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Back Of The Netto

It is January 1998. Following a penalty shoot-out victory at Portman Road, Ruud Gullit’s Chelsea reached the Coca Cola Cup (aka League Cup) semi-finals, where they were drawn against Arsenal, who were fifth in the League table, a place behind Chelsea and eleven behind leaders, and overwhelming favourites, Manchester United.

Chelsea had a break before the Highbury first-leg, a chastening 5-3 FA Cup Third Round defeat to Manchester United meaning a clear weekend. Performances since Christmas had been disappointing, but The Blues were still in Europe, so there was a theory that the FA Cup defeat, painful as it was, could be a blessing in disguise in terms of reducing fixture congestion.

Chelsea were having a decent season and the charismatic Gullit, a genuine global star when at his peak, was much admired by the supporters. There was genuine hope among the fan base that he could be be manager for years to come.

For the first leg at Hughbury on January 28th, Chelsea were missing Frank Leboeuf as, strangely, France were playing a World Cup warm-up game in Paris against Spain. Patrick Viera from the home line-up was missing for the same reason as was Roberto Di Matteo from the visitors. Arsenal were missing David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Martin Keown and Ian Wright, all injured and Chelsea were without Dennis Wise for the same reason.

The hosts still fielded a strong side :- Manninger; Grimandi, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour, Petit, S. Hughes; Overmars, Bergkamp, Anelka

Chelsea lined up :- De Goey; Sinclair, Duberry, Gullit, Clarke; Petrescu, Newton, Lambourde, Le Saux; Zola, Flo. Gullit, making only his fourth start of the season, left Mark Hughes and Gianluca Vialli on the bench, a decision described as ‘perverse’ by The Guardian.

Arsenal dominated and deserved their 2-0 lead after five minutes of the second half through Marc Overmars and Stephen Hughes, and only the brilliance of Ed De Goey, and some profligacy, prevented the hosts building up a much larger lead in a highly physical game. Gullit brought Hughes on with 30 minutes left and within eight minutes his deft header from a Gianfranco Zola cross duly halved the arrears. There the scoring ended.

Mark Hughes scores his crucial first leg goal

Gunners boss Arsene Wenger was furious afterwards, feeling that his side, completely dominant for the first hour, had blown a chance to already secure a Wembley place. Gullit was criticised for picking himself in the back four in what The Guardian called another of his ‘bizarre team selections.’

The second leg was three weeks away. Chelsea had two League games, a 2-0 home win against Barnsley and a chastening 2-0 defeat at Highbury before the FA Cup Fifth Round gave them another weekend off. A chance for Gullit to prepare for the second leg? Not exactly.

The full story of why Ruud Gullit left Chelsea could fill at least one chapter of a book and the more you read about the affair, the more complex it gets. There are a number of accounts of what happened, but the exact details are a bit murky. His departure was massive news. It made the front page of The Independent and The Guardian and filled sports pages for days, as Gullit and the club waged a very public, and very bitter, war of words.

On Thursday February 12th homebound commuters, including the author, were greeted with an Evening Standard ‘Chelsea Axe Gullit in £4m bust-up’ front page headline. The story reported that he had been axed ‘in a row about his wage demands’, supposedly £4m over two years, and that he wanted it after tax. The word ‘netto’ entered the football vocabulary. The article reckoned he may have needed the money, a huge increase from his existing £1.3m a year, as he was supposedly in an ‘alimony battle’ with his ex-wife.

The Evening Standard also quoted Chelsea MD Colin Hutchinson as saying that when Vialli had immediately been offered the job ‘he took all of five minutes to accept.’ Players and staff seemed shocked, as Gullit had taken training that morning as usual. I know I was not the only supporter who was utterly dumbfounded by the incomprehensible news. After all, Gullit was in charge of arguably Chelsea’s best side for a quarter century and had won the FA Cup the previous season, and it seemed as though Hutchinson and chairman Ken Bates had already decided on his successor while he was still in post.

Hutchinson, Vialli, translator Gary Straker and Bates face a press conference

The club line was that Gullit was greedy and arrogant, prevaricating over signing a contract extension and asking for an unrealistic sum when the club wanted certainty, and that was why he was out, without negotiation. Some writers also highlighted his predilection for hard-to-understand team selections and tactics, as well as the fact that he was supposedly already earning more than Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. The now ex-manager had a different perspective, which he gave in an exclusive interview with Harry Harris of the Daily Mirror. He said the dismissal was a total shock, he felt he had been stitched up, and that he had been prepared to negotiate. He also said that the backroom staff knew what was about to happen and that club representatives, supposedly including Vialli and Zola, had conducted transfer talks with Rangers’ Brian Laudrup behind his back.

Whatever the trigger, and whichever version of the story was correct, the reality was that Vialli was the new manager. Gullit, his side currently second in the table, was extremely popular with the supporters but so was his replacement, which certainly helped acceptance of the shock change at the helm. Less than ideal preparation for the crucial League Cup second-leg, with a Cup-Winners’ Cup trip to Real Betis a week later.

Chelsea being Chelsea, the club naturally chose this period of chaotic change to announce that season ticket prices were to increase by up to 41% with the inflation rate just 1.8%, attracting yet more headlines and hacking off the matchgoing support even more

Vialli had the free weekend to work with his shell-shocked squad, the tough second-leg hardly an ideal game for a managerial debut. His team selection against Arsenal included himself and Hughes as well as Zola, a statement of intent, with Dennis Wise fit and moving to central midfield.

Chelsea lined up :- De Goey; Clarke, Duberry, Leboeuf, Le Saux; Petrescu, Wise, Di Matteo; Vialli, Hughes, Zola.

Before emerging onto the pitch, the players had a champagne toast with Vialli in the dressing room to help ease the pressure.

The atmosphere crackled, the 34,330 capacity home crowd were right behind the new manager from the moment the teams came out and a hugely-motivated, ‘determined and direct’ Chelsea tore into Arsenal. The physicality surpassed even that of the first-leg, with Hughes, fresh from picking up his MBE, leading the way. His being one of the nine bookings was no surprise. Ten minutes in, he made the aggregate score 2-2, turning superbly and firing home Di Matteo’s pass.

Hughes scores Chelsea's opening second-leg goal

Chelsea continued to press but could not take the lead. After half-time Viera was dismissed for two yellow cards and ten-man Arsenal duly imploded. The home side continued to press and within minutes first Di Matteo, with a wonderful, stinging 25-yard drive, and then a jinking Dan Petrescu made the score a barely believable 3-0. ‘Are you Tottenham in disguise?’ inquired a euphoric and disbelieving home support. Denis Bergkamp fired home a late penalty but Chelsea, gloriously, hung on to win 3-1, 4-3 on aggregate, and seal another Wembley visit. I do not remember this, but The Independent reported that Monkees classic ‘I’m A Believer’ played as the celebrating supporters left the stands, a role now filled by ‘One Step Beyond’. A magnificent team performance, a crucial win, and a glorious start to Vialli’s managerial career. Second-leg highlights here

For Vialli to come into the job under those circumstances, change the side and motivate them to the extent that they started at full throttle in such a key game, spoke volumes for the man and for his players. It is a night I well remember 25 years later and I know I am not alone - it was definitely one of those 'I Was There' games.

The season ended in glory for both sides. Chelsea duly beat Middlesbrough in the League Cup Final and Vialli went on to achieve a magnificent double as his side defeated Stuttgart in Stockholm in May to pick up the Cup-Winners’ Cup they had won seventeen years earlier. Arsenal, sensationally, won the League title by a point from United and beat Newcastle in the FA Cup Final to achieve their own double. Chelsea's resurgent performance at Stamford Bridge therefore stopped them winning a domestic treble.

Tim Rolls

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