In the final part of a series looking at the career of the iconic Gianluca Vialli, Dan Davison recalls his era-defining Chelsea years, as player and manager, which set the Blues up for a future filled with silverware.
When Gianluca Vialli moved to Chelsea in 1996, the Premier League had only been established for four years. It had already done much to transform the face of English football but was still in its relative infancy. In many ways, it was unrecognisable to the global brand it has become today.
In 1996, most players in the Premier League were still British. Fans were still not that far removed from an era when signing a Scottish player was considered something verging on exotic. For Vialli, this move represented by far the greatest challenge of his career. Having spent his entire life in his native Italy, suddenly he found himself confronted with a foreign culture, a foreign language, and a radically different league. And Dennis Wise.
Glenn Hoddle had left Chelsea to become the national team manager and, with another legendary footballer in Ruud Gullit now player-manager, Vialli was identified as a key target.Gullit had an impressive reputation as a player and now had the financial backing of an ambitious chairman in Ken Bates. Former world-record signing Vialli was snapped up on a free, and fellow Italy internationals, Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Di Matteo, were also brought in from Parma and Lazio. The English press were quick to label it the ‘Italian Invasion’, whilst France international Frank Lebouef joined from Strasbourg.
It took Vialli just three games to get off the mark, scoring in a 2-0 victory over Coventry alongside fellow summer signing Lebouef. A goal in the next game followed – a thrilling 3-3 draw against London rivals Arsenal at Highbury. The pace of the Premier League was electric, but Vialli was equal to it.
After a great start to the season, the Blues’ form tailed off, and when vice-chairman Matthew Harding was killed in a helicopter crash flying back to London after a League Cup loss to Bolton, the whole club was shaken to its core. Popular with the fans, Harding’s death came as a real shock and Chelsea went five league games without a win in November and December.
Chelsea re-found their form for much of the second half of the season but, after five straight losses in March and April, could only finish sixth. Vialli, with nine goals, was the top scorer. Their saving grace, however, was the FA Cup, which they won. With Vialli having scored a brace in a fantastic 4-2 victory over Liverpool in the fourth round at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea subsequently overcame Leicester, Portsmouth and former champions Wimbledon to set up a final against fellow big-spenders Middlesbrough.
Relegated from the Premier League that season to the surprise of most under player-manager Bryan Robson, Middlesborough still had an Italy superstar of their own in their ranks – Fabrizio Ravanelli. The media, hysterical in their build-up to FA Cup finals at the best of times, focused on this match-up: which Italy striker would have the biggest impact?
But in the match itself, it was their international teammate Di Matteo who made the required impact, scoring a great goal in less than a minute to put the London side ahead, before Eddie Newton made it safe late on. Just like when Sampdoria won Serie A, Vialli had arrived at Stamford Bridge for the greatest moment in Chelsea’s recent history. The next season, 1997/98, would change Vialli’s life forever.
After an opening day defeat to Coventry, courtesy of a hat-trick from Dion Dublin, the Premier League got to see Vialli at his absolute best in Chelsea’s second game of the season. Given too much time and space for movement by the eventually relegated Barnsley, Vialli smashed in four goals against the South Yorkshire outfit, with Chelsea running out 6-0 winners. Warning shots had been fired.
However, after a fantastic first half of the season, the wheels started to come off for Gullit’s Chelsea at the turn of the year. Expectations had changed at Stamford Bridge with the money Bates was pumping into the club and, after four consecutive league defeats in Ferbuary, the Dutchman was fired.
Chelsea had been relatively successful with Gullit as a player-manager, and before that under Hoddle, who also remained on the playing staff. But with the 21st century just around the corner, things were beginning to change. The idea of a player-manager in the Premier League may have seemed outdated to many, but not to Ken Bates. And so, in a move few were predicting, Vialli was appointed player-manager after only 18 months in English football.
Results and performances lifted with Vialli’s promotion. Chelsea won six of their remaining ten games in the league, with Vialli scoring a brace against Crystal Palace and goals against Tottenham and Bolton. But in a recurring theme from Vialli’s illustrious career, it was in Europe that Chelsea had the most success.
After winning the League Cup at the end of March, beating Middlesbrough just as they had previously to lift the FA Cup, Chelsea found themselves in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Having defeated Slovan Bratislava, Tromsø, Real Betis and Vicenza to reach the showpiece event, the Blues faced the far more difficult task of Bundesliga side VfB Stuttgart in the final.
In 1998, Stuttgart were managed by now-Germany manager Joachim Löw and were a force to be reckoned with. But Chelsea completely dominated them, with Gianfranco Zola’s winning goal in the 71st minute the least they deserved. Dangerous Germany international Fredi Bobic had been kept quiet as Vialli had produced a tactical masterclass against a manager who would go on to win the World Cup. After all the turmoil of Gullit’s final days, Chelsea had ended the season with two trophies. Nobody was questioning Vialli’s managerial credentials now.
At the beginning of the following season, things got even better for Chelsea. Winning the 1997/98 Cup Winners’ Cup meant Chelsea were to compete for the UEFA Super Cup against Champions League Winners Real Madrid in Monaco. Real, the overwhelming favourites, were managed by future Blues boss Guus Hiddink and lined-up with a team that included Roberto Carlos, Raúl and Clarence Seedorf. Once again, Vialli got it right tactically. Chelsea were disciplined defensively and came away with a clean sheet. Chelsea had their hands on another European trophy.
After an opening day defeat to Coventry, Chelsea would only lose twice more in the entirety of the 1998/99 season, both defeats coming after the turn of the year. Remarkably, in Manchester United’s treble-winning season, this near-invincibility was only good enough to see the Blues finish in third.
Despite reaching the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup again, their triumph of the previous season was not to be repeated, losing out to LaLiga outfit Mallorca. By this point, Vialli had pretty much retired as a player, focusing his attention on the trials and tribulations of being a Premier League manager.
The Italian continued making Chelsea stronger but, unfortunately for him, the whole league was improving – particularly Manchester United, Leeds and Arsenal. Chelsea finished fifth in the 1999/00 season but 26 points behind United, who had retained their Premier League title. However, there was yet more cup success for the Blues, beating Aston Villa in the FA Cup with Di Matteo scoring the only goal of the game. It was also the club’s first ever season in the Champions League, and Vialli’s European nous saw the Blues make it all the way to the quarter-finals.
Having beaten LaLiga giants Barcelona 3-1 at Stamford Bridge in the first leg, the second leg saw the same scoreline in reverse, and so extra time was necessary. This is when Vialli’s managerial inexperience perhaps shone through. Chelsea were guilty of trying too hard to avoid penalties and goals from Rivaldo and Patrick Kluivert saw Barcelona through to the semis. Although they had come so close to the final four, Chelsea could still be highly satisfied with their debut season in the competition.
Vialli, like so many Chelsea managers since, eventually fell victim to his own success. When Chelsea failed to win a single game from 22 August through the whole of September, Vialli was sacked. Few could argue it was harsh, but he was replaced by fellow Italian Claudio Ranieri who would take the club to even greater success. The Vialli-Chelsea love story had run its course.
The following season, he was approached by the ambitious Watford, then of the First Division. Vialli could not repeat the success he had brought to Chelsea, however, and didn’t last long, plagued by working with inferior players who struggled to grasp his understanding of the game. Surprisingly to some, this proved to be Vialli’s last foray into management. He has since worked as a commentator for Sky Italia.
Nobody can take anything away from Vialli’s impact on modern football, though. Ask any Sampdoria, Juventus or Chelsea fan about players from the 1990s and you won’t have to wait along until they mention one of football’s most iconic stars: Gianluca Vialli.
By Dan Davison @_DanDavison