by David Dickson
I started supporting Chelsea in 1990, at five years old. Most of my early experiences of Stamford Bridge would find me sat on the old wooden benches at the front of the West Stand, uncovered from the October rain, watching Mark Stein blaze shots so wide they would almost hit me on the side-lines. In the mid-90s, everything began to change. From Hoddle came Gullit, from Gullit came Vialli, and on a November night in 1996, the greatest playmaker ever to grace the Stamford Bridge pitch arrived.
I was a big fan of Gianfranco Zola already. He previously played for Parma in Serie A, and even at such a young age, I was fully accustomed to his genius through the magic of Channel 4 and Football Italia. I ‘supported’ Parma, mainly through such youthful reasoning as the ‘nice-ness’ of their yellow and blue kit. After seeing them at the 1993 Cup Winners’ Cup Final at Wembley (sans-Zola), I took notice of them every Sunday afternoon.
Every week they featured I found I couldn’t take my eyes away from this little wizard of an attacking midfielder. I was never particularly skilful as a footballer when I was younger, so to watch someone in a foreign land twist and turn their way through entire defences was exotic and exhilarating. So on that night in 1996, when the news filtered through on Ceefax that he would be joining my team, I knew which name would be on my new Chelsea shirt the following day.
Except, Chelsea weren’t quite so prepared for that kind of excitement over new signings in those days. We ran out of Z’s in the club shop.
For the six years that followed, Zola combined an enormous amount of facets which install a player to legend status in any club’s folklore. Firstly, there was his immaculate timing. Nobody, in my experience of football at Stamford Bridge, has scored so many goals at such key moments as Gianfranco. When you aren’t fit enough to start a Cup Winners’ Cup Final, what do you do? Nip on with ten minutes to go, break through on goal, and score the only goal of the game twenty-one seconds into your appearance.
The moments kept coming. There was that turn against Wimbledon in the latter stages of the FA Cup semi-final, the time he rounded the entirety of the best defence in the Premier League in his first appearance against Manchester United, the countless late goals – the best against Liverpool in an FA Cup comeback from 2-0 down at the Bridge, the list is endless. Zola was clearly a man for the moment. Even England felt his wrath at Wembley in 1997, and it is surely testament to his popularity that no-one in this country even has any ill feeling against him for that goal.
Any hero of a football club needs to produce moments which look almost super-human. When somebody’s best goal for a club comes in a fourth round FA Cup tie against Norwich City, you know it must have something special about it. Burnt in the memory of any football fan is the image of Zola gliding through the air, left leg outstretched, whilst his right foot deftly flicks the ball behind him into the Norwich goal. It became the most vivid image of Zola’s time at Chelsea, a pure depiction of genius and the kind of goal that needed several replays to even comprehend. This was especially pertinent for me, since by this time my season ticket saw me sitting in the Shed End, about one hundred yards away.
Zola also dominated the Premier League in a purely technical sense. His free-kick taking was second to none at the time, and he remains to this day one of the greatest exponents of the direct, curling, swirling set-piece. An exceptional case came against Barcelona during an unlikely 3-1 win during Chelsea’s first season in the Champions League. An extraordinary ‘up-and-down’ effort from just outside the box, Zola scored on one of the most memorable nights at Stamford Bridge in living memory.
Gianfranco Zola is my favourite footballer for all of this and more. His flair and talent is immeasurable, but this is not all that is required of a club legend. Manchester United fans will forever be grateful to the exploits of Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, but his name will not be woven into history with the love and affection that somebody like George Best’s. Gianfranco Zola is our George Best. A personality and an amiable character coupled with a raw talent that you can proudly tell your grandchildren you saw.
His final appearance saw him dazzle and deceive an entire Liverpool team on Easter Monday 2003. In a rare sign of friendship between both sets of fans, applause for Zola was heard from all around the ground. He retired in 2005 with an OBE, the honour of being voted Chelsea’s greatest ever player by fans and a place in Chelsea’s Centenary Eleven up front. Nobody has ever worn the number 25 since 2003.
Not bad for a little man from Sardinia…