Before there was a Lampard, a Terry, a Cech and a Drogba, there was the team that started it all. It started in the early 90’s when Glenn Hoddle assumed the role of manager at The Bridge. He brought forward thinking ideas and a more continental approach. This was solidified with the arrival of Rudd Gullit in ’95. That season was a disappointing one in the league but there was promise with an FA Cup Semi Final appearance, a clear thought process in place led to a seamless transition when Gullit took over from England bound Hoddle in the summer of 96.
That Summer was one of our most important. We went European in a big way, with the arrivals of Vialli on a free and Franck Leboeuf and Robbie Di Matteo for £2.5 and £4.5 million respectively. The Autumn brought another new arrival in the shape of Gianfranco Zola, arguably our greatest ever player, and certainly one of our most influential. The season ended with a 6th place finish, a marked improvement on the season before and a glorious FA Cup Triumph with a comfortable 2-0 win over Middlesbrough, the game won psychologically 45 seconds in with Di Matteo’s thunderbolt.
Let’s take a look at the team that started that day, shall we? Starting with the Subs.
Perennially our second choice goalkeeper, Hitchcock always remained a reliable understudy to Dimitri Kharine, Frode Grodas, Ed De Goey and more. He never quite had the quality to force his way into becoming number one but he was always there as a safe pair of hands. We have certainly had worse back up keepers, with Neil Sullivan being an example, or more recently Ross bloody Turnbull. He signed in ’88 and stayed until 2001 only making 96 league appearances, which shows how long he stayed and how little he was used. As a kid I never remembered being upset at seeing Hitchcock on the team sheet, knowing he was a solid option. Upon leaving Chelsea, finally, he retired as a pro and made the trip to join Gianluca Vialli at Watford and became their goalkeeping coach. From there he went to Blackburn and then Manchester City, becoming a trusted part of Mark Hughes backroom team. He later moved through London, taking in West Ham, Fulham and QPR. He was last seen as a goalkeeping coach at Birmingham, appointed by good friend and colleague Gianfranco Zola, his career doing a 180. A trusted backup and one fondly remembered by older Chelsea fans.
Someone I was never a fan of. Don’t know whether it was his terrible hair, his dental hygiene or most likely, the fact that he scissor kicked a back pass straight to David Beckham for him to score the decisive goal against us in the FA Cup Semi Final of ’96. Why he attempted that I’ll never know. Either way, it must have peed Rudd Gullit off as a year later he was off to Celtic, an unused sub in the final. He was more successful in Scotland, his errant back passes no longer a threat to existence, he won the Scottish league and cup double before heading back south, not too far though; just to Derby. He managed to get them relegated whilst he was there, misplacing passes all over the shop. So much so he was sent away, not to Coventry, but to Dundee, and then Preston, and then Walsall.
In all seriousness he was a decent enough player, just not good enough to trouble the starting line up at that time. He has parlayed his experience both North and South of the border to become a commentator for both English and Scottish football.
Here he is. The man who almost won us the league in ’99, which most people forget. Were it not for Paul bloody Kitson and our inability to defend near post headers, we could very well have won that damn thing and “that night in Barcelona” would not have not have been so maddening.
Joining us a Champions League winner in ’96 was a massive coup and a sign of change at Chelsea. No longer were we signing average midfielders and Scottish forwards. No longer would we have to suffer Paul Furlong and John Spencer. Now we had a true world class forward. One to drag us to the nadir of Premier League football, making everyone around him better.
I don’t know if he did all that but he certainly improved our team, becoming top scorer in his first season and our main man for a grand total of three months until the little Italian Zola joined. A feud broke out between Viallia and Gullit and halfway through Vialli’s second season Gullit was out and in his place? Vialli himself. Winning the feud and free to pick himself whenever he wished. He didn’t though, focusing on managing the team as we picked up both the League and Cup Winners Cups in ’98. That title challenge followed in ’99 and it seemed all was rosy in the garden. However, we never quite kicked on and a disappointing finish in 2000, masked by an FA Cup and a poor start to the 2000/2001 season led to Vialli’s dismissal.
Off to Watford he went and a storming start to the 01/02 season led some to believe he would bring the Hornets back to the Premier League. Not so, a spectacular mid season collapse and an expensive squad led to a 14th place finish and Vialli was gone. Since then, he has been a pundit all over the shop as well as contributing to certain Chelsea docs as a talking head. A massive contribution to the Chelsea we see now, he will be remembered as a firm favourite of The Bridge.
Next week, the defenders! All five of them. Times were different in 97….