Dave McCrossen pays tribute to Chelsea legend Roberto Di Matteo, following the Italian midfielder’s announcement that he has retired from football after failing to recovery from his horrendous leg injury.
Being a Chelsea fan has always been a roller coaster ride. You get a bit cocky and form the view that nothing that goes on at the Bridge can shock, surprise or disappoint you. But, every now and then, life throws you a curve ball. The shocking, and untimely, death of Matthew Harding was one. Not quite on a par with that, but one that shocked me all the shame, was the announcement that Roberto Di Matteo would never again kick a football in anger.
Ruudi signed Robbie from Lazio in July 1996 for a then club record £4.9 million. To be totally honest, although I had heard the name I had no idea what the player was really like. I thought that we might have found a decent enough sort when it emerged how furious the Lazio fans were with the news that he had departed.
Robbie soon showed himself to be a skilful, tough-tackling midfielder who certainly had an eye for goal. He established his goal-scoring prowess quite quickly when he hit the winner late on against Middlesbrough in only his second game for us. That goal, as you will probably remember, led to the start of the ‘cool’ celebration. Robbie lay down, propped up on one elbow with one finger in the air, quickly joined by Wisey, Jodie and Super Dan. Oh yes, we had a winnerthere alright.
Di Matteo was our leading appearance maker in his first season, with 44 games and nine goals — £4.9 million well spent indeed. Robbie’s goals more often than not proved to be crucial, such as the winner in a 1-0 success over Liverpool a few weeks before we destroyed them in the FA Cup. The crucial second goal at Three Point Lane in our normal winning visit. The winning goal at Goodison Park, never a happy hunting ground for us, and then came that never to be forgotten moment.
Most of us had been at Wembley three years before when the team that does not deserve a mention, along with a certain prat of a referee, hammered us in the rain by four goals to nil. There was to be no repeat of that result this time around, when on a warm and sunny May day, while we were only just finishing a rousing rendition of “Ten men went to mow”, Robbie hit that most fantastic of shots into the back of the ’Boro net. The fastest ever cup final goal at Wembley and a shot that, for me at least, meant he will always have a place in my heart. In fact, Robbie’s run after he scored the goal was as fast as I ever saw him move. He certainly felt that it was a special effort, and no Blues fan would ever disagree with him.
Goals aplenty again the next season, including my favourite of his, a real screamer against Arsenal in the semi-final of the League Cup in Vialli’s first fixture as a manager. There was also another cup final goal, this time the second against ’Boro (once more) when we lifted the League Cup at Wembley on a much cooler day than our previous visit ten months earlier. This time around he played 44 games, scored ten goals and was as classy a ball player as any midfielder in the Premiership.
In 1998/9 the goals dried up, but his influence on the side showed no sign of waning. The fact that he had just three scoring efforts in a total of 45 games does not paint a proper picture. A late start after having nine weeks out through an ankle injury, he found he had a new role in the midfield with the emergence of Gustavo Poyet, having more defensive responsibilities than in previous seasons, often finding himself pushed out into an unfamiliar role on the wing. 1999/2000 was a funny season. Injury and a loss of form saw him make his lowest number of appearances yet in a blue shirt — just 21 starts. But we did see four goals, the most important of which came in the FA Cup final when he blasted the ball past Calamity James from close in to give us the trophy once more. How Robbie must have loved appearing at Wembley.
Last season it looked like his problems of the previous term were behind him. Certainly his early form looked like he was back to his best. Then came that fateful day in Zurich when the world came tumbling down. I was there on the day Robbie laid in a crippled heap, calling out in pain. Although the incident happened at the other end of the pitch to where we were sat, you could see it was a serious injury. Quite how serious none of us could have imagined. I remember on the plane home saying to a friend that defeat to a team of Toblerones was a disappointment, but the loss of Robbie was a bigger blow. I never, at that stage, imagined that would be the last we would see of him. I know that Robbie was not everyone’s idea of the perfect midfielder. Let’s be honest, he was never the quickest runner either with or without the ball. But I think that his talents were often overlooked. Hard working, a good ball-winner, an excellent passer of the ball and a shot that on its day was not far off the power that we see Jimmy Floyd putting to good use.
When the ‘foreign’ players first started to appear at the Bridge we were told that they were mercenaries, here to make a quick buck before vanishing back to where they came from. I think that this theory has been disproved a thousand times. Okay, we have not always struck it lucky with our purchases from abroad, but we have had far more winners than losers. What I will really miss about Robbie is not just his talent, but his obvious love for the Blues. It was here where he played the majority of his games, 175 in all, and his career was always destined to finish here. But not at 31 and not in such a cruel fashion. He may have come to us from Switzerland, via Italy, but he became — and always will be — a Chelsea fan.
Good luck in whatever you do Robbie. I wish that I could find the words to thank you for the joy you have given me, but I cannot. I hope that you find something to do in life that will bring you as much happiness and success as you brought to us.