Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola reflects on his early days in England and explains why if he could only keep one memory from his long and illustrious football career, it would be the incredible relationship he shared with the Blues supporters.

Unquestionably, 1996 was a momentous year for Chelsea Football Club.

Following the arrival of Ruud Gullit the year prior, the Blues increasingly looked to Italy and Serie A for star players who would play crucial roles in the club’s transformation into genuine contenders, and introduce a more modern and continental style to English football.

Gianluca Vialli was the first to join and he arrived from Juventus in May. Roberto Di Matteo followed from Lazio just over a month later.

Then in November, arguably the most talented footballer to pull on the Chelsea shirt touched down at Stamford Bridge as Gianfranco Zola completed a move from Parma.

It felt like a dream for many Chelsea supporters as some of the world's most talented players joined a club starved of success – an FA Cup final defeat in 1994 was the closest we had come to major silverware in 25 years.

With his fellow Italians already full of praise for their new lives in west London, the decision for Zola to leave his homeland – and what was still at that time considered by many to be Europe’s strongest league – was easier than you may imagine.

'I knew something about Chelsea because Robbie and Luca were talking to me about it a lot,’ recalls Zola. ‘Plus I used to follow the other leagues, so I knew I was going into a good place. It turned out to be even better than I thought.

‘I wanted a new experience and I was certainly looking forward to having an experience abroad. Chelsea had Di Matteo, Vialli, and Gullit. I remember when I met Luca with the national team he spoke so highly about the experience of playing here, of the team, the league, and all the supporters.

‘It was something I was thinking about and when things were not going very well with Parma and they asked me if I wanted to go to Chelsea, I said yes with no doubts. It was the best decision I ever made.

‘I didn’t know so much about London, and that was a surprise. It was not only a big city but it was another country, another life in London. So it was a discovery but I loved it from the first day and I still love it now after 30 years.

‘One of my boys was born here and my kids all live over here. I still have a house here in London and I will always keep the house because I believe it is somewhere important to me and I want to keep my connection.’

It wasn’t just in convincing Zola that a move to Chelsea was the right option that the likes of Di Matteo and Vialli played an important role for the diminutive forward, though.

They also helped him to feel at home in a new city and culture, which he admits he needed as he got to grips with the surprising variety in accents and characters among the team’s British contingent, from local Londoner Dennis Wise to proud Scotsman Steve Clarke.

‘Robbie and Luca were very important because they introduced me to the environment and helped me to settle down quickly, so it was nice. They were very good friends and people.

‘They helped me to find good places to go, restaurants and things like that. For us Italians eating good meals together with family and friends is important so it was very good.

‘For me, it took me a while to understand all my team-mates when they were talking. I think it took me a month to understand what Steve Clarke was trying to tell me to do!

‘Then there was Dennis Wise and his accent got me a little bit. He kept telling me about London and showing me around while saying strange phrases. I thought those two spoke completely different languages!

‘But I really enjoyed it from day one. There were a lot of different nationalities and personalities, but we got on so well together and found that we could help each other.

‘We brought our experience from Italy and I think it was good for the players around us, but also they taught us the English culture and the way they played football. We learned from each other and that was how we were able to play so well and be successful.’

Zola’s character was a big part of how he became one of the most widely respected and beloved players of the Premier League era, being held in universally high regard by Chelsea supporters and those of our rivals.

Given his reputation as one of the sport’s true gentlemen, always playing with a smile and ready with a kind and thoughtful word in victory or defeat, it is surprising to hear our legendary No.25 explain that as a veteran player at Chelsea, his performances were often fuelled by an emotion very few people would associate with him.

‘When I was a sub or not playing I used to get very angry about it, but I needed to be angry because I was 36 and I needed to find more energy wherever it was possible. I knew I didn’t want to be okay with the idea that I would become an older player who just played 30 minutes and couldn’t start.

‘I wanted always to push myself massively, and that’s why I used to get so upset, but it was just looking for energy to push me in training in those situations.

'When I didn’t play I didn’t like it, but at the same time I needed that because you need to get the mental energy from somewhere when you are getting older.’

However, to the Chelsea supporters, it will always be for his incredible skill, tendency to produce jaw-droppingly spectacular moments of brilliance, and the mutual love and respect he shared with those in the stands that Zola will be remembered as one of the Blues’ all-time greats.

For the man himself, it is a feeling which is very much reciprocated. When asked to consider the best thing about his time at Stamford Bridge, there is only one possible answer for Gianfranco.

‘What I loved most about it was the relationship that I established with the supporters,’ answers Zola emphatically. ‘In Italy, we are used to it being either very good or very bad, and it all depends on the result.

‘Here, it’s not so much. As long as you go on the pitch and you give your best for your team, they love you and they support you all the time. That’s something that I appreciate so much.

‘It was incredible, I don’t know how it happened so fast. Probably they liked my passion, they liked my style of play, and also the club started to get good results. I think all of this made the relationship start to grow very quickly and it was amazing.

‘I remember there were Italian flags in the crowd, and also a few Sardinian flags as well, which was even better! It was great and I felt almost straight away this period was going to be an incredible experience in my life.

‘For me, the best moment was without a doubt winning the first FA Cup. It had been a long time since the club won a trophy. It was also a surprise because in Italy the cup wasn’t as important.

'I found out how it was here and I will always remember the day after we won it, on the bus parade, and all the people enjoying it so much. It was amazing.

‘That relationship with the Chelsea fans is something that I still take with me. I feel very privileged to have been part of this family and, of course, it was the best thing that happened to me in football.’

Zola and Chelsea remains a true footballing love story. A match made in heaven. For many of the supporters who were privileged enough to see him in action at the Bridge, that parting comment from the Italian could easily be reversed.

In their eyes, Zola was the best thing that happened to football.