(Part 1) 1996 – 1997.
Ruud Gullit’s Chelsea revolution was already gathering pace when he received news in November 1996 that Parma’s Gianfranco Zola was available for transfer after falling out with his manager Carlo Ancelotti. Gullit swooped to sign the majestic striker later that month, paying £4.5 million to take the 30 year-old Italian international to Stamford Bridge. There can be no doubt that Parma’s loss was very much Chelsea’s gain. His first season in England was littered with magical moments, beginning on his home debut with an outrageous dummy which fooled Newcastle’s David Batty and had the Match of the Day pundits analysing the trick in detail before conceding that they were still none the wiser as to how he had done it! He scored his first goal for the club with a typically stunning free-kick in a 2-2 draw with Everton and followed it up two weeks later with an outrageous solo goal against West Ham, tormenting Julian Dicks before firing Chelsea’s second goal in a 3-1 win. Five days later Zola scored the goals which beat Aston Villa 2-0 and early in the New Year he fired his first in the FA Cup against West Bromwich Albion.
The standard of Franco’s finishing was such that he could have had a Goal of the Season competition all of his own, take your pick from; the spectacular left-foot shot which dragged The Blues level against Liverpool in a famous FA Cup 4th round match which Chelsea won 4-2 after trailing 2-0 at half-time, the weaving run and clever finish to secure a point against Manchester United, the ferocious volley which opened the floodgates in a 6-2 win over Sunderland, the powerful shot into the top corner when Southampton’s defenders were silly enough to leave him unmarked on the edge of the box and perhaps the piece de resistance, a sublime turn and shot in a 3-0 win against Wimbledon in the FA Cup semi-final which settled the tie as a contest and sent The Blues on their way to Wembley. Zola picked up an injury in a Premiership match against The Dons a week later and was rested until May 17th when he took his place in the Chelsea side which won the FA Cup with a 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough (see picture above), Franco setting up the clinching goal for Eddie Newton. To complete a magnificent first season, he was named the Football Writers Player of the Year for 1996/97, despite moving to the Premiership three months into the season. (Kelvin Barker)
(Part 2) 1997/98-1998/99
Gianfranco Zola continued his outstanding form into his second season but his goals came in bursts. He failed to open his account until late September but exploded into life in November with six goals, including a classy hat-trick against Derby. It was more than three months before he found the net again but while the press were quick to talk of a crisis of confidence, the Chelsea supporters revelled in the number of goals he created for others. Franco was in the side for the Coca-Cola Cup Final against Middlesbrough (again) and he almost scored a spectacular winner in normal time with a powerful, curling shot which cannoned off the bar. Eventually The Blues won 2-0 (again) after extra-time. His next cup final for the club was soon to follow and he had an even more significant impact on this one. Zola was injured against Liverpool at the end of April and was again forced to miss the remainder of the domestic campaign. He was not considered fit enough to start the European Cup Winners Cup Final against VFB Stuttgart but was thrown into the action in the 71st minute with the match goalless. Within twenty seconds of his arrival, Franco latched onto a pass from Dennis Wise and rifled home the goal (see sequence of pictures above Photos George Herringshaw ©) which took the trophy to Stamford Bridge.
Hero! Franco began the 1998/99 campaign alongside his Italian compatriot Pierluigi Casiraghi, the two men reforming their potent international partnership. Zola scored his first goal of the season after just 24 seconds of the clash with Nottingham Forest in September, Chelsea winning 2-1, and followed it up a week later with a magnificent free-kick at Blackburn before winning a penalty in a match which The Blues eventually won 4-3. Chelsea were top of the table at Christmas, Franco having scored nine times, but new strikers Brian Laudrup, who departed in November for family reasons, and Casiraghi, badly injured in a clash with West Ham’s Shaka Hislop, were no longer available. Injuries to Gus Poyet and Tore Andre Flo followed, leaving 17 year-old Mikael Forssell to partner Zola for much of the remainder of the season. Franco eventually scored 13 league goals, including five spectacular free-kicks, as The Blues finished third and secured a place in the following season’s Champions League. (Kelvin Barker)
(Part 3) 1999/00-2001/02
Gianfranco Zola found himself being used as a substitute on a number of occasions during the 1999/2000 season as manager Gianluca Vialli implemented his squad rotation system. He had scored against Sunderland on the opening day but failed to find the net again in the Premiership until mid-April. He did feature prominently in the Champions League run to the quarter-finals, scoring in Chelsea’s stunning 5-0 victory over Galatasaray in Istanbul, and curling yet another majestic free-kick into the back of the net to set The Blues on their way to a 3-1 win over Barcelona on a night of high drama in SW6. His relationship with Vialli was fraught throughout the second half of the season, particularly when George Weah was recruited, but it was those two men who combined to lead the Chelsea attack as The Blues won the last ever FA Cup Final at the old Wembley in May 2000 when they beat Aston Villa 1-0 with a Roberto Di Matteo goal from a Zola set-piece. Franco’s treatment, and that of other senior pros, by Vialli was perhaps one of the main factors behind the popular manager’s departure early in 2000/01 and certainly Zola appeared to benefit from the arrival of the experienced Claudio Ranieri at the helm.
He was Chelsea’s second highest appearance maker that season, behind Dennis Wise, and formed a lively striking partnership with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the Italian playing the role of provider to the prolific Dutchman. He also chipped in with ten Premiership goals himself and at the end of the season he delighted his adoring public by signing a new two-year contract at the age of 35. Franco might have regretted signing the new deal at times during the following campaign as Eidur Gudjohnsen and Hasselbaink formed a lethal striking alliance that restricted Zola to just 19 Premiership starts. Typically though, it was Franco who provided the season’s goal scoring highlight with an incredible back-heel in an FA Cup tie against Norwich, a goal of such brilliance that the majority inside the ground only became aware of what he had done when it was replayed on the big screens. At the end of the season he played in his third FA Cup Final when he replaced Hasselbaink during the second-half of Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat by Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. (Kelvin Barker).
(Part 4) 2002/03
Gianfranco Zola issued a statement of intent with a spectacular flurry of goals during the 2002-03 pre-season, form which he took into the new campaign. Selected ahead of Gudjohnsen, he scored on the opening day at Charlton to spark a fight-back from 2-0 down which was sealed by a last minute Frank Lampard winner. Enjoying something of an Indian summer, Zola turned the clock back with a string of inspired autumn performances which saw him top the Premiership goal scoring charts and win a Player of the Month award. He almost single-handedly dragged Chelsea back from 2-1 behind at Blackburn, scoring twice as The Blues emerged victorious, the winner coming from a long-range curling effort which had even the home supporters applauding. Ever the ambassador, Franco acquired a new army of fans when Chelsea played at Maine Road in October. Having scored twice in The Blues 3-0 demolition of Manchester City, he was substituted late in the game to applause from all sides of the ground and stayed on the touchline after the final whistle signing autographs and posing for photos with young supporters of the home side (18 months earlier he had been assaulted by an idiot on his way off the same pitch!).
At times during the 2002/03 season he looked as if he could weave his magic standing on only one foot, something he put into practice at Birmingham when he scored the opener in a 3-1 victory whilst limping heavily after a nasty challenge by Damien Johnson which incredibly went unpunished by referee Mark Halsey. Inevitably the goals dried up a little during the second half of the season as the long campaign took it’s toll on the little maestro but his equaliser at Sunderland during the run-in was absolutely crucial to Chelsea eventually clinching a Champions League spot. His final goal for The Blues came in a 4-1 victory over Everton on Easter Monday and it was a true classic as he lobbed Richard Wright from a tight angle to, not for the first time, send the supporters into raptures. His final appearance was as a substitute in the winner-takes-all clash with Liverpool on the final day, his 20 minute cameo including yet another memorable moment when he left three Liverpool defenders for dead after seemingly being hemmed in by the corner flag. Franco’s contract expired at the end of the season and after much speculation he eventually opted for a return to Sardinia to play for his first club Cagliari. His departure left a huge void both on the Chelsea team sheet and in the hearts of the club’s followers. (Kelvin Barker)