Not that long before Fernando Torres signed for Chelsea Football Club for a British record transfer fee of £50 million, the West London club were unable to convince Jody Morris to sign a new contract at Stamford Bridge, the outlook has not always been rosy.
In an age where foreign players were a rare commodity, Chelsea fans of today owe so much to Glenn Hoddle’s powers of persuasion in bringing Ruud Gullit to Stamford Bridge in 1995. Even the ambitious Hoddle could not have foreseen the implications of recruiting one of Dutch football’s biggest stars, as the former AC Milan sweeper chose to wind down his career in England.
After a mixed first season in English football, Chelsea reaching an FA Cup semi-final, Gullit scoring in a 2-1 defeat to Manchester United, Hoddle was given the England job and the Dutchman was a shock appointment as his replacement.
Despite lacking any experience in management, Gullit’s reputation gave Chelsea added clout in the transfer market. Within months of his appointment, stars of European football Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli had all joined Gullit’s enterprise. All three would go on to make an indelible mark into the club’s history, but it was their acquisition which changed the mentality of a side of perennial underachievers.
Frank Leboeuf was soon recruited from French side, Strasbourg and by the time the Blues played in the 1997-98 curtain raiser against league champions Manchester United, there were twelve different nationalities in the match day squad.
If there was a balance to be struck, Chelsea were yet to find it. The following 18-month period brought with it a spell of sustained success, but also a frightening turnover of foreign players. Individuals like Tore Andre Flo and Gustavo Poyet went on to make the grade, but alongside each of them there were major failures; Bernard Lambourde, Brian Laudrup, Bjarne Goldbaek and Gabriele Ambrosetti were all brought in with the promise of providing far more than the English players they replaced, yet delivered little.
A cynic might argue that this was a pattern to be repeated in the early days of the Abramovich era, but this was not wanton financial over-expenditure on each player, then manager Gianluca Vialli found himself always looking abroad for squad improvements and so rarely at home. For a while the hit and miss transfer policy was sustainable, as Chelsea captured a cup double in 1997-98 before exceeding all expectations and qualifying for the Champions League the following year.
As Chelsea’s ambitions grew, so did the transfer fees. Chris Sutton was a rare domestic purchase, but was a 10 million pound flop, and Didier Deschamps was largely ineffectual despite becoming one of the club’s highest paid players.
When Chelsea failed to re-qualify for the Champions League, despite a strong showing in Europe’s premier domestic club competition, Vialli’s wondering eye quickly became a problem for chairman, Ken Bates. The outlay for players such as Marcel Desailly and Albert Ferrer helped raise the profile of the club, but by this stage the Blues were no longer just a retirement home for ageing stars, success had to be sustained. After an indifferent start to the 2000-01 season, Vialli’s journey with the Chelsea foreign legion was brought to a dramatic conclusion.
Some find it difficult to look at the Chelsea squad inherited by Roman Abramovich in 2003 as a Champions League quality outfit. In reality, the club’s win over Liverpool on the final day of the 2002-03 season was one of the most pivotal victories in the club’s Premier League history. Vialli’s legacy of dreaming and reaching for big players on big salaries had caught up with the club, and it was only Champions League qualification that saved the club from the very real possibility of administration.
Ironically, though, it was the same Champions League status and history of past endeavours that attracted Abramovich’s money during that peculiar summer of 2003. Looking back now, there may be a temptation to condemn the transfer policy of Gullit and Vialli as irresponsible, in the same way Leeds United’s shot at glory exploded so spectacularly, their risk so nearly backfired. But had it not been for them, Fernando Torres would not have been hailing the Blues as being one of the world’s best on Monday evening.