The Magic of Late-90s Chelsea by Charlie Skillen @charlieskillen

Photo: Stephen Munday/Getty Images

Bent knee, point to the sky.

I did it everywhere. The playground, my living room, everywhere. I was seven. Lay on the floor, bent knee, point to the sky.

Roberto Di Matteo’s celebration after his first Chelsea goal against Middlesbrough (there would be more of those to come) is one of the most iconic images in the club’s history.

It represented a small watershed. Continental stars Di Matteo, Dan Petrescu and Frank Lebouef embraced stalwarts Dennis Wise and Erland Johnsen. Chelsea were back. The second coming of the swinging Sixties and Seventies, the Kings of the King’s Road, back in their rightful place as London’s most glamorous club. Chelsea were back.

I’d already been well bitten by the football bug a year earlier, a 1995-96 season which saw me attend my first match at Stamford Bridge, wear my first kit everywhere (orange and grey, of course) and put all manner of things on my head to look like dreadlocks when Chelsea signed Ruud Gullit on a free transfer.

That was the real watershed, of course. One of the most famous players in the world pitching up at a mid-table side with a barely half-built ground. He ran Premier League games seemingly effortlessly at the age of 33, bringing skill and poise to a hardworking team, becoming player-manager the following season by popular demand.

Di Matteo, Lebouef, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola all subsequently arrived, each one indelibly carved into Chelsea folklore. The foreign invasion had taken hold of English football — Bergkamp, Juninho, Ginola et al — and Chelsea were at the forefront.

Photo: Clive Mason/Allsport UK

It seems natural now that Gullit’s side would win the FA Cup at the climax of this season of change, but it’s impossible to overstate the win over Boro at Wembley in terms of significance. Forget all the signings, the sexy football — Chelsea had won their first trophy in 26 years. Chelsea were back.

The league campaign was peppered with the sort of results we’d come to know and love from our favourite Chelsea teams — winning 2-1 at Old Trafford just two weeks after a 4-2 home defeat by Wimbledon — but it was all about the Cup.

Any image from that run is plastered on the mind of any fan of a certain age. An under-construction Stamford Bridge rocking like never before as Liverpool were beaten 4-2, thrashing Wimbledon in that gorgeous yellow away kit, ‘Zola Power’ flags waving and the Suggs single blaring out under the twin towers.

It was a similar story the next season. An improved league campaign saw the best finishing position since 1970, but it’s the cup campaigns that still live in the memory. Of course, it wouldn’t be Chelsea without massive drama just when it was all going smoothly.

For reasons no-one quite seemed sure of, Ruud Gullit was sacked. I lost it, big time. A toddler-like tantrum when I was far too old to have one. Chelsea had shot themselves in the foot. Chelsea were back.

Much like 18 months previously, a crowd favourite took over. Gianluca Vialli got his side on champagne before his first match in charge, a brilliant 3-1 win over an Arsenal side we never, ever beat (how strange that must seem to the latest generation of fans) to set up another Wembley final with Middlesbrough, this time in the League Cup.

With another pot in the cabinet and the league just out of reach, attentions turned to Europe and the Cup Winners’ Cup, held so dear by fans after Ossie and Co beat Real Madrid in 1971.

It’s another campaign littered with iconic Chelsea images. The snow in Tromsø, Mark Hughes volleying in the decisive goal in the semi-final against Vicenza, but most of all Zola sending three quarters of the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm crazy by latching onto a beautiful Wise pass and smacking it into the top corner of the Stuttgart net. Chelsea had won a European trophy once more. Chelsea were back.

Julian Dicks. Wimbledon at Highbury. The entire United defence… just some of Zola’s victims in his early Chelsea days, but none meant as much as that goal.

I’d never seen anything like it, and I never thought it would get any better. It was the most important and best thing in the world. School was crawling with United fans, but it was Chelsea on everyone’s lips.

It seemed that was also true in world football, with players like Marcel Desailly, Brian Laudrup, Pierluigi Casiraghi and Albert Ferrer joining the charges that summer.

It’s so unfairly forgotten how close Chelsea were to the title in a year which ended up synonymous with United’s treble.

Casiraghi’s career ended in injury after 10 games. Laudrup decided he was homesick for Denmark after a few games, even though he managed four years in Glasgow just prior. The influential Gus Poyet was injured from December to April.

Steve Guppy. Steve bastard Guppy. Even at a young age I understood the devastating impact of that goal, a curling effort to rescue a point at Stamford Bridge for a Leicester side I intensely disliked. It laid clear the frailties in Vialli’s side pipped to the post by United and Arsenal.  Chelsea finished four measly points behind the Champions.

It did mean, however, that Champions League football was coming to west London. Usually I’d say Chelsea were back, but Chelsea were where they’d never been before.

We come back to images. Laughing at Galatasaray’s ‘hell’ (we’re not bothered), Wise’s ‘very’ good goal in the San Siro, and most of all an almost-finished Stamford Bridge exploding at doing the unthinkable, being 3-0 up against the might of Rivaldo, Figo and Co’s Barcelona.

Superior quality eventually told at the Nou Camp, but Chelsea fans were treated to another Wembley triumph in the FA Cup. It might just be the age I was, but I find it incredible the amount of iconic moments packed into four years … I’d argue possibly even more than during the Abramovich era.

Looking back, however, it’s clear to see that everything wasn’t quite as happy as the beaming smiles in my Merlin stickerbook and endless posters of goal celebrations would suggest.

It came to a head after a dismal start to the 2000-01 season, when Vialli was sacked. It ended a dressing room torn, many players having fallen out with their former teammate.  Things were never the same again. Claudio Ranieri failed to motivate the side, and the next summer Wise, Poyet and Lebouef all left. It was over.

I’ll now see any photo of Di Matteo, Wise or Zola celebrating in a kit sponsored by Coors or Autoglass and immediately be transported to my childhood. They were such a special team, one that surpassed the achievements of the iconic 1970s side.

Their flashiness and ability to pull off the miraculous lives long in the memory as does their uncanny knack of mucking it all up at Sheffield Wednesday or West Ham. They never had the mental focus to win the league, and must be one of the most talented Premier League sides not to do so. They’re probably the opposite of a Jose Mourinho side.

You never forget your first love, and they’re the Chelsea side I grew up with. My formative football years saw them go from mid-table to cup kings to beating Barcelona in the Champions League.

We’re in the midst of watching the last embers of another iconic team, with only John Terry left from the Chelsea side that surpassed all others, winning leagues, cups and the big one, 12 years after Wise sent one end of the San Siro ballistic.

They’ll rightfully be remembered above all others, but the Chelsea of the late 1990s will probably always be my favourite. Style, glamour, the coolest club in England. Chelsea were back.

Charlie Skillen is a journalist for the Daily Mail.


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