Gianfranco Zola has today told Chelsea he will not be returning to the club having instead opted to sign for Italian Serie B side Cagliari.

There had been hopes the veteran 36-year-old would agree to a new one year contract offered by the club but it seems not even new ownership of Chelsea and the promise of millions of pounds in investment could persuade Zola to stay.

Chelsea chief executive Trevor Birch said: “We tried hard to find a solution, and when the new investors came in it was the very first issue on the agenda.

“As a result of additional resources being made available we were able to offer terms which satisfied him.

“But being the man he is he felt that having given his word to his home island club he would have to leave us and join them.”

Chelsea chairman Ken Bates paid tribute to Zola, who joined the club in November 1996 for just £4.6 million and was an instant hit, being named Football Writers’ Player of the Year and helping the club win the FA Cup in 1997, scoring the winning goal in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1998, and picking up the League Cup, European Super Cup, the FA Cup again in 2000 and the Charity Shield.

“Zola was undoubtedly one of Chelsea’s greatest players ever,” said Ken.

“He’s been a joy to watch and a great influence both on and off the field, particularly because of his great interest with young fans.

“We owe him one hell of a lot of thanks. On behalf of every Chelsea fan I wish him and his family all the very best of good fortune in the future.”

Fans will hopefully have a chance to say goodbye to Zola as negotiations are under way between Chelsea and Cagliari for a friendly sometime in the future.

Zola’s departure marks the end of an era but together with yesterday’s Russian takeover signals the start of another.

Many fans will no doubt be disappointed by Zola’s news but there’s no doubt these are very exciting times to be a Chelsea fan and in thanking the little man for his immense contribution to the club we can look to the future with a great deal of optimism.

* Enrique de Lucas is also no longer a Chelsea player. There had long been confusion over whether the Spaniard was a permanent free signing or a loan player but confirmation finally came this week when the midfielder left Stamford Bridge and joined Spanish second division outfit Alaves.

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