By Tim Harrison
One of the architects of Chelsea’s modern era over the past two trophy-laden decades – Gianluca Vialli – has died of cancer at the age of 58.
Luca signed to the Blues in 1996 on a free transfer from Juventus, where he had captained the side that won the Champions League. He then succeeded the manager who had signed him, Ruud Gullit, and became player manager; the first Italian to take charge of a Premier League side.
He led Chelsea to victory in the Cup Winners’ Cup, the Uefa Super Cup and the League Cup. He was, said an official club statement, “a brilliant striker, a trophy-winning manager and a wonderful man”.
Bubbly, stylish, mischevious
Shaven-headed, bubbly, stylish, mischievous and passionate, Luca Vialli was, in the words of Chelsea’s Supporters’ Trust, a foundation pillar on which the club’s successful modern era was built.
Todd Boehly, the new American owner of the football club, spoke of “his impact as a player, a coach and most importantly a person”.
His press conferences were legendary, especially in the late 1990s when he was still wrestling with the English language. At one, he boldly asserted that the players he would pick for the team the following weekend would perform well “when the fish was down”. It was gently pointed out to him that the phrase he was seeking was “when the chips were down”, cueing gales of good-natured laughter, led by the man himself.
The son of a millionaire, Gianluca was brought up in a castle in Lombardy, making his debut for Serie C side Cremonese at the age of 16.
After successful stints at Sampdoria and Juve, he joined Chelsea and quickly took to life in London... invariably with a fag in one hand during his early months! His playing career at Stamford Bridge was glittering, including a 30-minute hat-trick in one league game.
On one occasion as a new manager he insisted his players have a glass of champagne before kick-off, to steady their nerves. They won the match.
He kept a house in Fulham and lived in the borough throughout lockdown with wife Cathryn and teenage daughters Sofia and Olivia. Over the last few years, he was a frequent visitor to the Bridge.
Arguably his greatest match in a Chelsea shirt was an FA Cup tie against Liverpool in 1997, which remains this fan’s favourite game in more than half a century of watching the Blues.
It was 2-0 to the Reds at half-time at Stamford Bridge on 26 January in the semi-final, thanks to goals from Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore. No one gave Chelsea a prayer to overturn Liverpool’s utter dominance, yet second-half goals from Mark Hughes and Gianfranco Zola, plus two from Vialli (one a trademark bullet header), achieved a simply remarkable comeback.
Yet Ruud Gullit used Vialli’s talents sparingly, preferring him as an impact sub... a move which led then captain Dennis Wise to reveal a T-shirt under his kit bearing the message ‘Cheer up, Luca, we love you’ as the Italian sat morosely on the bench during one cup game.
Scoring the winner against Manchester United in another game in the late 1990s led to the memorable chant, to the tune of That’s Amore… ‘When the ball hits the back of the Old Trafford net, that’s Vialli!’
He scored 40 goals for Chelsea in 88 appearances, and also bagged 16 goals for Italy in his international career.
The club will pay tribute to Vialli on Sunday 15 January when Chelsea host Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge.