Tales From A Huge Loss

Manchester City vs.Chelsea : 8 January 2023.

I have feared that I might have to write this particular match report for a while. Ever since we heard that Gianluca Vialli had left his post with the Italian Football Federation, and was then re-admitted to the Royal Marsden Hospital before Christmas, many of us suspected the worst. Alas, on the Friday morning after our home game with Manchester City, the saddest of news broke.

Gianluca Vialli had died.

I was told the news by a work colleague in our office. I put my hands to my face and sat silent for a few moments.

This was just horrible, horrible news.

I had mentioned Luca only a few days previously in my match report for the Nottingham Forest game; that memory from almost twenty-four years ago, a crowded car-park, a photograph, an autograph, the perfect gent.

In fact, I was rather sparing with my comments about Gianluca Vialli in that report. I sensed that he didn’t have long to live. Pancreatic cancer is an obstinate foe. I erred away from saying too much about the former Chelsea player and manager. I’ll be blunt; I didn’t want to tempt fate.

That I mentioned Gianluca Vialli, though, in my last match report written while he was alive seems right.

And it also seems right that the great man took his last breath in a hospital on Fulham Road, just a few hundred yards from Stamford Bridge.

Luca, how we will miss you.

Being a big fan of Italian football in the ‘eighties, I was aware of the curly-haired striker playing for Sampdoria of Genoa, and watched with interest as he took part in the European Championships of 1988 and the World Cup of 1990. The blues of Sampdoria, with Vialli the leading scorer, won their first and only title in 1991. My first actual sighting of the man took place when I travelled to Turin in May 1992 to see Juventus and Sampdoria eke out a 0-0 draw at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Sampdoria were only a few weeks away from a European Cup Final with Barcelona at Wembley and so put in a rather conservative performance.

Not long after the loss to Barcelona, Vialli moved to Juventus for a world record £12.5M. With Juve being my favourite European team, and with Italian football being shown that season on Channel Four for the first time, I was able to keep tabs on both the progress of him and the team. In 1995, Juve won their first Italian Championship since 1986. In late 1995, I saw Vialli play for Juventus at Ibrox against Rangers in a Champions League group phase game; the visitors won 4-0, with Vialli the captain, and a certain Antonio Conte playing too. I watched in the Broomloan Stand, in a home section, but very close to the travelling away support. The Italians were on fire that night.

At the end of that season, I watched the European Cup Final in a bar in Manhattan as Juventus beat Ajax on penalties in Rome. Just over a week later, I was over on the West Coast – I remember the location, Gaviota State Park – when a ‘phone call home resulted in me learning that Gianluca Vialli had signed for Chelsea.

It truly felt that the stars were aligning.

Gianluca Vialli was to play for Chelsea. Just writing those words twenty-six years or so later still gives me goose bumps.

Of course, that 1996/97 season has gone down in Chelsea folklore for both happy and sad reasons. In addition to Vialli, the summer of 1996 brought new signings Roberto di Matteo and Frank Leboeuf to augment the previous summer’s purchases of Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes. Our Chelsea team was certainly looking like it could seriously challenge for honours. But first, tragedy, and the death of director Matthew Harding. We all wondered if this would redirect the club’s focus, but not long after, Ruud Gullit signed another top-ranked Italian Gianfranco Zola, and the rest is history.

Ironically, we were stumbling a little before Zola signed. Looking back, I think it is fair to say that Hughes and Vialli were a little too similar in many aspects of their game, and it was the addition of Zola, a play-maker in addition to being a goal scorer, that allowed the team to reach its full potential. Manager Gullit certainly jiggled line-ups around to accommodate all three strikers, and on one memorable occasion, we were able to witness Chelsea alchemy of the very highest order.

Losing 0-2 at half-time at home to Liverpool in the Third Round of the FA Cup in January 1997, Gullit brought on Mark Hughes in place of Scott Minto and the triumvirate of Vialli, Zola and Hughes caused havoc in a scintillating second forty-five minutes. A swivel and turn from Sparky on fifty minutes, a delicious Zola free-kick eight minutes later, then two from Vialli on sixty-three and seventy-six minutes. Stamford Bridge was buzzing and we didn’t want the game to end. It is many Chelsea supporters’ favourite ever game. It often gets mentioned here and I do not apologise for it.

Of course we went on to win the FA Cup Final in the May of that year, our first trophy since 1971, and the appearance of Gianluca Vialli as a very late substitute for Zola resulted in the whole end yelling the great man’s name.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Things never stay the same, though, at Chelsea and before we knew it, Ken Bates had dismissed Ruud Gullit after just a year and a half in charge, and chose Vialli to take on the role of player-manager. I’ll be honest, I was a little concerned, but I need not have been. In a glorious period supporting my team, Vialli won the 1998 League Cup, the 1998 ECWC, the 1998 UEFA Super Cup, the 2000 FA Cup and the 2000 Community Shield.

There has been greater success since, but I absolutely loved the vibe around the club from 1996 to 2000 – “the Vialli years” –  and it is probably my favourite period supporting the club, although as a one-off season 1983/84 will never be beaten.

We came so close in 1998/99, only trailing eventual champions Manchester United by four points, but finishing third. If only we had won and not drawn our two games against United, we would have been champions, and the barbs aimed at us in 2005 would have been less prolific.

There was a lovely mix of characters at Chelsea in that era. We played some superb football at times. Ruud called it “sexy”, but I think under Vialli it became a little “cheeky” with a mix of expansive football, quick breaks, rapid-fire passing, with quality everywhere. What do I mean by “cheeky”? Think back to October 1999, Chelsea beating Manchester United 5-0, with Wisey winding up Nicky Butt. That’s what I mean.

There was style and swagger, those two Chelsea cornerstones.

As a player, I loved Vialli’s power, technique, movement, work ethic and goal scoring prowess.

As a manager, I loved his cheerfulness, his honesty, his diligence, the way he called the players his “chaps.”

I loved his big Italian tie, his sweatband, his grey pullover, his penchant for wearing a watch over his cuffs.

I’ll admit it.

He was a man’s man.

We all loved him.

Again, Chelsea being Chelsea, nothing stays the same and amidst rumours of player power, Ken Bates sacked Vialli as manager in September 2000.

I had seen the great man’s first game as a Chelsea player at Southampton in 1996 and I had seen his last game as manager at Newcastle in 2000.

Thank you Luca. We had a blast.

Vialli – I believe – continued to live in London after his departure and also had season tickets at Stamford Bridge for some, if not all, of the subsequent years. In doing a little research for this edition, I was able to plunder some photographs from a midweek game at Stamford Bridge against West Bromwich Albion on 12 February 2018. At halftime, Neil Barnett paraded three stars from the late ‘nineties and it was a glorious occasion.

My eyes were set on Gianluca Vialli. I am pretty sure it was the first time that I had seen him since he left us in 2000.

My match report from that night is called “Tales From The Class Of ‘98” and features these words.

“They slowly walked towards us in the MH and I snapped away like a fool. Each were serenaded with their own songs. They lapped it up. My goodness, it is the twentieth-anniversary season of our ECWC triumph in Stockholm, one of my favourite seasons. It is hard to believe in these days of single-strikers and “false nines” that in 1997/1998 we had the considerable luxury of four strikers.

Gianfranco Zola

Gianluca Vialli

Tore Andre Flo

Mark Hughes

And five if we include Mark Nicholls.

Bloody hell, those were the days. A two-man attack. Beautiful. Let’s get to basics here; I’d much rather see two top strikers in a starting eleven for Chelsea rather than two top holding midfielders. Who wouldn’t?

That season, we were certainly blessed. And each of the four had their own qualities, and it was always interesting to see how Ruud, and then Luca, chopped and changed the front two.

Zola –  those amazing twists and turns, those dribbles, that appreciation of space, those passes to others, those goals.

Vialli – those blind-sided runs, the constant movement, the strength of that body, the willingness to run and run.

Flo – surprisingly skilful on the ground for a tall man, his touch was excellent and he weighed in with his share of goals.

Hughes – the last of his three seasons with us, but still useful for his strength in hold-up play, his galvanising effect on the team, and eye for a goal.

Glory days indeed. I loved that team those players.

Gianfranco Zola, Tore Andre Flo, Mark Hughes, Gianluca Vialli, Dan Petrescu, Frank Leboeuf, Graeme Le Saux, Gus Poyet, Dennis Wise, Roberto di Matteo, Steve Clarke, Ruud Gullit.

If anyone had said to me in 1998 that, twenty years on, only one of those players mentioned would get into my team of greatest ever Chelsea players, I would have screamed madness.”

As I looked at other photos from that evening, I gulped when I saw a photo of my friend Glenn and little old me in the hotel before the game with Ray Wilkins, who would pass away less than two months later. That night took on a new resonance for me.

Going in to the FA Cup tie at Manchester City, the focus in my mind shifted. Rather than get obsessed, and down-hearted, about a potentially tough game I realised that the whole day was now about being one of the lucky ones to be able to share our collective love for a much-respected footballer and, above all, man.

And the tributes poured in on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Not one soul said anything negative about Gianluca Vialli. He was truly loved, so loved.

Sunday arrived and I collected PD and LP and a long day lay ahead. I set off from home at just before 9am. By 12.30pm, we were ordering three roast beef Sunday lunches at “The Windmill” pub at the Tabley interchange off the M6. Two hours were spent thinking a little about the game later that afternoon but also about our recent sad loss.

My 1982/83 retrospective features, fittingly, an FA Cup game. On Saturday 8 January 1983 – forty years ago to the day – we played Huddersfield Town from the Third Division at Leeds Road. We eked out a 1-1 draw with much-maligned striker Alan Mayes equalising in the second-half. The gate was a very decent 17,064, which came just after a season-leading gate of 18,438 for a home derby with Bradford City. In those days, FA Cup Third Round gates would often be the largest of the season for many clubs, barring local derbies such as this one. I miss those days when “the Cup” was truly special.

It took the best part of an hour to reach the stadium. The expected rain hadn’t really amounted to much, but on the slow drive past City’s old stomping ground and other familiar sights, the bright winter sun reflected strikingly on the steel of new buildings and the red brick of old. In the distance, dark moody clouds loomed ominously. The quality of light was spectacular.

I dropped off PD and LP outside the away end at around 3.30pm and soon parked up. I made my way over the long footbridge that links the smaller City stadium to the main one. I had previously made a mistake in saying that I had seen only Arsenal at seven stadia. Manchester City tie that record; Stamford Bridge, Maine Road, Wembley, The Etihad, Villa Park, Yankee Stadium, Estadio Dragao. If you count the old Wembley and the new Wembley separately, they take the lead with eight.

Another bloody trophy for them.

As soon as I reached the concourse at Level Three – the top tier – there were shouts for “Vialli.”

I have to say that our support for this game blew my socks off. I originally thought that with the game taking place at 4.30pm on a Sunday, and on the back of us taking over 5,000 to the stadium for a League Cup tie in November, there would be no way that we would sell our allocation of 7,500 tickets.

But sell them we did.

Absolutely fantastic.

I was stood alongside LP in the middle of the top tier, alongside Rob, in front of Pete, close to the Two Ronnies, while PD was in the middle tier. I was just glad to be watching from a different part of the South Stand and to not have hundreds of locals jabbering away at us all game long.

The place filled up. My ticket cost just £25, a good deal.

The team was announced.

Kepa

Chalobah – Humphreys – Koulibaly – Hall

Gallagher – Jorginho – Kovacic

Ziyech – Havertz – Mount

And some new names on the bench too.

City? A mixture of youth and experience, no Haaland.

So, a debut from Graham Potter for young Bashir Humphreys.

Shall I do the inevitable line about the manager asking if he was “free” for the game on Sunday?

Nah.

Kick-off approached, the players took to the field, I soon noted the players assembling on the centre circle.

“Ah, fair play City.”

There was an announcement from a voice saying that “Manchester City was sad to hear…” but I then lost the rest of the message as the Chelsea end applauded and sang.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

There were images of Luca on the two corner screens; black and white images, that cheeky smile.

Bless him.

It is a mark of how I assumed that we would perform in this match that I thought that, all things considered, we had a pretty decent start to the game. Both teams began brightly. But on each of our rare forays into the City half (is it me, or does the City pitch look huge?) we quickly ran out of steam, with no target man to hit.

On nine minutes – as requested – the 7,500 strong away army chanted again.

“VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI! VIALLI!”

Not too long after, a mightily impressive “OMWTM” rang out and I liked the fact that a few old school types sat down at around the “eight” mark. It always was better when we all got up on ten.

The City fans must have looked on in awe.

They then had the audacity to sing “YSIFS” and I groaned.

I wondered if the fixture was reversed and there was a 4.30pm kick-off in London, how many City would come down? Not 7,500 I am sure. In the FA Cup of 2015/16, City had brought barely 2,500 down to London on Sunday 21 February. Get my point?

On the pitch, City gained the upper hand.

After twenty-three minutes played, Rob and I were worried about a City free-kick about twenty-five yards out.

Me : “I don’t like this.”

Rob : “Especially Mahrez.”

Me : “There you go. Great goal.”

Sigh.

I will be honest, I didn’t see the handball from Kai Havertz that led to a VAR decision going City’s way not long after. Julian Alvarez struck from the resultant penalty.

In the back of mind : “at least we won’t suffer the ignominy of losing four consecutive FA Cup Finals this year.”

Sigh.

Chelsea were now chasing shadows.

On thirty-eight minutes, I saw a move cut its way through our defence.

“Oh that’s too easy.”

Phil Foden pushed the ball in from close range.

Game over.

Sadly, many Chelsea fans upped and left. This was my worst nightmare; our away end full of empty seats on national television. At the break, my friend Su from Los Angeles, made her way down to watch the rest of the game with Rob, LP and me.

“It’s character building this. By the time I see you again, you will be twice the woman you are now.”

It could have been more. We were awful and in so many different ways. I felt so sorry for the debutant Humphreys, who must have wished that he was needed in haberdashery or to look after Mrs. Slocombe’s pussy.

At the break, changes.

Denis Zakaria for Kovacic, surprisingly poor.

David Datro Fofana for Ziyech, truly awful.

But there were other appearances too, and my heart began to swell. Virtually all of the Chelsea supporters that had left after the third goal thankfully returned. Unbelievable stuff. Well done each and every one of you.

Proper Chelsea.

Good God, on fifty-five minutes Mason Mount shot at goal, deflecting wide, and I even caught the bugger on film.

On sixty-three minutes, more changes.

Omari Hutchinson for the ever dreadful Ziyech.

Carney Chukwuemeka for Mount.

Hutchinson showed a lot more confidence than on his meek appearance on Thursday. The new Fofana looked decent too.

On seventy-three minutes, another change.

Azpilicueta for Jorginho, the slow-moving and irksome irritant.

I found it hard to focus on anything really. The game seemed an irrelevance. The four of us kept our spirits up with gallows humour. Around us, there were loud songs for Thomas Tuchel and Roman Abramovich.

With five minutes to go, a foul by Kalidou Koulibaly gave City their second penalty of the game.

Manchester City 4 Chelsea 0.

Sigh.

With that, an exodus started but we stayed to the final whistle.

It was, in the end, all rather predictable. However, the mood in the away end was defiant throughout. The shouts in memory of Vialli were loud, and sung with passion, while there was anger and frustration at the current regime.

We left.

A chap with his daughter remained upbeat and suggested a surreal ending to this season and a very strange one in 2023/24.

“We win the Champions League but get relegated this season.”

“Ha” I replied…

”Real Madrid and Bristol City one week, Juventus and Rotherham United the next. Love it.”

On the walk back at our car I overheard a woman – a local City fan – talking to her husband and daughter.

“City fans singing about Chelsea’s support being effing shit…well, it wasn’t was it?”

“Thanks” I said.

She smiled.

I made good time as I wriggled out of the city.

How long did it take me?

“A pasty, two small Double Deckers and half a packet of Fruit Pastilles.”

The rain stayed away as I drove south and I made good time. We didn’t dwell too much on the defeat. But it certainly felt as if we were now supporting a different team and club, almost unrecognisable in fact. And that is not good.

As the reaction to another defeat hit social media, I was reminded that this was our first exit in the Third Round of the FA Cup since that shocking 3-5 defeat by Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in January 1998; our first game since 1970 as FA Cup holders. We were 0-5 down at one stage. But I still loved that 1996 to 2000 team. Oh for some of that spirit in 2023.

I reached home at 11.15pm. It had been a long, emotional, and sad day.

Next up, a local derby at Craven Cottage. See you there.

7 thoughts on “Tales From A Huge Loss

  1. Pingback: Tales From A Huge Loss – Chelsea Supporters Club

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