10 years ago Chelsea were content on winning the European Cup Winners Cup. Since then the Blues have lifted the Premier League twice and reached the Champions League Final. How times have changed.
STOCKHOLM, Sweden, May 13th 1998. The compact Rasunda stadium was bouncing with banners and flags ordaining the auditorium, as two sets of supporters competed for European glory. A substitution with an immediate impact, a goal of effortless quality by a Sardinian and West London were on their way to witnessing a trophy achieved.
Of course this reality seems a distant memory compared to the heights Chelsea have reached since their famous European Cup Winners Cup victory over VFB Stuttgart of Germany in 1998, where former Italian maestro Gianfranco Zola struck a tantalising winner.
Would many have envisaged Chelsea would be labouring to countless victories on a Saturday afternoon with Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry in their ranks rather than Laurent Charvet, Kevin Hitchcock and Andy Myers? It would have certainly presented a tantalising prospect for Chelsea fans to dream of in 1998. However evolution means that those three were relatively unheard of in Europe and globally, like the remainder of the Chelsea squad existing today. Just look at the transformation now.
The reality is however that lifting the FA Cup, League Cup, notching a Cup Winners Cup and challenging for a Champions League spot in the Premier League, were all of relatively familiar fronts for Chelsea. Expectation was measured compared to the euphoria which surrounds Chelsea’s campaigns today. Although the Blues were expected to peak under the calibre of ex-Milan striker and ex-Chelsea player manager Gianluca Vialli and the diversely skilled Dutchman that preceded him, Ruud Gullit, SW6 in 1998 would have then doubted a return to winning the Premier League for the first time since 1955.
Die-hards in the then recently re-constructed Shed and the renamed Matthew Harding stand would have given their match day hotdogs and burgers away (which perhaps suggests more about the catering standards at Stamford Bridge, which have not altered since 1998) in exchange for a piece of the Premier League pie.
Like the Blues’ revolution under Ken Bates’ appointment of Glen Hoddle as Chelsea boss in 1993 – where many would argue the team started to compete again with the big boys – this further generated interest in the club, with Gullit, Mark Hughes, Roberto Di Matteo, Dan Petrescu, Gus Poyet and Gianluca Vialli just some of the stars to arrive at the Bridge.
Though Chelsea’s building of foundations with who were the cream of a talented crop only ten years ago, rose quickly to achieve the honours and thanks to Gullit had lifted the FA Cup in 1997 and had succeeded in competing with the big hitters by May 1998 through Vialli’s talent.
Nine trophies and three appointments later (excluding yesterday’s appointment of Luis Felipe Scolari) Chelsea’s march to the top of every competition represents the club’s transformation. Managers, players and supporters are not only expecting a respectable league finish and lifting the Worthington Cup (now known as Carling Cup) every once in a while to add to the trophy cabinet, but are instead now hoping to win the coveted “quadruple”.
Who would have envisaged Claudio Ranieri’s loveable persona steering Chelsea close to a Champions League Final in 2004 under new owner Roman Abramovich, whilst the previous year we had needed to survive financially by qualifying for a Champions League spot on the final day of 2003, beating Liverpool 2-1 at Stamford Bridge in a Champions League “play-off” thanks to a Jesper Gronkjaer winner.
Then arrived Ranieri’s successor Jose Mourinho. The “Special One” swaggered on the scene with Armani suits (or “Matalan” suits) and a glowing tan and duly delivered two trophies including the Barclays Premier League in his opening season. Although the team had progressed under the stewardship of Gullit, Vialli and indeed Ranieri – with evolution needing every one of them in charge – would supporters have believed they would witness their first trophy in 50 years by May 2005? A resounding no one might imagine.
History however is all relative and reflecting on the past reminds you of what you have achieved or sometimes have not. It is with hindsight which historians, journalists and supporters alike can recount triumphs or tribulations and when placed back in June 1998 many would not have given a second thought to a Champions League runner-up spot or two Premier League trophies because it did not seem achievable then. Perhaps another ten years from now Chelsea may be wiltering or flourishing with unparalleled success compared to the present day? What is fascinating is to remark on how far the period of an empire built on character, flair and spirit (and the odd rouble from Roman) has either ascended or descended. In Chelsea’s case there is reason to be proud of the team.
Chelsea can only reflect on where they were then and now, with the moral of the story highlighting that despite an empty trophy cabinet under the unfortunately short-lived tenure of Avram Grant, the Blues have still competed remarkably on three fronts this season. Runners-up in the Champions League, Premier League and Carling Cup is not a failure, due to the heights West London had seen 10 years ago where reaching one final or challenging for a European spot appeared the pinnacle of Chelsea’s success.
Some would argue the days of Kerry Dixon and management of John Neal in the 1980’s and later the days under Hoddle and company present a greater heart and soul than those of today and the “new money” which has seeped in to the game through capitalist owners and the Premier League’s monopolist executive franchises. But what is for sure is 10 years ago is no less important than now, and 10 years from now Chelsea will probably reflect on 2008 being no less important than 2018. Evolution can bring heartache and hysteria in equal measures. Undoubtedly the biggest conclusive debate from observing the club of 10 years ago to that of todays is the football. Everyone remembers exuberant panache of tight inter-play between Poyet, Zola and Vialli et al, where on their day Chelsea could thump Manchester United 5-0 and then lose to Watford 1-0. Chelsea’s football represented an excitement, a flair but sometimes a frustrating lack of potency and an unwillingness to turn up on a wet afternoon at Aston Villa on occasion.
Since then our consistency has since gained unprecedented momentum which has seen only 12 league defeats from 152 in four seasons under Jose Mourinho and Avram Grant’s management. Numerous trophies have arrived to compete with Arsenal, Liverpool (one would argue their competition) and Manchester United relentlessly. The only flaw is the problems regarding unsteady management tenures where bosses are undermined through internal politics which have since appeared under Mr Abramovich and Mr Kenyon. This, heightened with “ugly” football some might argue, has allowed some supporters to become slightly disillusioned with their beloved Blues.
However one thing must be remembered. For all the “dross” that Chelsea may sometimes play today, wins are countless and won with pride, lifting successive trophies. In 1998 a trophy was rarer than watching Sir Alex Ferguson chew a piece of gum less than 100 times in one minute. Now Chelsea churn out FA Cup’s and Premier League trophies every other year. The question is when comparing 10 years previous with today, do supporters settle for what they have? Do you sacrifice trophies for exciting football, or vice versa? Without Bates you would not have had Hoddle, Gullit and Vialli and without Abramovich you would not have had Mourinho and the flourish of trophies which has helped gain Chelsea’s “giant” reputation in European and world football.
The answer, it is evolution and one thing is for sure, another 10 years later you may well be comparing and contrasting again. However the biggest thought is this. Will the club (or would they want to) have improved the refreshments quality and prices by 2018? Or are greasy burgers and rock hard hot dog buns part of the Chelsea experience? They most certainly are.