The Vialli Chronicles relives the story of Chelsea in 1998/9 under the management of the great Gianluca Vialli. In Part One, resident 90s Chelsea expert Baris (@VialliChelseaFC) takes a look at the ambitious transfer market dealings that were made by Chelsea in preparation for a rollercoaster campaign at home and in Europe.
For a legendary player to be ridiculed in their home country for being appointed a manager is unheard of. But that’s what ultimately happened when Gianluca Vialli took over the Chelsea hot seat as Ruud Gullit’s replacement on 12thFebruary 1998. Three months later, he made his critics eat their words as The Blues won both the League Cup and The European Cup Winners Cup (the clubs first European success in 27 years). Capped off by a top four finish in the Premier League, Chelsea were now rightly being discussed in the media as genuine title challengers to both Manchester United’s dominance and Arsenal who, in Arsene Wenger’s first full season in charge, completed the Premier League and FA Cup double.
To put Chelsea’s league finish into context, the last time the Blues finished in the top four of the top tier of English football was all the way back in the 1969/1970 season – finishing third with a team managed by club legend Dave Sexton and including greats like Bonetti, Dempsey, Harris, McCreadie, Webb, Cooke, Hudson, Hollins, Houseman, Hutchinson and Osgood.
The six seasons at the start of the 90s produced mid-table finishes while Gullit’s first season in charge during the 96/97 season demonstrated major progress with a sixth place finish. Finishing fourth and winning two major trophies provided Chairman Ken Bates with the final realization that his dream was finally becoming a reality:
“I could see the rise of the club in my mind. I recall standing on the pitch after completing the takeover [2nd April 1982] and thinking to myself, one day…one day.”
Preparations were already in place as early as May 1998 for the new season, as Chief Executive Colin Hutchinson was tasked with finding the world class signings Vialli needed for his assault on the Premier League title. Italian forward Pierluigi Casiraghi’s official signing for £5.4m on 29th May was not so straightforward. Lazio’s President wanted £7m and a price to sign Di Matteo or the Casiraghi deal was off. Anyone who thinks that Marina Granovskaia is a tough negotiator, Hutchinson was just as resilient as Lazio returned back to Italy with less money for Casiraghi and minus Di Matteo.
AC Milan were reluctant to let Marcel Desailly depart as they subsequently offered a number of other players as part of a mass clear out – thanks mainly to the club’s underwhelming tenth place finish in Serie A that lead to the sacking of Fabio Capello. However, Vialli was only interested in Desailly and on 4th June a deal was finally agreed with “The Rock”.
Brain Laudrup, a free agent, was officially signed on 6th June after a pre-contract agreement was agreed during Gullit’s tenure in February 1998.
On 8th June, Hutchinson agreed a deal to sign Barcelona right back Albert Ferrer for £2.2m. Ferrer accepted only after Vialli spoke to the player on the phone. As the Blues Manager would confirm – “The first problem for me is to get to know each player individually, to know their surroundings, to know English football and then the characteristics of their football.”
On 9th June, Marcel Desailly was eager to start the new chapter in his glittering football career with Chelsea as he told reporters, “I know him [Ferrer] as a player. This is good. I am really happy. He’s a good player, he’s strong, he’s quick, he scores goals, he gives the ball to the attack, with Casiraghi and Laudrup, the new players, I think Chelsea’s going to be a strong, strong team….I’m happy to be at the beginning of the growing and I hope in a few years we win the Champions League. For me this is the ambition.”
While France were busy lifting the World Cup in Paris, Vialli was busy planning for the new season – “I’ve got no excuses now. We’ve got the team we were looking at the start of the summer and bought the best four players were available. We have to win something. I’m desperate for us to start on the right footing because I know it could be vital by next May.” Desailly confirmed the passion and determination from the manager – “I know Gianluca is after the championship. That’s what he wants more than anything else. He is a manager who has a burning desire for more success.”
On the eve of the start of the new Premier League campaign where The Blues would be away to Coventry City, then-Sky Sports pundit Andy Gray dismissed Chelsea’s credentials as title contenders by comparing the team to a “jigsaw with disjointed pieces.” PFA boss Gordon Taylor commented that “home-grown youngsters were being squeezed out by Chelsea’s big-name foreign signings,” while he also couldn’t see the likes of Jody Morris “getting many opportunities.” It is worth noting that Jody Morris would in fact make 18 Premier League starts in the 1998/99 and 30 starts in the 1999/2000 season.
Next stop……..Highfield Road – Saturday 15th August.
Do you have any special memories of the 1998/9 campaign under Gianluca Vialli? Let us know in the comments below!