When Graeme Le Saux returned to play for Chelsea again in 1997, he had Gianluca Vialli as a team-mate. Very soon he was also his manager and they shared in great victories and trophy triumphs. Following the Italian legend’s sad passing today, Le Saux shares with us his memories of Luca the player, the coach and the person…
Thinking about Luca’s pedigree as a player, I straightaway recall his discipline, his idiosyncrasies in the way he prepared for matches and the way he prepared his body for training. He was such a disciplined person to the point where we would try to help him relax a little by sort of taking the mickey out of him and winding him up, both when he was a player and then subsequently when he became a coach.
Luca was very serious about his profession and he was a great example to all of us, especially those who previously had not really understood the connection between being a footballer and professionalism. He was at the vanguard of it for that generation, coming from the environment he was used to in Italy and at Juventus particularly.
His attention to detail he took into every part of his life. He was a fascinating character - a wonderful personality, very intelligent, very well-read and well-rounded. He had very high standards for himself and for what he expected.
We used to sort of joke about the quality of life that he lived - he was right up there when it came to attention to detail and as a player, he took that into his game.
He was incredibly hard-working and never let his standards drop, always setting them high for himself and the people around him, whether it was in the gym, in training or what he ate. If he got served a bowl of soggy pasta, my goodness you better watch out! It was like an insult to the family name! And also to him as a professional.
I think he found it hard to relax and not be serious because that was the type of person he was but he loosened up as well. He got the English sense of humour, as all the international players that came into Chelsea at that time had to adapt to the ‘Wisey factor’. Luca learned to enjoy the dressing room and he was a really amazing personality within it.
As a player, I think he was unique in terms of his approach and as good a player as you could play with in that sense. Physically he was so strong - broad-shouldered, a powerful runner, great quality. When I think about games I think about that one at Tromso where in the worst conditions, he stood out as the star player in that game.
There were loads of moments. I could go on forever about Luca as a player.
As a manager, I think he did find it more difficult when he sort of got thrown into the role. That transition between player and coach was a big challenge for him and it came with some consequences as well, taking over the way he did and with it being his first job. We were a very experienced dressing room so we were able to help him in that period as well.
It must be frustrating for any player who's coming towards the end of their playing career and then trying to transition into a different role but within the same club. That was a big challenge but Luca’s usual dedication and commitment was there and I think he felt that with such an experienced dressing room, it was more a case of him empowering us than it being just about him.
The trophy successes we had in 1998 was supported by him and it continued, slightly reset, and he did a very good job at keeping us going and brought his own style to it.
The example of him bringing out the champagne before his first match in charge, against Arsenal, was typical of a guy who was confident in himself, believed in what he was doing, and had a heart of gold in terms of wanting the best for us. He had to make difficult decisions as well during that period because he had to suddenly be the coach and not the dressing room leader as a player, instead leading in a different way with different pressures.
As a person, Luca was great! He always wanted to be part of what was happening and there was a group of us that would go out in London regularly. Robbie Di Matteo, Franco Zola, Dennis Wise myself, Dan Petrescu, Luca, and Frank Leboeuf would come out sometimes as well. It was not a cliquey group, it was open to everyone, and we'd go out regularly for nights out, for meals, and our wives and partners would all be involved as well.
It was way beyond a football team. There was a group of experienced players that were all at that same stage in our careers, all similar ages, late 20s, early 30s, and we had a bond and that is why it's such an emotional day today.
It's a bond that goes way beyond even a tight-knit dressing room. It was friendship, we cared about each other and our families, it was all tied up in the same values that we all shared as people.
The last thing I want is for this to sound like I'm talking about me and that I want a pat on the back, I don’t, but that's why I'm so grateful that I pursued an ambition of getting everyone back together for the Legends game at Stamford Bridge in 2018, when it was good that the club supported it.
I had spoken to another former player from a different club who's older than me and he said the only time he saw his old team-mates nowadays is at funerals.
I remember as clear as day that when it came to speaking to some of my old team-mates about the Legends game, I said I'm putting together this game, Chelsea have agreed to be part of it, but it's very easy for people to say no because none of us are as good as we were as players. One of the things I spoke to a lot of them about was this guy who said he only ever saw his team-mates at funerals. I said to them we can't be that group!
Oh my god, it's never been more relevant now and thank goodness we all got together because it was just brilliant.
Luca coached the team that night and with him being there both at the game but also in the build-up and afterwards, with everyone being there too, just shows how important it is to do those sort of things, to celebrate each other and celebrate what we've achieved together and who we are now. It’s not just about reminiscing.
All power to Luca for being part of that when he was going through his illness at the time. None of us will ever forget his speech before the game and that now becomes a memory of celebration of Gianluca Vialli.