pitch - it’s very difficult to say exactly what it was but you could feel on the pitch that it was a special game.
‘In the end, we came from 2-0 down to beat Liverpool 4-2 and for me it was an unbelievable game. I was very pleased to be involved.’
While Zola netted again in that season’s competition against Portsmouth and in the semi-final against Wimbledon at Highbury, he never managed a Wembley goal for Chelsea. However, he did score at the national stadium that campaign for Italy against England in a World Cup qualifier, a goal he ranks as the highlight of his international career.
‘I’ve always thought that playing for your own country was the best thing that could happen to you,’ he continued. ‘I always took big pride at being part of the Italian squad.
‘Scoring the winner against England was such a big satisfaction for me, especially the day after when I went to the training ground and saw Dennis Wise's face!’
It was at our old Harlington training base where Zola perfected his craft through incessant practise, a devotion to self-improvement that caught the eye of the likes of Frank Lampard and John Terry, influencing their own dedication in later years.
Free-kicks were his speciality, a technique mastered through hours of work and paid off with some memorable goals.
‘It was something that I worked a lot on because I felt like if my left foot was slightly behind the ball and a little bit open to the left then it would allow me to whip the ball the way I wanted,’ explained Zola.
‘I wanted the ball to be spinning up and left so the only way I could get the ball flight that way was to open my foot a little bit more. It all came from practising.’
One of Zola’s most famous Chelsea goals came against our opponents this weekend, Manchester United, in his first appearance against the Red Devils. Dancing past defenders from the right byline, he left Dennis Irwin on the turf and Gary Pallister flat-footed before drilling the ball past a bewildered Peter Schmeichel.
It remains an iconic goal for the Blues in the Premier League and Zola remembers it fondly.
‘I think that was my first game against United and it was at the Bridge,’ he reminisces. ‘I received the ball from Dan Petrescu down the right and I pretended to cross it.
‘Irwin thought I was going to cross it because Mark Hughes was at the back post but instead of doing that I cut inside and went through Pallister and then obviously in front of the goalkeeper. I didn’t think about it too much and smashed the ball!’
Chelsea fans will be hoping for a similar piece of magic from our current generation when the Blues meet United again on Sunday.
-Click here to listen to the full episode of the podcast