Sackings and cup glory
Having been a mid-table team in the early Premier League Years, Chelsea were beginning to make an impact on the top-flight in the late 1990s. The 1997-1998 season saw the Londoners record their first top-four finish and experience cup glory, with victories in both the League Cup and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup under the guidance of Gianluca Vialli.
This was despite having almost as many defeats as relegated Bolton Wanderers and the controversial sacking of Ruud Gullit as first-team manager in February 1998.
This was Chelsea’s ninth successive season in England’s top-flight and they went into the 1997-1998 season looking to build on the previous season’s sixth-place finish, as well as victory in the FA Cup final over Middlesbrough.
It was Ruud Gullit’s second season in the dugout at Stamford Bridge and his continental knowledge saw more foreign players recruited in pre-season to add to the depth of the squad. Gus Poyet, who had been part of the Real Zaragoza squad that defeated Arsenal in the 1995 Cup Winners’ Cup final, arrived on a free transfer.
Graeme Le Saux returned to the club after a four-year stint at Blackburn Rovers which had yielded a Premier League title winners’ medal in 1995 with Chelsea paying Rovers £5 million for his services. Nigerian full-back Celestine Babayaro from Anderlecht and a new first-choice goalkeeper in Ed de Goey were among the other new arrivals.
Setting a high standard
Despite an opening day defeat to Coventry City thanks to a Dion Dublin hat-trick, Chelsea made a brilliant start to the season, winning five of their first eight games. This included an excellent 2-2 draw at Old Trafford with reigning champions Manchester United.
In August, they handed Premier League newcomers Barnsley a lesson in how tough life is in the top-flight. Gianluca Vialli, keen to start more matches in this campaign, scored a stunning four goals at Oakwell as the Tykes lost 6-0 on their own patch. By the end of September, Chelsea had already scored 22 goals and were averaging three goals a game.
Expansion to The Shed End and The West Stand meant Chelsea played their first three matches of the league campaign away from home whilst the redevelopment work was completed. Southampton were the first visitors to the modern-day Stamford Bridge and lost 4-2, with all of Chelsea’s goals coming in the first half.
Champions-elect Arsenal were the only side to win on their visit to The Bridge before Christmas and only away form was harming a serious title tilt from Gullit’s men. By the turn of the year, five of Chelsea’s six defeats had come away from home, including disappointing 1-0 defeats to Southampton and Bolton Wanderers. Nevertheless, they still put in some wonderful away performances and the 6-1 humbling they dished out on Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane was one of the best team displays of the entire campaign. Another summer recruit, Tore Andre Flo scored a hat-trick.
29TH DECEMBER 1997 TABLE
Although there was a disappointing 3-1 defeat away at struggling Everton in January 1998, Chelsea sat in second position when Gullit took his side to Highbury to face Arsenal on 8th February. The Dutchman was greeted warmly by Chairman Ken Bates when he arrived at the ground and everything seemed rosy in-terms of the relationship between manager and owner.
Two Stephen Hughes goals consigned Chelsea to their seventh away defeat of the campaign but they were still leading the chasing pack behind Manchester United and just five points away from the Red Devils too. Discussions were well underway regarding a contract extension for Gullit. Yet, there was to be a sensational story that broke from west London four days after the Arsenal loss.
Chelsea’s hierarchy held a news conference to confirm Gullit had been sacked. Bates said at the press gathering: “We were unable to meet his financial demands.” Managing Director Colin Hutchinson backed this up, adding: “There was no further scope for future negotiations.”
24 hours later, a rather stunned Gullit held his own press conference, claiming he didn’t know why he’d been sacked and demanded to know the real reason for his sudden departure. He dismissed the board’s claims that his wage demands were too high and confirmed he had been ready to sign a new deal to stay on as the club’s manager. Bates later admitted “I didn’t like his arrogance – in fact I never liked him.”
Even more surprisingly, Vialli was immediately appointed as his successor in a player-manager capacity, despite having no previous managerial experience. With Chelsea second in the league and into the semi-finals of the League Cup, plus a European quarter-final, the timing of this managerial change did have a detrimental effect on the rest of the Premier League season.
Hanging onto fourth
Chelsea’s Premier League campaign crumbled after this decision. Vialli lost his first three matches in-charge, including a 1-0 home defeat to Manchester United which saw many bookmakers deciding not to take anymore bets on where the title was going. However, United were about to be humbled by a team from London. However, it was Arsenal who went on a devastating run of form to snatch the Premier League title.
The players had seemed just as surprised as anyone by the board’s decision to dispense with Gullit’s services, plus the fact that one of their teammates was now their boss. Vialli still got the side playing some attractive football and this was demonstrated when Liverpool FC were well-beaten 4-1 on their visit to Stamford Bridge in late April. A final day victory over Bolton Wanderers ensured a fourth-place finish. However, there was a sense from within the fans that an opportunity was missed to launch a serious title challenge. Although they finished second highest goalscorers with 71 goals, Chelsea lost more games in the season than Wimbledon, who finished 19 points adrift and in 15th place. Relegated Bolton only lost one more match than what Chelsea did
There was a silver lining to the season though with double cup glory. For the second successive season, Middlesbrough were beaten in a cup final, losing 2-0 in the League Cup final. Right at the end of the season, Gianfranco Zola came off the bench to score the only goal in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup Final against VfB Stuttgart.
FINAL 1997-1998 TABLE – THIRD TO EIGHTH
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