Let me get one thing straight before we begin: I don’t want Gianfranco Zola to take the Chelsea manager’s job. There isn’t any actual evidence that he will, or even that he’s on any list of prospective candidates, merely a throwaway quote in the Gazzetta Dello Sport that he would like to be manager one day. But my feelings on this are so strong that I need to warn him now: don’t do it, Franco, you’ve done for us everything that we could have ever wanted, and we (well, I) don’t want you sullying that legacy by taking over that basket case institution; they’ll chew you up and spit you out, and I want to remember you how you were – a genius, a shining light – not as a haggard, beaten man.
Kenny Dalglish was one of Britain’s finest ever players, a legend at two of the country’s biggest clubs. He watched Liverpool fans die at Hillsborough and carried himself with great dignity in the aftermath, going to funerals and watching parents mourn their dead children, and wives their husbands. He took the weight of a lot of grief, and he and others at the club did so in a deeply admirable way. This should not be forgotten, by fans of any team. But now look at him: his atrocious conduct during the Suarez affair and his paranoid blunderings about conspiracies, not to mention the shocking state of the team, have made him look like an incompetent buffoon, a sour-faced nut plucked from RAWK’s loony fringe. One of the all-time greats, a championship-winner as a player and a manager, reduced to a figure of fun; a caricature. It’s perverse and sick and sad, and I don’t want to see Zola – he closest thing to a football hero that I have – reduced to a jabbering wreck, bemoaning penalty decisions going against us, and cursing the Gods. I don’t want to see the players rebel against him the way his generation did against Vialli, and the current lot did with Andre Villas-Boas. That would be sad.
No player embodied that sense of hope and joy as much as him. It didn’t matter that he didn’t play as many games, or score as many goals as you’d think. It also doesn’t matter that in his second season he was actually pretty crap, because he represented something that can’t be quantified in statistics
And for all that we like to berate Liverpool fans for the schmaltzy, saccharine bubble of sentimentality that so many of them live in, we’re all a little bit like that too. Football fans in general, but Chelsea fans too. It’s why, despite him having no managerial experience whatsoever, that we all implored Ruud Gullit to take the player-manager’s job when Glenn Hoddle left in 1996, and why a couple of years later we were all delighted that Gianluca Vialli did the same a couple of years later. Had Zola taken over from him instead of Claudio Ranieri, I wouldn’t have been upset, and I doubt many others would have been; for many of us, especially those in their late 20s, early 30s, that team has a magical, nostalgic glow about it. It was the first truly good team that we’d had since the early seventies (yes, yes oldies, Dixon, Nevin, Speedie, Spackman etc; but that team never challenged for major honours), we had a good go at the league title (coming up against two of the best sides England has ever seen), we did well in Europe and we won trophies. But most of all there was a sense of progress, a feeling that we were going places, and it came right smack in the middle of the first economic boom of the New Labour period, back when many people were naive enough to think they stood for something better. It was stupid, but it felt great, and the atmosphere at the Bridge – which was finally being turned into a proper football ground – was genuinely electric. I was a teenager. Hell, I still had hair – what’s not to love? That was my team, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the relentless crushing machine that Jose Mourinho brought us, that will always be my team. No adolescent solipsist could resist a team so full of potential, but yet to reach full bloom; the opportunities for over-identification were just too great.
And so, Zola. No player embodied that sense of hope and joy as much as him. It didn’t matter that he didn’t play as many games, or score as many goals as you’d think. It also doesn’t matter that in his second season he was actually pretty crap, because he represented something that can’t be quantified in statistics. He did three things in that 1997 cup run that no-one who was there will ever forget: the equalising goal against Liverpool in the fourth round; THAT goal against Wimbledon in the semi-final at Highbury; and the cheeky back heel to set up the second in the final. Just on the basis of that he could have sat in the stiffs for six years and he’d still be considered a legend, but he carried on doing it when it mattered, never complaining when he was on the bench and always playing with enthusiasm. He, like so many others in that period, genuinely loved playing for us, and we loved him (them) back. All the important players from that era – Roberto Di Matteo, Ruud Gullit, Dan Petrescu, Frank Lebeouf, Desailly, Tore Andre Flo, Gianluca Vialli and Zola himself – are still big Chelsea fans, and you can understand why; that whole period was just great fun, and those players enjoyed a rapport with the fans that the current team never has. I can’t think of a single player from the last ten years that is loved like Zola, not even a bona fide legend like Frank Lampard. It’s juvenile, loving the flawed, those who flatter to deceive, rather than winners, the achievers. But it is very English – and thank God for that.
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