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C. Chelsea History (2002-2003)


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Chelsea History (2002-2003)

Written by Gullit4 in September 2007

In the summer preceding the 02/03 season, Claudio Ranieri had outlined his transfer targets for the forthcoming season, which I presume would have been another “let’s-have-another-half-hearted-go-at-the-title-before-falling-away-into-a-Uefa-Cup-place” season. When you look back at the last few seasons before this one, we always had people mumbling about title challenges, but also seemingly content with good cup runs and sixth place.

ocean%20finance.jpg That all changed when Real Madrid got on the phone and said “Hello, the Flavio and Geremi deals are all ready to go through… erm, this is a little embarrassing, but there is one tiny complication- you have absolutely no money.” That’s the first time I understood we might be in real trouble financially. Until that time I thought debt was only one phone call from Ocean Finance away, and it only occurred to old retired people (“Hello, I’m afraid we’ve repossessed your heating. And also your roof. Merry Christmas”)

I can’t understand how and why we bothered to tell Claudio to draw up some targets, and then actually bid on them- what were we going to do, slip Madrid monopoly money and a get out of jail free card (later issued to Lee Hughes)? So the deal for Geremi fell through (he went on loan to Middlesbrough- why didn’t we make a loan bid at least?), along with the deal for Flavio (then partner in midfield for Claude Makelele).

de%20lucas.jpg Instead, we signed Enrique De Lucas on a free from Espanyol. Enrique is now in the quarter finals of the Spanish language equivalent of Pop Idol, la fábrica de música de basura. Enrique, we wish you well. So I don’t have to mention this again- he was rubbish. So rubbish we released him after one season, and subsequently claimed it was a loan deal. It wasn’t.

Though it sounds strange, the debt actually helped the players, and it helped Ranieri. Trevor Birch, who was then our chief executive, replacing Colin “I didn’t buy Bogarde” Hutchinson, had to spell it out plainly to Claudio (who of course had replaced Gianluca “I didn’t buy Bogarde” Vialli) and his squad: Qualify for the Champions League or it all comes crashing down. Players would be sold, we would hurtle down the table (and possibly the leagues) and worse. This ultimatum effectively gave us, for once, a solid target to aim for in the league. No longer could we afford to be truly inconsistent and not really care - every point became important (although the clichés remained interchangeable).

lampard_frank_20011223_nf_l.jpg Without any major additions to the side, Ranieri was left to work with what he had. There was much speculation about players leaving, so the introduction of the European transfer window was timely. Ken Bates described the introduction of the window as something that would separate the good coaches from the bad. Coincidentally, David O’Leary’s career has been on the slide since (and ironically, he’s probably good enough to manage a team in the same division as Leeds now).

With Sam Dalla Bona leaving for a small fee to Milan, our squad was pretty light- we only had 3 central midfielders for example. On the back of an £11m transfer last summer, an indifferent season, and missing out on the world cup squad, Frank Lampard had a lot to prove. He ended up one of the success stories of our season, playing much more in central midfield, scoring more, and driving the side forward. This was the season where he began to put in top quality performances that would eventually see him recognised as one of the top players in the world.

carlo2.jpg Other players also made excellent contributions- we saw more from John Terry, who looked increasingly like a future captain for club and country, from William Gallas who became the most important defender, from Graeme Le Saux, who was being kept out of the England side by a far inferior player (can’t remember who), from Carlo Cudicini, the very best keeper in the league and from Jesper Gronkjaer who provided a great outlet, lot’s of pace and crosses not even a Deity could get on the end of.

Despite many players putting in consistent quality performances, one player rose above all others to inspire the side. That player was Gianfranco Zola.

zola1.jpg Franco had endured a difficult season the year before, as Jimmy and Eidur destroyed teams with their, er, destructive partnership (how was that for a turn of phrase?). Now 36, Zola was expected to quietly fade into the background. Of course, the little Sardinian had other ideas, and went off and did a pre-pre-season on his own. Returning fitter and stronger than he had been in years, Franco looked extremely sharp in pre-season (or post-pre-pre-season), and coupled with injury and fitness problems that both Jimmy and Eidur were suffering, he started the season in the side, and that’s how it continued. Making a mockery of the severity of our club’s situation, he turned what could have been a tense and bitter year into the Gianfranco Zola farewell tour, scoring more goals than he had ever done for us before (16) and confirming his status as the best player in Chelsea’s history.

As the season went by, ebbing and flowing, we all had to despair as everyone’s favourite loveable fascist and friend of the Mussolinis, Paulo Di Canio, would raise his game against us, score, pretend he loved the West Ham fans, and go back to being useless. It became apparent that while Manchester United and Arsenal were obviously going to finish in the top two places, Newcastle had managed to sneak up and were taking the third spot. This left one spot out of the four Champions League places, as keen maths fans will have probably noted.

liverpool.jpg Two sides were heading for that elusive last CL spot- us, and a club called Liverpool. Liverpool used to have great players, and because of this, it was only right that they take the fourth spot. Not only were we up against Liverpool’s superb history (they have actually fielded a hardback book in their line up since 1990. Curiously some of the pages have been torn out, la), but we were up against a side that had spent big money in the summer. On the plus side, that money was spent on the likes of Salif Diao, Bruno Cheyrou and the popular El-Hadji Diouf.

Before I go on, I nearly forgot- we were knocked out of the Uefa Cup by minnows. Again.

roman2.gif And so it was- the final game of the season, Chelsea at home to Liverpool in a game worth £32m, and the future of our club. May 11 2003. Yet another date missing in Liverpool’s history book (written with crayons by Robert “Flower”). 41,911 witnessed Chelsea beat Liverpool at the Bridge, ultimately without much trouble. The score line of 2-1 flattered them, and although they had taken an early lead thanks to Sami Hyypia’s endless forehead, Jesper Gronkjaer crossed for Marcel Desailly to head home, before adding a terrific left foot curler into the bottom rand hand corner or Jerzy Dudek’s net. Zola came on near the end and made a mockery of Jamie Carragher multiple times in a confined space.

Meanwhile, Steven Gerrard was unjustly sent off for a near knee high lunge which saw him receive a second yellow. At the time of writing the scousers are waiting for the results of their 17th appeal. Full time saw scenes of huge relief mixed with elation and a real sense that the players had gone and achieved something very important in the club’s history. It was a real group effort, but (in true contradictory fashion) the season will be remembered mostly because of one man.

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