Gracefully silky yet gritty. A wave of colour and passion enveloped by nous and strategy. Talent the size of a net bulge post-Batistuta piledriver. Italian football in the ’90s was the pinnacle. An iconic World Cup and an instantaneous amour for any Italian football fuelled my formative years as a football-crazed youngster. But, whilst James Richardson and his pink papers and coffee shops scratched the itch, something incredible happened almost as soon as I became a teenager…Gianluca Vialli signed for Chelsea. The actual Vialli. You know, the one who played for Sampdoria, Juventus, Italy. Not John Spencer from Scotland or Mark Stein from South Africa, Gianluca Vialli from my favourite footballing nation of them all…Italy. Short of signing childhood hero Roberto Baggio it couldn’t get any better. But it did. Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola came through the door, a more exciting triumvirate than a young boy could ever wish. And it was mad.
I watched Paul Furlong lead the line the previous season, being threaded through balls by Craig Burley and Eddie Newton. I loved Chelsea in the late 80’s early ’90s. Still, a diet of Dorigo, Duberry and Spackman does not prepare you for three players signed from the world’s premier football league, all of whom have represented, in my eyes, the world’s premier footballing country. Zola was mesmeric, and Di Matteo a match-winner with an engine, but it was Vialli (9) on the back of my yellow Autoglass away shirt.
Zola scored the winner in the Cup Winners Cup Final in Stockholm and Di Matteo the same in the previous year’s FA Cup final, both heroes of games I will never forget attending, but it was always Vialli who remained the icon. Why did he start himself in Stockholm? Was the general gripe amongst the Blues’ faithful spilling out of Swedish saloons as the fans felt vindicated with Zola’s eventual introduction and world-class finish. Vialli didn’t even start vs Middlesbrough in the FA cup final, where Di Matteo so famously evaporated the Kanchelskis and Cantona-shaped rainclouds above the twin towers of Wembley within the first minute. In fact, Luca only got a victory lap appearance off the bench in added time, but none of this defines his legacy. He wasn’t the greatest scorer of goals or a scorer of the greatest goals. He was f***ing Vialli, and he was at Chelsea!
This is, of course, doing him a disservice as he was an outstanding footballer and a good goalscorer, but he was so much more than that, and that was his allure.
For it was his personality, charisma, confidence and passion that were iconic. A millionaire, comfortably into his 30s with a stellar back catalogue, was plying his trade at mid-table Chelsea. Stamford Bridge would eat out of the palm of his hand for decades to come. He scored goals, became manager, and won trophies, but his presence felt a little more than all of that. Granted, Ruud Gullit was probably the pioneering mountain man. Still, for every gold rush, you need first to strike gold and Vialli’s arrival at Chelsea in that bright yellow kit signalled to the rest of Europe that Chelsea was looking to settle at the top table of English football.
My tears of pain when David Ellary was awarded another spot kick three years earlier were wiped away by four years of life with Vialli. A spell that yielded six trophies, including multiple victories at Wembley and in Europe.
After the league cup victory, again over Middlesbrough, my Dad turned to me and laughed with a tear in his eye. He couldn’t believe how lucky in my relatively short lifetime I had been to see the success we were having when, besides a Tony Dorigo-inspired Zenith Data Systems Trophy win, he hadn’t seen us win a trophy in the best part of 30 years – Little did he know what was around the corner!
That around the corner was obviously the Abramovich era. Still, it is hard to see a Russian Oligarch laying rest to billions of pounds had the Italian revolution not galvanised the club in the late 90s. Vialli was emblematic of why Roman Abramovich would be interested in the club, and his legacy will be of a man who can genuinely be said to have made a significant and lasting impact on the football club. He may have even helped to save it.
Of course, Nostalgia bias is inevitable, especially in light of Luca’s passing. However, I can’t ever remember as much excitement, gasps of awe and genuine atmosphere at Stamford Bridge as during the Vialli era. Zola was doing things we had never seen before. Players were signing from all over Europe, Di Matteo and Wise were reinventing celebrations, and Vialli was pure class. And that’s how he will be forever remembered.