Now I write a lot about Chelsea on this blog, and I make no apologies for that. They are my team, who I’ve followed for nearly 20 years and who I’ll follow for the rest of my life. In a previous post, where I named my choices for the greatest Chelsea side of the last 20 years effectively, I wrote about the moment that I knew I was 100% for sure a Chelsea fan. It also cemented who my favourite Chelsea player of all time. And it’s not John Terry. It’s not Frank Lampard or Didier Drogba or Eden Hazard or Khalid Boulahrouz. It’s Gianfranco Zola.
Zola was in his last season as a Chelsea player when I started taking notice and went to my first game. At that game, an F.A. Cup third-round tie against Middlesborough, Zola was an unused sub. The one time I saw Gianfranco Zola play for Chelsea was a year after he had left the club, at his tribute game against Real Zaragoza. So I never saw him play a competitive game for Chelsea. But as a kid, Zola was the player, possibly along with Beckham, I most wanted to be like. In my school teams for a while I asked to play as a right midfielder and take the set-pieces. That changed as I grew up and I tended to play as an out-and-out striker, mainly because I was tall for my age.
Zola’s composure and touch on the ball, as well as all the tricks and flicks he had at his disposal brought something to Chelsea that had been lacking probably since the days of Ray Wilkins. Zola made Chelsea into something beautiful to watch. He orchestrated the play, could cross a ball as well as anyone, was surprisingly hard to knock off the ball for his size and was pretty good in the air. And after the dowturn in fortunes in the 70s and the rather up-and-down 80s, having someone in the side who was capable of bringing people to their feet was a real sign that the club was moving onwards and upwards.
Zola made just watching the game even more fun. He was also a consummate professional who deeply impacted the younger players around him. His example of continually seeking to improve certainly impacted Frank Lampard, who would take on the work ethic of Zola and go on to become Chelsea’s record goalscorer. He never kicked out, or made a malicious foul. There was no backchat to the referee. If he was kicked, he simply got back up. He was also able to pull a system apart with just how clever he was, the runs he would make that would open the space up for others to run into. He was remarkably giving as a player, everything he did was for the benefit of the team.
Zola left the club just days before Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea. For a player who did so much to take Chelsea to the next level never to win the Premier League was a huge shame. But then Steven Gerrard never won the Premier League either, and he’s one of the best midfield players England has ever produced. The ‘cheeky little so-and-so’ as Sir Alex Ferguson called him won four cups at Chelsea and scored 80 goals in 312 appearances. That’s not even as much as Salamon Kalou. But I know which player I’d rather have around. And not many players have been as universally admired as Zola, by pundits, players and fans alike. No one had a bad word to say about him. And that’s really rare in football.
No shirt has ever been retired at Chelsea. After Frank Lampard left, it was immediately reassigned to Oscar, who was also making way for Didier Drogba to return to his iconic number 11. And when a shirt is retired it is usually to honour a player who was a true great, someone who had such an influence and impact on the club that the club was never the same again. Players like Bobby Moore, Franco Baresi and Johan Cruyff are just a few select few whose clubs have honoured them by retiring their shirt number. The last player who wore the 25 shirt before Zola for Chelsea was Terry Phelan. No one has worn it since. And quite frankly, I feel it would be wrong for anyone else to wear it. When Ross Barkley was handed the number 8 shirt on his arrival in January 2018, Chelsea fans were able to accept it because the shirt had been worn since Frank’s departure. But seeing anyone else’s name over that number would truly be wrong. The influence he had on the club, the selflessness of his play and the quality of everything he did on the pitch was a class apart. He cost £4.5 million from Parma. He payed that back with interest. I think he’s the greatest foreign player ever to play in the Premier League. I really do.
On an unrelated note, this is the 100th piece I have posted on this blog. So I just want to say thank you to the people that have seen some value in my waffling over the past two and half years. And thank you to my mum for encouraging me to start it up.