Today marks the 46th year since the birth of our beloved Gianfranco Zola, the football magician who graced the pitch at Stamford Bridge.

I’ve been supporting Chelsea for over 20 years, and by far the little Italian is the best player I have witnessed, and what a pleasure it is to be able to say that. Franco excited the Chelsea faithful on a weekly basis with his skill, tricks, goals and free kicks. He used the ball, as I’ve never seen it used before, you could not get it off him, and it would stick to his feet as if it had been glued there.

I remember one time in particular at Stamford Bridge against West Ham, Gianfranco had two or three defenders around him, and whilst trying to trick his way out of the corner, he tripped over, but somehow managed to keep the ball by his foot for long enough to regain his stance, and then move away with the ball leaving the defenders behind. It was just incredible.

Another strong memory I have, is that special goal against Norwich City at the Bridge. A cross came in from the right towards the near post. Zola ran in to the cross that was around waist height. It looked as if he would attempt a diving header to glance it on, but to the disbelief of everyone watching, he jumped up, let the ball run through his legs and stuck out a side heel to knock the ball in past the helpless keeper. It was the best goal I’ve seen by a Chelsea player, for so many reasons. The little Italian genius had struck again, and the ever-familiar cheeky smile was visible for all to see once again. Even the away fans were applauding the effort.

Zola was signed by Chelsea in 1996 and ironically it was Parma manager at the time Carlo Ancelotti who sold him to us, making him available for transfer after deeming him unable to fit into his side, stating he was a ‘square peg’ unable to fit into his rigid system. That is pure madness and makes me wonder how Carlo ever became our manager years later.

£4.5 million was the fee we paid Parma, and to me, that is the best money we have ever spent. Ruud Gullit was the Chelsea manager at the time and bringing in Zola was part of a new era in the 90s for Chelsea, turning them into a top class force to be beckoned with.

The shirt number 25 has not officially been retired at Chelsea, but it has not been used since out of respect and honour to Gianfranco, and that is the very least this club could do to for such a true legend, an entertainer and an absolutely class football player, who could turn a game in an instant. You will never find a player like Zola again; he was unique and had everything about his game. His strength was superb for someone so small, he would battle harder than any midfielders or defenders yet he still had that quality, technical ability, balance and finishing to make him the complete all round forward player.

In February 1997, a truly memorable moment for Chelsea fans, especially because it was against rivals Manchester United. After spiriting the ball through Untited’s defence, Zola then burst through to slot home past a bemused Peter Schmeichel. Even Alex Ferguson was impressed, later describing Zola as a “clever little so-and-so.”

Gianfranco won a number of trophies with the club and finally bought us back some glory days. He won the FA Cup twice, the Charity Shield, the League Cup, Cup Winners Cup and the Super Cup. It’s a very impressive list of medals indeed.

During his career with Chelsea, Zola appeared for us 309 times in seven years, scoring 80 goals for us along the way. In that time, his general contribution and hard work made him the perfect team player, and a great role model for the club and its young fans. Everyone was learning to take a free kick like Zola, but to their dismay, they couldn’t do it, nobody could do it like the Italian magician.

In the 2001-02 season, Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri decided to overhaul the squads ageing players, and although Gianfranco survived this at first, his chances became limited, with Ranieri preferring younger options such as Eidue Gudjohnsen. Ranieri had an age policy at Chelsea, in an attempt to reduce the average age of the squad, he showed the door to Dennis Wise, Gustavo Poyet and Frank Lebouef. Although I agree with reducing the average age of a squad, Gianfranco was still scoring goals, notably the ‘back-heel’ goal against Norwich that I previously featured. He still had so much to offer.

The following season was to be Zola’s last, but amazingly was also his highest scoring too. I feel that he left too soon and could still have helped the younger players at the club, along with the clubs fortunes to come. He could have took a player/coaching role and stayed with the club. But at the age of 37, both player and club agreed he should move on, and understandably he decided to re-join Cagliari, his hometown club.

Gianfranco had left just a week before Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich took over the club, and attempted transition number two. It is reported that Roman then tried to buy the whole club of Cagliari when Zola refused to renege on his verbal contract with Cagliari, although Zola hasn’t confirmed this. I’m assuming Roman knew how important Gianfranco Zola was to Chelsea football club, and wanted him back onboard in some way.

Zola then continued to play in Cagliari until retiring from football in 2005. He endured one hell of a football career scoring 216 goals in 715 matches.

After a while Zola returned to the game to attempt a manager career, and mixed fortunes lay ahead for him, as we all know about his up and down stint with West Ham. He has also done some football commentating and pundit work, and his English still hadn’t improved, he even swore when featuring on ‘Goals On Sunday’ on Sky Sports, but he got away with it using his cheeky aura and innocence!

To me, Gianfranco will always be remembered as the little Italian genius that could do pretty much anything with the ball at his feet, the best Chelsea player I have witnessed. And today, on his birthday, I just wanted to remind you all, whether you are pre-abramovich or not, what a hugely class and important player Gianfranco was for us, and his legend will always live on here.

Zola is set to return to management with Watford this season, I am pleased to see him back, and hoping he will return to us one day within the coaching ranks.

Simon Phillips – Follow me on Twitter for more articles and news updates @chelseafctbos