Growing up as a Chelsea fan during the 1990s was a thing of real beauty. From Gullit to Zola, Di Matteo and Vialli, the re-emergence of Chelsea laid the foundations for everything that followed in the 2000s. This is Chelsea.
If both London and Chelsea had lost their glamour somewhat in the late 70s, then the mid-90s ushered in a return to prominence of both. With ‘Cool Britannia' London was ‘swinging' again and, whilst the Kings Road was no longer its epicentre, pop stars and actors were flocking to Stamford Bridge in a way not known since its heyday in the late 60s and early 70s. The likes of Damon Albarn and Phil Daniels making bi-weekly trips to watch a team newly packed with the sort of talent which had not been seen since the glory days of Osgood, Hudson and Cooke.
In a nation pervaded with the sense that things could only get better, at Stamford Bridge there was a sense of optimism seldom before seen.
In hindsight, and probably with a slightly rosy tint, football at the time seemed to perfectly straddle the old and the new. It included all the benefits of the modern game, twinkle toed imports and reflected the positive outlook of contemporary Britain, all whilst retaining the rough round the edges grass roots appeal. It remained tribal. Grounds may have been developed since the Taylor Report but they retained, in the most part, their individualism and their character. Likewise, on the pitch there were distinctive individuals and characters. Most importantly the game remained within the financial constraints of the average person or family, while clubs remained, in the main, the sole preserve of those with a geographical affinity to the team they supported. It was a heady mix of progress and tradition.
Chelsea was a microcosm of this both on and off the pitch at Stamford Bridge. The virtual waiting room was still a Portakabin outside the ground. The old West Stand with its corrugated roof, concrete benches and wooden seats still stood next to the sparkling new North Stand (paid for through a loan from Matthew Harding); the past and the future also blended together between the prefab walls of the changing rooms at the clubs Harlington training ground. The likes of Mark Stein and Craig Burley shared the same limited resources as Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes. While the foreign imports had brought with them dieticians and fitness experts, the youth team still had a club tab at the local kebab shop. Progress and tradition.
The seeds had been sewn in the summer of ‘93. There'd been a first Cup Final in 24 years in 1994, a run to the semifinals of the European Cup Winners Cup the following season and another cup run spoilt by United in 1996, but it was when Gullit succeeded Hoddle that Chelsea's rise really began. Mixed in with home-grown talents like Eddie Newton and Michael Duberry as well as longstanding Chelsea men like Dennis Wise, Erland Johnsen and Steve Clarke was the flair of Zola, the elegance of Di Matteo and the guile of Vialli. There was Dan Petrescu — a full back — who could chip the keeper from 25 yards. Frank Leboeuf — a centre half — was hitting pinpoint 60-yard passes.
For an 8-year-old who'd stood on his seat in the temporary Shed against Blackburn Rovers, resplendent in a replica tangerine and graphite Gullit 4 on the back, telling Ken Bates where he could stick George Graham was what life was all about. It was my football club and it was the first time I could remember them being fucking good. For the first time in my life, indeed in a few generations, the players were genuine superstars, and yet they remained accessible. Watching the team train during half term at Harlington continued in the same vein as when I was waiting for Gareth Hall and Darren Barnard.
For those who had waited for a side like this — a brief resurrection under John Neal aside — for a quarter of a century this was ample reward. Finally, Chelsea were a team fit to challenge for trophies, and consistently win them. A good cup team.
In fact, a brilliant cup team; probably the last great one before the domestic cups were devalued by Manchester United pulling out of the FA Cup to play in Brazil, the TV spreading games out over almost the entire week, the all-encompassing Champions League and the conceit that fourth is somehow a trophy and that the manager who fields a weakened side in cups to focus on the league is doing the right thing (not to mention the abolition of the Cup Winners Cup and the absurd idea of the Europa League in Europe). Nearly every great memory of the period is inextricably linked with Cups.
The 1997 Cup run in particular was something special, clearly, and although the third round victory over West Brom was fairly routine the rest of it was anything but. Perhaps the crucial moment was bringing on Mark Hughes to inspire the second half come back from 2-0 down at home to Liverpool in the fourth round. Perhaps it was Erland Johnsen's dive in the replay against Leicester after being pegged back from two up to 2-2 in the away leg. Either way, the trophy itself was sealed by Di Matteo inside a minute from 30 yards out, and Eddie Newton iced the cake with a second after half time.
The celebrations in and around the ground went on for ages. I've still got the t shirt I bought off the spiv outside. After finally leaving Wembley and the famous old twin towers my old man and old dear dropped me and my sister round my nan's and joined the throngs of thousands back on the Kings Road. Matthew Harding's death, the floral tributes and the outpouring of grief that had followed it the previous October had been a stark reminder that football clubs were about a lot more than what went on the pitch and this reinforced that in more positive circumstances. Chelsea were back, hello, hello.
That summer the West Stand was demolished. This coincided with the opening of a new all seater two-tiered Shed End. If this was signalling a shift from the balance between the old and the new then I wasn't yet aware of it. It had only stood for just over 30 years but like the Shed, demolished three years before, it had been central to the formative years of many Chelsea fans. I was too young to have stood singing in the Shed, though I have vague memories of it being there in my earliest days going to Stamford Bridge. However, I spent the majority of my childhood years supporting Chelsea from the West Stand, whether on the benches or in the wooden seats. I'd love to still be watching Chelsea from the benches £10 for adults, £5 for kids, but as a 10-year-old it was just one of those things.
In the playground at school and the parks of West London there were other football focuses, between swapping Merlin stickers, the attempts to emulate Gazza against Scotland had long since been replaced by even less successful attempts to emulate Zola free kicks and Zola's goal against Wimbledon (another great Cup memory) and Zola twisting Julian Dicks inside out and Zola's goal at home to United and so on and so on. When on the odd occasion I wasn't running about pretending to be Zola it was trying to get the other kids to join in copying that celebration from the 5-0 win against Middlesbrough.
In February 1998 the Dutchman who had masterminded our resurrection was relieved of his job. However, despite initial incredulity at the decision the love affair with the cups continued apace. Di Matteo set the tone against Arsenal in Vialli's first game in charge — after a glass of champagne from the new manager before kickoff. Hughes' volley against Vicenza reinforced it. Di Matteo (and then Frank Sinclair) secured a trophy at Wembley again. However the season's defining moment was still to come.
For the generations before mine who attended the European away days that season (and the previous foray into Europe in 1994/95), the sense of adventure must have been something else. Before the internet had taken hold, before endless trips to Schalke, Porto and Valencia in the Champions League group stages and before Ryanair and Easyjet, the furthest afield Chelsea really travelled in 25 years was Le Harve for the Cross Channel Trophy. If appetites had been whetted in front of the water cannons of Brugges, then 97/98 was to serve up far more. Vialli in the snow in Tromso. Flo's brace against Betis. The adventure culminated with Zola's goal in Stockholm, sparking pandemonium on all four sides of the stadium. His second touch of the match secured the trophy we'd won 27 years previously and had reached the semifinals of three years prior.
The next season began with reigning European Champions Real Madrid being put to the sword in the Super Cup. It effectively ended on 18th April with a Steve Guppy equaliser ending our first title challenge to extend past Easter in generations. Typing that sentence still hurts. Despite all the success since, if ever a side deserved a title it was that one. In between Madrid and Leicester record signing Pierluigi Casaraghi scored his first goal for the club and then promptly broke his leg (and never played again). New great white hope Brian Laudrup decided London wasn't for him and returned to Denmark homesick. And despite that Chelsea played the best football I've ever seen.
The ‘what ifs?' about Casaraghi and Laudrup shouldn't distract from how good we were. Between an opening day reverse at Coventry and defeat at Highbury on 31st January we were undefeated for 21 games. A Zola and Flo-inspired 4-3 over Blackburn at Ewood Park at what was something of a bogey ground for Chelsea at the time particularly sticks out from that run. However, stuttering form towards then end of the season meant it wasn't to be, and we finished four points short.
The following year Chelsea entered the European Cup for the first time, a full 44 years after being the first English club to qualify for the competition. The expected title challenge failed to materialise but treble winners Manchester United were humbled 5-0 at the Bridge, where even Chris Sutton scored. However, despite indifferent league form, we excelled in Europe, particularly away from home in the first group stage. Dennis Wise, in his testimonial year, equalised in the San Siro against AC Milan in front of a travelling support numbering over 8,000. At the Ali Sami Yen Galatasaray welcomed us to hell, and aping the flag held aloft by the travelling support, the players responded with a performance suggesting ‘we're not bothered' as they put five on the Turks in their own back yard.
After qualifying to and then from the second group stage, Chelsea welcomed Barcelona to Stamford Bridge for the quarter finals. I watched stood on my chair in the uncovered, incomplete new West Stand as the ground rocked as goals from Zola and Flo saw us race into a three goal lead. I've seldom seen Stamford Bridge more up for it. Figo nicked one back for them in the second half and we eventually succumbed to defeat in extra time of the second leg in the Nou Camp, but Chelsea had proven they were a force to be reckoned with against the very best of European football after being denied the chance by the FA in the 1950s. Domestically a third trophy in three years was secured as Di Matteo was again on hand at Wembley to seal another FA Cup.
Like most great institutions of the 1990s it came to an end with the new millennium. By 2000, the team had already begun to be broken up — Petrescu was sold to Bradford, Leboeuf was on the verge of a return to France, and the sacking of Vialli and appointment of Ranieri and his public spat with Dennis Wise only sped up the process. We may have won a lot more since but nothing will come close to that side. They may have not got the title they deserved but they put Chelsea back on the map. They were by far the greatest team the world has ever seen, they were superstars who remained ours. It is no coincidence that most who played in that side retain an obvious affinity with the club, and they will always be my favourite Chelsea side.