Gianluca Vialli was Ruud Gullit’s first Chelsea signing in the summer of 1996. A free transfer from Juventus and he was instantly given the number nine shirt. Despite coming to the end of his career, he was a huge signing for Chelsea. Luca had already won much in the game including many domestic trophies in Italy and the Champions League in 1996 with Juventus.
Chelsea were now on the verge of something special and fellow Italian Roberto Di Matteo and French defender Frank Leboeuf also signed for the club.
Luca first made an appearance in the pre-season Umbro International Tournament in Nottingham where Chelsea were victorious beating Ajax in the final.
Chelsea’s first home game of the season saw Middlesbrough visit Stamford Bridge. All the talk before the game was Vialli facing his former teammate Fabrizio Ravanelli. Ironically it was fellow Italian Di Matteo who scored the late winner. Next up was Coventry at home which saw Luca score his first goal in Chelsea blue. Going by his celebration he clearly enjoyed it, as did the Stamford Bridge faithful! He was instantly a Chelsea favourite.
The goals were coming for Luca and I remember going to the Everton league game in the December. My dad had booked a dinner dance for his company and it was an overnight stay. He deliberately booked a hotel near to Stamford Bridge so we could go to the game. As we checked in I looked over and saw a smart looking man with sunglasses on (it was December!). I quickly realised it was Gianluca Vialli. We spoke with him briefly before getting his autograph. He was staying there until a house was sorted for him. We went to the match with Chelsea drawing 2-2 and Luca scoring the equaliser. We bought a Chelsea shirt with ‘Vialli 9’ on the reverse and asked a receptionist if they could get him to sign it. In the morning after breakfast the receptionist found us and gave us the signed shirt from Luca. To say I was buzzing was an understatement.
By this point Ruud had added fellow Italian Gianfranco Zola to the squad. Luca found it hard to always get in the team as Zola had formed a great partnership with Mark Hughes. Luca remained professional and always gave everything when given the opportunity. The fans adored him!
Shortly after the tragic death of vice chairman Matthew Harding we beat Spurs and then famously won 2-1 at Old Trafford in the league. A wonderful goal from Luca who played the ball through the legs of the outrushing Peter Schmeichel after a wonderful ball from Frank Leboeuf.
The 4-2 comeback win against Liverpool in the F.A Cup 4th Round will always live long in the memory of Chelsea supporters, with Vialli grabbing two. It was at that point many of us felt it could be Chelsea’s year. It most certainly was, as Chelsea went on to win the F.A Cup. A fantastic day and cup run which Luca was most certainly part of.
The 1997/98 season saw more additions including goalkeeper Ed De Goey, defender Celestine Babayaro, Uruguayan Gustavo Poyet, striker Tore André Flo and former blue Graeme Le Saux.
Luca got back in the team more regularly and he didn’t do his chances any harm when scoring four at Barnsley in a 6-0 win in late August. The goals kept on coming, scoring away to Slovan Bratislava (off his bum!) and two vital late away goals in the snow in Tromso. There was a hat trick at home to Tromso in a 7-1 demolition in the return leg. More goals followed and by February Chelsea were sitting second in the Premier League, in the League Cup Semi Final and in the Quarter Final of the Cup Winners Cup. To the amazement of world football Ruud Gullit was sensationally sacked by then chairman Ken Bates. I remember everyone being in disbelief. There was a dispute over a new contract which left us all very disappointed. The club didn’t dwell on this and the fans had to move on quickly to. Luca was named player manager!
His first game in charge saw Chelsea take on Arsenal in the League Cup Semi Final Second Leg at Stamford Bridge. Trailing 2-1 from the first leg, it was always going to be an uphill battle. Chelsea won the game 3-1 (4-3 on agg) in a simply fantastic night at the Bridge. It was revealed later that Luca and the players had a toast of champagne before the game in the dressing room. Luca had already got us to a Wembley cup final after only being in charge for a matter of days.
A wonderful day at Wembley saw Chelsea lift the League Cup against Middlesbrough and go on to win the Cup Winner’s Cup against Stuttgart in Stockholm. A fantastic end to the season with Luca lifting two trophies! Luca also finished the season as Chelsea’s top goalscorer with nineteen in all competitions.
The summer of 1998 saw Luca add more quality to the squad. In came Marcel Desailly, Albert Ferrer, Pierluigi Casiraghi and Brian Laudrup.
A season that started with another trophy after beating Real Madrid 1-0 in the Super Cup Final in Monaco. A 4-1 league cup win at home to Aston Villa saw Luca score a hat trick and give a debut to a very young John Terry. More goals were coming for Luca and most notably in the cup competitions. Two in a 5-0 league cup win at Arsenal and two at Oldham in the F.A Cup are often remembered.
A great season that saw Chelsea lose just three Premier League games all season and finish only four points behind winners Manchester United. It was Chelsea’s highest league finish since 1970. Injuries to Casiraghi, Poyet and Flo and the departure of Brian Laudrup certainly made an impact to our season. Luca retired from football at the end the 1998/99 season to focus fully on being manager. He made his last professional appearance in the final game of the season, scoring the winner against Derby County at Stamford Bridge.
The 1999/00 season saw Chelsea enter the Champions League for the first time as a result of our third place finish the season before. Luca led us to the Quarter Final stage only to be beaten in extra time by Spanish giants Barcelona. A great campaign that also gave us memorable nights against AC Milan, Galatasaray, Lazio and Feyenoord.
Luca also led us to another F.A Cup Final, this time defeating Aston Villa in the final at Wembley.
In the summer of 2000 Luca most notably signed Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen. Silverware was gained quickly in the form of the Charity Shield at Wembley against Manchester United. Unfortunately results didn’t go our way at the start of the season and Luca was sacked in September.
Chelsea Appearances: 88
Chelsea Goals: 40
F.A Cup 1997 – player
League Cup 1998 – player/manager
European Cup Winners Cup 1998 – player/manager
UEFA Super Cup 1998 – player/manager
F.A Cup 2000 – manager
Charity Shield 2000 – manager
In May 2018 Luca was welcomed back to Stamford Bridge when he managed a Chelsea legends team at Stamford Bridge against Inter Forever in memory of Ray Wilkins. A wonderful event and great to see him back in the dug out.
This month it was announced that Luca is now cancer free after seventeen months and it was great seeing him in the stands at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. A great player and manager for Chelsea. The word ‘legend’ is often over used in football but not when talking about Luca!
“We love you”.
Written by Chris Wright
You can see more of my work at chelsearewind.home.blog and cfcuk fanzine.
Edited by: Dan