Long read: The story of Chelsea’s return to European glory – 25 years on

From the official Chelsea FC website:

This Saturday marks a quarter-of-a-century since Chelsea captured the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in Sweden – under the management of Gianluca Vialli and with Gianfranco Zola to the fore.

The final was won in dramatic style, with star players beating the odds to be involved and making a crucial contribution, all in front of a huge Blues support. But there are other colourful tales from that memorable cup run and we recall them today – from unlikely goal scorers to playing in a blizzard; from reigning supreme in Spain to almost blowing the semi-final; and then on to Stockholm and the final itself – and not forgetting a managerial change that caught football by surprise along the way.

Players involved in that 1997/98 campaign will be taking part in Chelsea Legends vs Bayern Legends at Stamford Bridge in September, with all proceeds from the match going to the Chelsea Foundation and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity in tribute to Vialli who sadly passed in January of this year. Click for more info and tickets

Our 1998 Cup Winners’ Cup victory made Luca proud and he made Chelsea proud too. Let the story begin…

In 1997 Chelsea were back. The Bridge was buzzing. The only place to be every other Saturday was walking down the Fulham Road.

Major silverware – the first for a generation – had been secured in joyous style at Wembley and that had a big knock-on benefit. The door to European competition was open.

You might think the wait for that lock to turn had been just as lengthy as the one for the FA Cup to return to the trophy cabinet, but it was not the case. An FA Cup final appearance three years earlier had been sufficient for a place in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, despite a loss to Manchester United. The Red Devils were Champions League-bound having won the domestic Double so, as FA Cup runners up, we took their spot in the other competition. 

It would not be a stretch to say Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea side had over-achieved in reaching a soaking wet Wembley in 1994, and the same could certainly be said about making it all the way to the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup in the season that followed, as a team hampered by injury and restrictions on non-English players served up a couple of hugely memorable nights.

At the start of 1997/98 however, as FA Cup winners and with a much-improved squad, it felt different – it felt we belonged in the Cup Winners’ Cup this time – and it genuinely felt we could win it.

This was the Chelsea of Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola; the Blues of Frank Leboeuf, Robbie Di Matteo and Dan Petrescu – melded together with the influential home nations players Dennis Wise, Mark Hughes and Steve Clarke, along with homegrown talent such as Eddie Newton, Frank Sinclair and Michael Duberry.

New signings were made in the wake of that Wembley win – a goalkeeper in Ed de Goey, a goalscoring midfielder in Gustavo Poyet (part of the Real Zaragoza side that had knocked Chelsea out of Europe in 1995), cleverly scouted young talent in Celestine Babayaro and Tore Andre Flo, and returning back to the club having become an England international while away – Graeme Le Saux.

The manager that season was the champion of ‘sexy football’ – the glamourous Ruud Gullit. At least initially he was.

  • A Cup Winners’ Cup 25-Year Anniversary Collection will be available to buy in the Megastore and via our online store on the date of the anniversary, Saturday 13 May

Such was the optimism going into the season that it was not only knockout competition trophies the Blues and our fans were eyeing up, a first genuine tilt at the Premier League title was not out of the question. Well, not once an opening-day defeat at Coventry was put behind us by four straight wins and 15 goals scored, four of those in one game by Vialli who was starting this season in much better spirits personally than his first one at Chelsea had ended. The Italian was made for UEFA competition. He was one of only four players to have collected all three major European trophies.

Seeing off Slovan Bratislava

The good run of results led nicely into the opening match of the Cup Winners’ Cup campaign, to be played at home inside an increasingly redeveloped Stamford Bridge. The new Shed End stand had been unveiled just one game earlier and the lower tier of the yet-to-be-finished West Stand already hosted fans.

Our opponents were central-European side Slovan Bratislava, no strangers to continental competition and indeed past winners of the Cup Winners’ Cup, two years before Chelsea had previously lifted the trophy in 1971. They were strong at home but suspect away.

Our opening goal came very early – scored by Wembley hero Di Matteo and the first European strike of his career. Zola and Vialli both hit woodwork and the team was playing well, especially Wise at the back of a midfield diamond, but the wait for the comfort of a second goal dragged on.

With Le Saux suspended, a hangover from an infamous on-pitch bust-up with a team-mate at his former club Blackburn, recent signing Danny Granville had come in for just his fourth start. With 10 minutes remaining, he controlled a cross and flicked it wide of a defender before volleying into the net, all with his left foot, to complete a 2-0 win. It was not the last time we would hear about young Granville in this cup campaign tale.

Following a mixed bag of league results between the two legs, we headed to the Slovakian capital for the rematch at the start of October. A good-sized travelling support enjoyed the city’s cheap beer during the day and then another 2-0 win in the evening. A first-half goal was gifted when a clearance by the goalkeeper hit the closing Vialli and went in off the crossbar.

Slovan Bratislava were lucky not to concede a penalty for a challenge on Vialli, before our striker’s cross was controlled by his fellow Italian Di Matteo who scored from close range, inflicting our opponents’ heaviest defeat on home soil in European competition. 

The second half of the game was also notable for the delayed debut of Babayaro. The Nigerian, who was Chelsea’s costliest teenage signing and had set the record for being the Champions League’s youngest player when at former club Anderlecht, had been injured during pre-season but quickly demonstrated a neat body swerve when at last the Chelsea fans could watch him.

The next round served up one of the most famous and remarkable away games in Chelsea history.

Even by Norwegian standards Tromso is far north – over 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle – and by late October it was under snow and ice-bound. Planes landing at an airport located in a fjord required pilots with special skills and, on touching down, slowed like a car pumping brakes to avoid skidding.

The small city of Tromso was charming; its football club’s facilities rudimentary. Their domestic games had already moved indoors for the close of the season but UEFA would not allow that for their competition so the outdoor pitch would have its heavy covering removed for our match.

The muddy, extremely patchy and uneven surface was passed fit to play only 45 minutes before kick-off. At that stage it was not snowing but it was certainly cold. Calling on a brass band to entertain the crowd seemed almost cruel on the musicians. On entry to the ground, the Chelsea fans were all handed a chocolate bar in special wrapping commemorating the game.

It was perhaps no surprise that Tromso handled the tricky conditions much better than Chelsea, who attempted to play in our usual style. We were 2-0 down inside 20 minutes and were fortunate not to be three behind at the break. There was of course the home leg to come but the deficit and the possibility of conceding more goals in this match were concerning. And then it started to snow. And snow. And snow.

It only took the half-time interval for the pitch to become completely covered. Local staff did their best to clear some of the snow. At least our high-viz yellow away kit stood out against the white blanket but still we were trying to pass the ball. Tromso players made little tees of packed snow when they took free-kicks. They wasted chances to go further ahead.

Play was halted twice, but only for attempts to clear the lines on the pitch which had become invisible. Had the match been abandoned, when could it have been replayed? This weather was setting in for the long winter.

The game and the blizzard continued and time was running out. It could be queried why Gullit had opted for a strike pairing of Vialli and Zola rather than use Flo, who had actually played for Tromso, and the battling qualities of Hughes. However he brought on the experienced Welshman at half-time and his decision to stick with Vialli paid off in the end.

Luca was smart and worked out that in these conditions if you turned sharply, your marker was not coming back at you anytime soon. He scored when an attempted pass came back his way and he raced away into the box. Not that you could see where the box was. Chelsea had an away goal but then were thrown into a white-fall farce.

Leboeuf was injured and off the pitch but the officials would not let Andy Myers replace him before Tromso kicked off. The Blues players were unaware the team was a man down and had not reorganised at the back. The Norwegians made the score 3-1 immediately.

Gullit, already fuming about the conditions and with snow settled on his head, was now incensed. However his mood would be lifted a little by another clever Vialli goal right at the end, celebrated with a sprint over to the Chelsea fans. The deficit for the second leg was only a single goal when for quite some time it looked likely to be a lot worse.

In the end a 7-1 home victory and a 9-4 win on aggregate rather put earlier concerns into context. The first leg had fired up Chelsea and Vialli grabbed a hat-trick while Petrescu bagged two goals.

Only in a 21-0 aggregate win over Luxembourg part-timers Jeunesse Hautcharage in 1971 had Chelsea scored more in a single match in European competition.

And then came a long wait. It would be four months before the Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-finals, and when the competition returned it would be a much-changed Chelsea.

The Blues had already suffered a big blow to our fledgling league title (and European?) aspirations before the Tromso tie. At one point that autumn we were three points off the leaders with a game in hand but Poyet, who had made a huge impression in his first 12 games, not least for his enthusiastic celebrating of his four goals, ruptured a cruciate ligament in training. At the time it was believed his season was over.

Not that the Uruguayan’s loss prevented one of our best attacking displays when Derby were defeated in late November with Zola superbly scoring his first-ever hat-trick, followed immediately by our record win at Tottenham – 6-1 – with Flo scoring three this time.

But perennial party-poppers Wimbledon held us to an unimpressive home draw on Boxing Day, beginning a run of only one league win in four. Our defence of the FA Cup fell at the first hurdle, heavily beaten by Man United at home.

We were still in the League Cup however, with a semi-final against Arsenal to play. Wise was not being selected due to an ongoing foot injury which had limited the captain’s training and would hamper him all season. With other key players missing for the first leg at Highbury due to international call-ups, Gullit decided to pick himself in central defence. It was his first start in two months and it would be his last game as a player – and his third to last as Chelsea manager. 

The Blues played poorly and Gullit looked off the pace up against Nicolas Anelka and Dennis Bergkamp. Only a superb display between the posts by De Goey and a Hughes goal kept Chelsea in the tie. Somehow it was only a 2-1 defeat. 

A defeat in the league in the same stadium soon followed while in the background, talks on a new contract for Gullit were going nowhere.

Still second in the league and still in contention for two cups, it was a huge shock to the football world when the Dutch master’s sacking was announced. His reign at Chelsea had been magnificent and history-making, but there were mounting problems and the club wanted more certainty. It was announced Vialli would take over immediately, continuing a run of player/manager appointments.

Famously, the Italian’s first game holding the reins was a fabulous second-leg League Cup turnaround against the Gunners, toasted with champagne. The final at Wembley against Middlesbrough (again) was duly won but not before the quest for European silverware resumed.

Seville-based side Real Betis were clearly a big step up from Slovan Bratislava and Tromso, having finished fourth in La Liga the year before, and were now vying for second place with Real Madrid, behind Barcelona.

Vialli opted to play the tall, fast and hugely skilful Flo on his own upfront while bolstering the midfield and it worked. Inside the first 10 minutes the Norwegian collected Di Matteo’s good pass and turned away from his marker, sprinting wide outside the covering defender before slamming the ball low into the Spanish side’s net. On 12 minutes Flo took Betis apart again, this time tricking inside the defender and finishing through the goalkeeper’s legs, all this in front of the terrace occupied by the fans who had travelled from England.

The Blues were aggrieved not to be 3-0 up at the interval after Zola had been brought down in the box but the referee booked our man instead.

In truth Betis looked lively in attack but Chelsea had simply defended well. The home side did score through Spanish international striker Alfonso early in the second half, and he had other chances as the Andalusian team were driven on by the flamenco-clapping rhythms of the home support. Chelsea harshly had a Petrescu goal chalked off yet still headed home with an away win – the final score 2-1 to the impressive Blues.

Back in England, our league form remained inconsistent but the Thursday before the League Cup final we were back to our best when Betis came to town, although we had to recover from going behind.

De Goey had done well to save an early free-kick and a Zola set-piece at the other end curled onto the post. After 20 minutes Nigerian international Finidi George put the side from Spain in front. Only the away-goals rule now kept Chelsea ahead in the tie.

Thankfully, going behind on the night merely sparked the Blues into action. Very soon Vialli had headed against the bar and Di Matteo had a shot saved. Sinclair did head a goal for Chelsea just nine minutes after the Betis one and Di Matteo scored superbly after half-time having won the ball himself. Stamford Bridge could relax and enjoy the show, with the finale provided by a goal from 20 yards out by Zola, looking back to his best after losing form in the latter stages of Gullit’s time in charge.

The 3-1 win at the Bridge and 5-2 on aggregate sent Chelsea into the fourth European semi-final in our history, ensuring we were the only Premier League club still in European competition in 1997/98.

The next round came quickly, with just some international games and the beating of Middlesbrough at Wembley in between.

We had drawn Italian side Vicenza who had little European pedigree and were struggling in Serie A. This tie was a big deal for them, as it was for Chelsea, but unlike in the quarter-final games, in the first leg away we did not see the Londoners at our best.

The exertions of a League Cup final that had gone to extra time probably played a part, as did the expected defensive competence of our Italian opponents, shown respect by our Italian manager who chose himself rather than Flo when going with a single striker again.

A mis-hit shot gave Vicenza an early lead and but for De Goey it would have been more. Flo came on to add additional attacking threat and Vialli hit the upright before having a header from a corner cleared off the line. As in the Tromso tie we would have to come back from a single-goal deficit at Stamford Bridge but this time with no away goals in the bank.

Preceding the second leg was a regulation home win over Tottenham, a game that also brought the return as a second-half substitute of Poyet, six months after his knee injury but earlier than originally hoped. It was a boost.

In the Cup Winners’ Cup match, with Di Matteo suspended and Petrescu ill, Vialli selected the Uruguayan to start and he would have one of the many starring roles in one of the great nights at Stamford Bridge. Teenage Jody Morris was in the midfield as well.

A spirited start was severely dampened half-an-hour in when Vicenza scored to go 2-0 up in the tie. They had an away goal. Now, for the first time in this cup run it realistically looked like Chelsea could be going out. We needed three goals in normal time.

Grabbing one of those quickly would be so valuable and when a Zola shot was pushed out by the goalkeeper, that is exactly what Poyet did. It was not easy to keep that shot on target but the midfielder knew how to score goals, and he knew Chelsea needed more as he raced the ball back to the centre-spot.

Leboeuf cleared off the Chelsea line before half-time. The game was full of jeopardy.

Five minutes into the second half we scored our second goal. The only reason Vialli was out on the right touchline when Vicenza gifted him the ball was that he was arguing with the linesman. The player/manager did not waste the opportunity – sprinting down the wing and crossing with even more pace to the far post. Of all people, there was Zola to bullet a header on the run into the net at the Matthew Harding End.

It was stunning to watch and the atmosphere inside the Bridge was crackling. But we still needed a goal to turn defeat into victory. It was one of those nerve-shredding, knife-edge scenarios that only existed under the away-goals rule.

Chelsea missed chances and with 20 minutes to go Mark Hughes was introduced. Blues fans already knew well what an impact the old warhorse could have off the bench, following a legendary fightback against Liverpool in the FA Cup the previous season, and Sparky instantly began letting the Italian defenders ‘know he is there’.

Soon De Goey launched the ball forward from the back and Hughes headed it over his marker whom he left trailing behind with a turn. Needing no second invitation, the striker volleyed for goal and found the far side of the net. There were echoes of his winner in the final of this competition for Man United against Barcelona seven years earlier.

Now his current team were cup final-bound but we still needed De Goey to make a brilliant stoppage-time, finger-tip save to prevent Vicenza snatching the Stockholm flight tickets out of our hands. On the final whistle, Wise taunted the Italians by mimicking the finger-on-lips celebration by Luiso when he had put them ahead on the night an hour earlier.

Results in the final five Premier League matches secured fourth place, the fifth-best finish in our history at that time, with the Cup Winners’ Cup final coming three days after the final domestic game.

The season’s run-in generated major injury problems however. Thirty minutes into an otherwise jubilant 4-1 beating of Liverpool, Zola tore a groin muscle. To add to that, Dennis Wise had suffered a tear in his thigh in the closing minutes of the Vicenza game but with all substitutions made, soldiered on to the end.

Zola’s injury had been clear for all to see, Wise’s far less so. So while the spotlight was on the Italian’s race to be fit for Stockholm, our captain’s problems were presented as less severe. Privately within the club, there seemed slim chance they would make it as they would need to recover weeks quicker than was standard for the injuries they had.

There was an argument to say they were the team’s two most important players. Both sought treatment in Italy, Zola with the man who treated his injuries when a Parma player. Initially it was a week of massage only.

Against the odds, Wise was able to tentatively join full training the Friday before the final league game but although Zola had been doing light running back in his homeland, plans for him to join the squad training were delayed.

Another significant injury problem was added too. A kick on Le Saux’s calf had damaged it and two other options for left-back were ruled out. A stress fracture meant Babayaro had not played in 1998 and a succession of muscle injuries ensured March’s League Cup final, in which he scored, would prove to be Sinclair’s last Chelsea game.

Wise, as planned before kick-off, played one half of the final league game on the Sunday before Stockholm. On the Monday, Zola trained.

The squad departed for Sweden on the Tuesday, joining thousands of Chelsea fans who were not going to miss an event they had been waiting a generation for – our second European final.

There were training sessions on the eve of the game, and on the morning of it, where Vialli told Zola of his big decision – he was not prepared to risk the Sardinian for the full match.

‘I was fit and I felt that I could play easily,’ Zola said as he looked back on that day. ‘When I recovered from my injury I thought the work was done. I expected to play. But it’s okay, I turned all the frustration into positive things.’

So it was Flo partnered with Vialli up front, while the left-back choice was Granville, scorer of that goal in the first round who had not played since the snow of Tromso.

Standing between Chelsea and silverware were Stuttgart who like Chelsea had finished fourth in their domestic league. Their man in charge was future Germany World Cup-winning manager Joachim Low. Their star players were captain and striker Fredi Bobic, a German international, and attacking midfielder Krasimir Balakov who amassed nearly 100 caps for Bulgaria. They had two defenders suspended and were up against a Chelsea squad containing five previous European finalists.

The venue, the Rasunda Stadium, home to Sweden national team games and a compact, traditional four-stand ground (since rebuilt) was a good size for the number of fans who wished to be present (more on that later) but the pitch even by 1990s standards was incredibly short of the quality expected for a major final. It was Chelsea who settled the better on its lumps and bumps.

Di Matteo sent the first shot of the game wide after a silky link-up between the three overseas stars in the four-man midfield – him, Petrescu and Poyet.

The German side came into the game for a short period, Bobic shot over, but Chelsea defended well. Duberry, only just over a severe bout of tonsilitis and with Bell’s palsy freezing one side of his face (as evidenced by any photo of him from the day) made important challenges. He was partnered in central defence by Frank Leboeuf, a man who consistently excelled in cup finals (this would be his third clean sheet in one), as France would experience later that summer.

Then De Goey, a proper hero of the cup run, saved splendidly from Balakov. It would prove to be Stuttgart’s best moment, and the only time the Bulgarian scared us. Chelsea, with Wise to the fore, wrestled back control. Poyet had a volley saved and a Wise volley went wide. We were in the ascendency at the end of a scoreless first half. There was plenty for the Chelsea fans to sing about, and there were plenty of Chelsea fans to sing!

Over 10,000 Blues were on the officially organised travel. Stories in Stockholm abounded that it was comparable for single air movements with the Berlin Airlift or the War five decades earlier, as did theories why the Stuttgart fans did not travel en masse.

The German club returned the vast majority of their allocation, which meant all the more found their way into the hands of Chelsea travellers. Anyone looking around the stadium during the game would find it hard to disagree strongly with estimates that 25,000 of the 30,000 attending were there to support the Londoners. It was quite a sight!

And a noise. As 10 men went to mow, one man, Dennis Wise, went close to scoring again. Despite being far from first choice for his position, Granville was excelling defensively while adding to the attacking force too. He had an effort saved. Our opposite full-back, Steve Clarke, was in stark contrast playing a game which moved him clear as Chelsea’s fourth all-time appearance maker back then.

Unknown at the time, it turned out to be his last but what a way to go out. So loyal for so long, the Scot had waited all those years for a trophy and then three came along together!

At the 70 minute-mark, the same point as Hughes’s introduction in the semi-final, Chelsea switched forwards again, and 17 seconds later we were 1-0 up.

This time it was Zola running on and although his second touch was hardly Zola-esque, his third most definitely was. Initially he was tackled but the ball broke back the way of Wise and the Italian made a run. The skipper returned the ball forward, that in itself a moment of admirable skill and vision, and Zola lashed the bouncing ball high into the net.

If the release of frustration in not starting the game was there in the venom of the shot, it was even more evident in his celebration. For those two players (who two-and-half weeks earlier looked likely to miss the final altogether) to combine to such devastating effect… it was magical and emotional.

There were two more hurdles to overcome. Poyet went off injured, but Eddie Newton was perfect for a steadying job. Petrescu was sent off with six minutes left on the clock, a ludicrously harsh decision, but it was Chelsea who came closer to scoring after that, with Stuttgart also reduced to 10 men at the close.

The final whistle confirmed us as one of only five clubs to win the Cup Winners’ Cup on more than one occasion. It was the first time in a Chelsea season that two trophies had been captured.

The on-pitch and in-stand celebrations were not far off Wembley the year before for their exuberance and length. And then it was time to head home.

For thousands and thousands that proved to be far from easy. Locally generated coach-transfer chaos, careful planning discarded, and other factors resulted in many still being in the airport when players headed through the next day. At least it was a chance to cheer again.

Whatever the delays, none would have missed it for the world. Chelsea were back – and we were back winning on the European stage as well.





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