Today’s PL hero is a man that won the hearts of football fans worldwide. He is Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola.
Gianfranco Zola lit the Premier League alight when he arrived to Chelsea Football Club from Parma in 1996 for £4.5m. The 5ft 6inch Italian had already proven himself in the Serie A but many didn’t think he would be able to settle into the physicality of English football.
However, the pint-sized forward used his skill and technical ability to overcome the physicality of the Premier League and he ended up becoming a Chelsea legend before the end of his time at Stamford Bridge.
The Italian helped a pre-Abramovich Chelsea side to two FA Cups, a Super Cup and a Cup Winners Cup while he also became the first ever Chelsea player to win Football Writer’s Player of the Year in 1997. Zola managed to score 59 Premier League goals in 229 Premier League appearances.
Zola was born in Oliena, Italy on the 5th of July 1966 and played for many lower league Italian sides before moving on to Napoli where he netted 32 times in 105 appearances. This led to a move to Parma where he scored an impressive 59 goals in 102 appearances. This impressive record attracted a lot of attention from teams across Europe and Chelsea won the race to sign the Italian forward.
Zola’s debut was in a 1-1 draw against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park and he went on to score eight times in 23 league appearances in his first season of English football. The most impressive of these goals came against Manchester United when he dribbled around the entire United defence and slotted home past Schmeichel. The goal left United gobsmacked and United boss Alex Ferguson reacted to Zola’s goal in his post-match interview by saying Zola was, “a cheeky little so and so”.
Zola had a huge impact for Chelsea in their FA Cup run as he scored 4 times on the way to the final including a 25 yard curling shot in a 4-2 win over Liverpool and scored again in the semi-final by backheeling the ball, turning 180 degrees and slotting the ball home. Zola ended his first season at Chelsea by lifting the FA Cup with his teammates after Chelsea defeated Middlesbrough 2-0 in the final. On a personal level, Zola also won an individual award by being named Football Writer’s player of the year in 1997.
The 1997/98 season was also an enjoyable one for Chelsea and Zola as they won the Cup Winners’ cup, the Super Cup and the League Cup. Zola played 27 league games and scored 8 league goals as Chelsea finished 4th on 63 points. Zola’s highlight of the Premier League season came in November 1997 as he scored his first ever hat-trick against Derby County.
However, Zola’s big moment for Chelsea in this season didn’t come in the league but instead in the Cup Winners’ Cup finalZola didn;t start the game due to injury , but scored the winner with his first touch after 30 seconds of entering the game.
In the 98/99 Premier League season, Zola scored 13 league goals as Chelsea finished 3rd , qualifying for the Champions League. Chelsea entered the 1999/00 season as Champions League competitors and Zola went on to score 3 times in the competition for Chelsea including a curling free kick against Barcelona but Chelsea were eventually eliminated in the quarter finals.
Chelsea slipped down to fifth in the Premier League and Zola only scored 4 league goals in the 99/00 season but they went on to have another great FA Cup run. Chelsea faced Aston Villa in the FA Cup final and it was a tight game until Zola stepped up to take a free kick in the 73rd minute which Villa keeper David James fumbled off defender Gareth Southgate and Di Matteo jumped at the opportunity to score for his side. This proved to be the winning goal and Zola lifted another trophy during his time at Chelsea.
The 2000/01 season signalled huge changes in the Chelsea squad as new faces such as Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink arrived while familiar faces such as Dennis Wise, Gus Poyet and Frank Leboeuf left the club. This new competition up front for Zola meant that he had to up his game or he would also be replaced.
The Italian managed 36 appearances in the Premier League that season and scored 9 Premier League goals as Chelsea finished 6th. The 01/02 season saw Zola make less starts for Chelsea as he became a regular substitute for the Londoners. The highlight of Zola’s season came during an FA Cup fixture against Norwich when he scored an outstanding backheel in mid-air which Claudio Ranieri described as “fantasy, magic”.
Zola’s last season for Chelsea came in the 2002/03 season and it proved to be a renaissance period for the Italian as he scored an impressive 14 times for Chelsea, leading them to fourth place.
Zola’s last ever goal for Chelsea was a cheeky lob against Everton on Easter Monday 2003 and his final competitive appearance occurred against Liverpool where he made a 20 minute cameo. During his final 20 minutes in the Premier League, Zola dribbled around the Liverpool defence and received applause from both sets of fans. He finished the season off by being voted Chelsea player of the year.
Zola finished his Chelsea career at the end of the 2002/03 season with 80 goals in 312 appearances in all competitions for the Londoners. The greatest honour of all was bestowed upon the Italian in 2003 when he was named the greatest Chelsea player ever by the club’s fans. Zola was further recognised for his time at Chelsea by being awarded an OBE in 2004.
The career of Gianfranco Zola was a special one for fans of all Premier League sides, and for that reason, he is our Premier League hero.
Sarah Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena.