Chelsea drama under Conte a far cry from Zola and Blues entertainers
LONDON -- It seems a little surreal now to recall that, long before Stamford Bridge became a place saddled with drama and expectation, Chelsea at their best were the carefree entertainers of English football.
That reputation was forged by the flamboyant Blues team of the early 1970s, led in attack by Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke, Alan Hudson and Ian Hutchinson. Together they won the FA Cup in 1970 and claimed the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup a year later, though their swashbuckling style endured just as long in the memories of those who watched them as their successes did.
In the late 1990s a new, more international cast took up the mantle. Chelsea were quicker to embrace English football's "foreign revolution" than most of their rivals, splashing out to sign glamorous European stars Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola.
Their reward was a side that won four trophies between 1996 and 2000 with a brand of football that earned admirers far beyond Stamford Bridge.
Graeme Le Saux, who spent 10 years at Chelsea across two spells, is reuniting many of the team for a special Legends match against Inter Forever at Stamford Bridge in May to mark the 20-year anniversary of the League Cup, UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and UEFA Super Cup that the Blues won in 1998.
"It's a group that I've got such affection for," he tells ESPN FC. "We had such close friendships both on and off the pitch, fantastic characters and personalities. It was a very strong dressing room individually but also together -- and we played wonderful football."
Years of struggle, problems with hooliganism and flirtations with bankruptcy ensured that Chelsea brought plenty of mental baggage to Wembley for the 1997 FA Cup final against Middlesbrough, coupled with a major trophy drought stretching back to 1971.
Di Matteo's spectacular strike after just 42 seconds signalled a shift in the narrative, and a 2-0 victory proved a springboard to greater heights.
Le Saux, a Premier League champion with Blackburn, returned the following summer while Netherlands international goalkeeper Ed de Goey and Uruguayan midfielder Gus Poyet arrived, along with a lanky young Norwegian striker by the name of Tore Andre Flo.
"The whole club was lifted a lot at that time," Flo recalls. "The atmosphere around it was so positive, because now Chelsea could win things. It had that feeling all around the club. The belief came into the dressing room and the supporters were feeling, 'Wow, we have got something special going on here'."
Not even Gullit's surprise sacking in February 1998 could kill the vibe. Vialli replaced him as player-manager and led Chelsea to more trophies, as Middlesbrough were overcome again in the League Cup final and Zola scored a late winner to claim the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup at the expense of Stuttgart.
"He was the best that I played with," Flo adds of Zola, widely regarded as Chelsea's greatest-ever player before the arrival of Roman Abramovich in the summer of 2003 transformed the club forever. "If I was a supporter I would have loved to have watched him play."
Premier League glory remained agonisingly elusive with Chelsea finishing the 1998-99 season in third, just four points adrift of champions Manchester United. A top-three finish did, however, yield the club's first-ever Champions League campaign and they made the most of it, reaching the quarterfinals and going toe-to-toe with Barcelona before bowing out 6-4 on aggregate at the Camp Nou.
The final flourish in a glorious run came in May 2000, when Di Matteo struck again to beat Aston Villa in the last FA Cup final to be played at the old Wembley. Dennis Wise was voted man of the match and among the substitutes was a 19-year-old John Terry, the future symbol of Abramovich era Chelsea.
Le Saux has no doubt that the success his team brought to Stamford Bridge set the tone for what followed. "That team was a new era," he insists. "From the FA Cup win in 1997 through to 2003 when I left, Gianfranco left and Roman arrived, was a pivotal period in the club's history.
"What I admire about this [current] Chelsea team is that ability to give someone the ball under pressure. We had that in our team with Roberto and Dennis in midfield. Gianfranco could take the ball with three players around him and still wriggle his way out of trouble or make the right pass.
"The range of passing of Frank Leboeuf was like David Luiz, so it's all shades of the same colour. I'm sure if you showed these players some of the games we played in, they'd be looking at it thinking, 'What a good team you were'."
Flo adds: "I think it helped the club become a lot bigger. When you start to play good football and you are winning trophies, you get more supporters around the world. It helped to grow the club.
"There were some very strong, good characters in that dressing room and that has shown now later. Many of them have become managers and coaches for big clubs. They were not only good footballers but also good organisers and smart people.
"They were winners as well, that is the big thing. We were all guys that wanted to win."
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.