Lets be honest, Chelsea Football Club never do it by halves do they? What appeared to be a relatively quiet summer – well possibly until the administrators were called in! – was totally blown apart when, in the space of some 24 hours, our Club was both saved and then almost blown apart. Whether life will ever be quite the same down in SW6 remains to be seen.
All the talk should have been of a 36 year old Russian, with a bigger bank account than Ken Bates ego, taking charge with a promise that money would no longer be a problem for the Club. Yet what is it that has dominated all our thoughts instead? The loss of one player, not the purchase of lots of others. A small Sardinian who somehow managed to win a place not just in the hearts and minds of Chelsea supporters, but of football fans everywhere.
When I first sat down to write this piece many thoughts crossed my mind. Shall I write about why Franco is so special to me? Shall I write about my favourite goal of his? My favourite moment of skill? My favourite story about him? Just where exactly do you begin? The more thought you give a piece like this, the more difficult it becomes. The truth is that every single one of us has a special Zola moment and, unlike with any player before him, every single one of those moments is both special and unique.
Why not begin with the 1996/7 season which, I believe, shaped the future of the football club that we all hold so dear. How well do you remember the 1996/7 season? It was a term of tremendous highs and one awful low. We forget very quickly, with the team often turning over quickly, but before that season started we said a few goodbyes. Glenda, Flecky, Gareth Hall, Andy Dow, Spackers, Tony Barness and Paul Furlong to name but a few. Now there’s a real mixed bag for you! Of course there were a few hellos too. Ruudi became player manager, Roberto Di Matteo arrived from Lazio, Frank Leboeuf from Strasbourg, Luca Vialli fresh from lifting the European Cup at Juve and, of course, a funny little guy from Parma who went by the name of Gianfranco Zola.The awful low came just one month before Franco signed upon the dotted line. Not that many should need reminding, but on the way back from a League Cup defeat at Bolton we lost Matthew Harding.
I have to admit that although I had heard the name Zola before, I did not really know much about this player who seemed to have fallen out of the Subuteo box. How quickly that state of affairs changed. Not just for me, but for thousands of football fans the length and breadth of the country.
Franco made his debut for us at Ewood Park. A 1-1 draw – thanks to an equaliser from super Dan – and an OK start. Not earth shattering, and certainly not a hint of what delights laid in store for us. December 7th 1996, not a date that readily springs to mind its true, but it was the day that we saw Franco hit the back of the net for the first time. One of his trade mark free kicks, a great strike against the blue of Everton. He also managed to hit the bar – from a corner! – and saw Vialli hit the bar after a great ball in. We didn’t win, but already you could feel the warmth of the smiles whenever the ball landed at the feet of the little number 25. A great goal against West Ham when he turned Mr. Dicks inside and out before slotting the ball home and two more goals against Villa in a brilliant performance and another against Sheffield Wednesday in an awful game 2 days later and the man was already half way to being a legend.
Here, I guess, lies the problem. I could spend the next 500 words talking about the goal against Wimbledon to take us to Wembley, the goal that lifted us the Cup Winners Cup the following season when even Franco lost his mind, the sublime flick against Norwich in the FA Cup, the free kicks (oh those free-kicks!) against Barcelona, or Tottenham, or Blackburn or, well it just goes on and on and on.
To me Gianfranco Zola changed the shape of this football club forever. He gave us a profile not just in this country but right across the world. His passion for the game, his skill, his smile, his never to be defeated attitude, his time for others. Gianfranco Zola may have been a tiny footballer, but he was truly a giant of a man. The words world class are banded about just a bit too often for my liking, but Zola really was. Not just as a footballer, but as a human being, and that in itself is a pretty special – and almost unique – commodity.
My head tells me that it is best that he goes now, after what was possibly his best ever season for us we will always remember him at the top of his game, my heart though tells me something different. When I consider that we will never again see him running out in that blue shirt, something tugs at me deep inside. I guess it does not help that he left under a slight cloud, and that once more the powers that be tried to rewrite the history books. Watching Uncle Ken on Chelsea TV he assured everyone that the reasons for Franco leaving had nothing at all to do with money. He absolutely assured us that this was not the case. Some 48 hours later Franco gave his press conference and painted a very different picture. He also revealed that Colin Hutchinson – the man who has been blamed for everything that has gone wrong at the Bridge lately – kept him at Chelsea three years ago when the lure of Naples was strong. That press conference really summed the man up. After fielding all the questions the various hacks could muster he stood up to see the room burst into a round of applause. I doubt if that has ever happened before, or is ever likely to again.
What will always remain with me was the rapport that he had with the fans. Franco said at his press conference that we will always retain a special place in his heart. “It’s been great,” he said. “They gave me everything I was looking for. They made me feel a very, very important player. Even when I wasn’t playing very well. And that is something. I felt special since day one here. That is really supporting the players. As a player you receive an extra boost. If I was playing somewhere else I’m sure I wouldn’t still be playing at 37.”
So, after 312 appearances, 80 goals, 108 assists, 14 free kicks scored, a Footballer of the Year award (it should have been at least two), medals from a brace of FA Cups, the Worthless Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup, Uefa Super Cup, Charity Shield, and Chelsea Player of the Year 2003 it is time to say goodbye. We are promised that he will be back with his new team to play a friendly for charity. I hope so, I hope we really get to say goodbye in the way we would all want to.
Who would have thought those seven years ago that a pint sized Sardinian would have had such an impact on each and everyone of us. The new millions might bring us highly rated and world class footballers. It might even make us the best football team in the world. What it can never do is bring back to us the unique talent that is Gianfranco Zola. I have a signed photo of him on my wall and when I look at it I cannot help but be thankful for all that he gave us. We will never see the like of him again, he was special to us and we were special to him. He will always be a Chelsea player in our hearts, and we will always remain in his. Thanks Franco for everything. World class? Of course. To me you are, and always will be, a true Chelsea legend.