• Rewind to 2000

Gianluca Vialli loses the Chelsea dressing room

ESPN staff
November 22, 2012
Gianluca Vialli won one of five games in the 2000-01 season © Getty Images

Following the surprise sacking of Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea, we flash back to the start of the Millennium to prove that it was not just Roman Abramovich who had trigger-finger at Stamford Bridge...

Roberto Di Matteo should barely have been surprised when a P45 stamped with the Chelsea club crest fell through his letter box on Wednesday, given that he witnessed a very similar story unravel during his time as a player at Stamford Bridge.

Gianluca Vialli, like Di Matteo a softly spoken Italian, won five trophies in three years for the Blues, including European and FA Cup glory, but was dismissed under the cloud of "losing the dressing room" by chairman Ken Bates.

As Di Matteo sat in the lonely glare of the Juventus Stadium in Turin, helplessly flanked by Eddie Newton and watching his side slump to a 3-0 defeat, he knew the result meant Chelsea are likely to become the first Champions League winners in the competition's history to crash out in the group phase.

Almost symbolically, the club's record signing - £50 million Fernando Torres - sat perched above Di Matteo's left shoulder, an image every bit as powerful as if Torres had extended his arm to give his boss the decisive shove. By choosing not to play the club's prized asset and only out-and-out striker, indeed by choosing not to play a striker at all, Di Matteo appeared to lose the faith of his players, sections of his supporters and - crucially - his employer.

Vialli knows the feeling. If Di Matteo had Torres helping him through the exit door, Vialli had half a team pushing him through it. Once a great friend of his colleagues as a player, he alienated those same faces when trying to establish himself as a manager, with "lack of communication" cited as the reason for his departure.

"Vialli has problems with everybody, with Albert Ferrer and many others. It's normal for a coach to get on with his lads, but not him," Frank Leboeuf said of the Italian.

"The fans wanted me to play but Vialli didn't. And his word is final," said Dan Petrescu, who was forced out of the club by Vialli despite a fan campaign to keep him. "Vialli never said anything to me but the message was very clear."

Like Di Matteo, the reign of Vialli began mid-season and ended with trophies being placed into the cabinet. At 33 years of age Vialli became player-manager as replacement for Ruud Gullit, and led the west London outfit to victory in the European Cup Winners' Cup and League Cup.

Although not the Holy Grail that the Champions League represents, the Cup Winners' Cup triumph, achieved with victory over Stuttgart, still acted as a giant success for Vialli who became the youngest manager to win a UEFA competition. That record was later beaten by Andre Villas-Boas, who himself has experienced the gun-to-the-head style ownership at Chelsea Football Club.

Vialli was a fan favourite at Chelsea weeks before his dismissal © Getty Images

Success continued for Vialli, who beat Real Madrid to the Super Cup before leading Chelsea to their highest league position for nearly 30 years. More silverware followed in the 1999-00 campaign as the Italian - now solely a manager - lifted the FA Cup.

However, much as it would for Di Matteo in 2012, that trip to Wembley acted as something of a premature leaving party, for within five games of the new season Vialli was sacked. A total of six points from those fixtures (comparing favourably to Di Matteo's five from his last five) brought things to a head.

A day that started with news that Chelsea were looking into the option of signing Vialli's compatriot and friend Paolo di Canio, actually ended with the Chelsea manager's dismissal. "It is in our best interests to seek a change of direction," read the club statement.

The decision drew a stunned response, with Graeme Le Saux saying: "All the Chelsea players are shocked and no one had any idea this was happening." Pierluigi Casiraghi, bought by Vialli, said: "Ken Bates does not know the meaning of gratitude. He is arrogant and has made a mistake."

Yet there was little anger from Vialli's camp, with agent Athole Still confirming the player-power factor in the decision. "The reason for Luca's sacking has nothing to do with the club's results at the start of the season," he said.

"The reason was that he had lost the confidence of some of the players. The spirit in the camp was not what he or Chelsea wanted to have. Gianluca accepts that he had lost the confidence of some of the players, and therefore completely accepts the club's prerogative in choosing to dismiss him."

Zola, so adored by the Chelsea faithful, was believed to be the catalyst as he and Vialli's relationship cracked, the little Italian genius rotated and overlooked despite the magic clearly possessed in his diminutive feet. Another big personality, Didier Deschamps, expressed how Vialli's efforts to switch from player to manager became lost in translation.

"I felt very frustrated on the pitch and also in my relationships with Vialli, which were difficult or even impossible. It was hard because I had a very different opinion of him as a player from the coach he became."

What happened next?
Another Italian, Claudio Ranieri, was named as Vialli's replacement and was soon given a £120 million war chest to spend under new owner Abramovich. Ranieri took Chelsea back into the Champions League and developed a love affair with the Chelsea faithful, but was eventually replaced by Jose Mourinho as Abramovich craved instant success.

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