Gianluca Vialli gave an interview as part of the Barclays "You Are Football" campaign this week which got me thinking: What is it that’s so special about Chelsea players of a 1990s vintage? No fewer than eight players from the 1997 FA Cup-winning side have gone into management and all of them speak fondly of their time at Stamford Bridge.
Vialli spoke of his time at Chelsea as “falling in love with the club” and the fans reciprocated that affection. They supported him as he became player-manager and led the club to the Cup Winners Cup and the 2000 FA Cup before he was dismissed in 2001. He has since left management for a place on Sky Italia’s punditry couch, but he still holds the Blues close to his heart.
The ’97 FA Cup was the first trophy that the supporters had seen in over 25 years, and there will always be a bond between the players of that generation and the supporters who saw them through it.
What is surprising is how strong that bond is.
Roberto Di Matteo opened the scoring in that ’97 cup final and the joy on his face when he collected the trophy was infectious. The Stamford Bridge faithful were as gutted as he was when injury forced him to retire at just 31 years old, and they were delighted when he came back as part of Andre Villas-Boas’ backroom staff.
The rollercoaster ride that followed AVB’s sacking has been thoroughly documented and analysed, and the overriding conclusion is that Di Matteo was treated disgracefully by the club he had given so much to.
According to The Guardian, a clause in his contract has seen him receive £130,000 a week from the club since his sacking, he could easily be forgiven for holding a grudge against his former paymasters.
Except, he doesn’t.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Di Matteo said "I spent so many years connected to the club. One incident is not going to change that." That he is able to overlook being sacked at 4 a.m., just six months after delivering the most coveted prize in club football as "one incident" does not only speak to his qualities as a man; it underlines the strength of the bond created in that 1997 squad.
The year before I came Zola, Vialli, and Gullit were and at that stage people were asking what is going on there. They offered me the chance to go. And I did but it was the biggest decision of my career to come to England. I was 29 and it was not easy. It was a change of life for me and my family. After thinking about it for a long time, we decided to come and it was a good decision. Probably my best.
Chelsea was more of a family back them. It was still an old fashioned family club. We knew everybody. People from many, many years. Then you go to another level and things change. Then it is different security and training grounds and all sorts. When you see the training ground now you say 'oh my god'. When you saw the old one you thought 'oh my god' for a different reason.
It is a different Chelsea now but it is a much better Chelsea now. We had too many foreigners. I am saying it so I can say it. Too many. But that made us very strong because we needed each other a lot. We needed a family and we became a strong group led by Dennis Wise. We were a very good team to watch but we just couldn't win the Premier League. Something was missing. Then Abramovich arrived, Mourinho came and it was the perfect combination.
Chelsea may have more superstar players now and much more silverware in the cabinet, but there will always be a place at the club for the class of ’97.