Long Reads

Ruud Gullit: the Premier League Years

The birth of the Premier League couldn’t have come at a better time for Chelsea football club. The end of the 1980s had them as a team on the up and the cash injection of television money set the club on course for European football and beyond. But this journey to the top starts one decade prior.

Relegation in the 1978/79 season left the club in a perilous situation, virtually bankrupt from the development of the East Stand, in need of the the gate receipts of First Division football, but when instant comeback was not achieved, the team wallowed in its own self pity, finishing the next three Second Division seasons in 12th, 12th and 18th, dangerously close to the third tier.

Then in 1982, the club was famously purchased for £1 by Ken Bates and things began to turn around for the club. With the team finishing the 1983/84 season as champions, First Division football would remain a constant, with the exception of the 1987/88 season, which they again finished as Second Division champions.

1987 was also an important year off the pitch, Bates secured planning permission from the council to build an all-seater stadium. However, his £1 purchase of the club five years earlier did not include the freehold of Stamford Bridge.

With the lease expired, a temporary deal was struck for a further two years, but in 1989, the owners of the site, Cabra Estates tried to evict the club from The Bridge. However the housing market crash of 1992 bankrupted the company.

Bates struck a deal with the creditors to purchase the land, setting up the nonprofit organisation, Chelsea Pitch Owners, to ensure nothing like this would ever happen again. To this day, Roman Abramovich still doesn’t own the freehold of the Stamford Bridge ground.

The much needed cash injection of the Premier League allowed Bates and Chelsea to bring in new talent and the signing of Glenn Hoddle in 1993, becoming player-manager that began Chelsea’s ascent.

Chelsea reached their first FA Cup final since their first triumph in 1970 during the 1993/94 season where they fell to a 4-0 defeat to Manchester United.

The wait for another cup final appearance would not take quite as long as the Hoddle transformation took shape.

In the summer of 1995, the arrival of Ballon D’or winner Ruud Gullit, a free signing from Sampdoria would change the course of history of not just Chelsea but the Premier League.

Speaking to the BBC in June, Gullit said of his move, “When I joined Chelsea, in June 1995, the Premier League was very different to the way it is now.

“I wasn’t the first overseas player to come here, but I was one of the first to arrive with a big name, from a bigger league, such as Serie A.

“Looking back, that summer was probably the time the Premier League really began to change into the competition it is now, and it had to. Italy was the king then – all the best players were there.

“English football was very basic in comparison, and the English wanted to have people from outside so they could try to get their game back again to the highest European level.”

Former Chelsea defender David Lee, who made 151 appearances during a 10-year stay at the club, recalls the moment the squad found out about Gullit’s signing.

“Everyone was buzzing with anticipation of a player of Ruud’s calibre coming to Stamford Bridge”.

Lee added: “It was great to learn from him both on the training ground and pitch. He always had time for me helping with advice.”

It wasn’t just the players who were excited for the arrival of the European Championship winning midfielder either. The supporters also couldn’t quite believe that such a big name had chosen SW6.

Chris Wright, author of the Chelsea Rewind website, said “the thought of Ruud playing for Chelsea was a dream. Despite coming to the end of his playing career he still had plenty to offer.

“We could all finally believe it when seeing the images in the newspaper the next day. Ruud and Glenn Hoddle with a Chelsea scarf around them whilst Ruud was wearing the new ‘Coors’ home shirt over his shirt and tie.”

Gullit started out in a sweeper role under Hoddle but was quickly shifted into a more familiar midfield role where his class began to shine through.

Former Chelsea striker Gavin Peacock, speaking to the Chelsea Rewind website, recalled Gullit’s impact on the pitch: “Ruud created a world interest in Chelsea. It was an absolute master stroke bringing him in. I think I worked out that out of six or seven of of my last goals, five of them were assisted by Ruud.

“He could just explode when on the ball and you knew when Ruud went with the ball you could take a chance from midfield, because you knew he’d keep it. You weren’t thinking he might lose it. He would always do the right thing. It was a delight to play with him on the field”.

Towards the end of the 1995/96 season, it was announced that manager Glen Hoddle was to leave the club and become the new England manager after Euro ’96. Gullit was to be his replacement in a player-manager role.

Gullit’s pull power became evident pretty quickly, with three new signings in the summer of 1996 creating more buzz at Stamford Bridge.

Lee recalled: “He had a huge impact and it helped attract other players to the club.” Gianluca Vialli arrived on a free transfer from Juventus. Fellow Italian Roberto Di Matteo signed from Lazio and French centre-back Frank Leboeuf arrived from Strasbourg.

Big things were expected of Gullit’s Chelsea and after a slow start, they soon began to play entertaining football. But soon after, tragedy struck the club when chairman Matthew Harding was killed in a helicopter crash following a League Cup tie in Bolton.

Gullit and co. decided to play their fixture against Tottenham just three days later, where he opened the scoring in a 3-1 win on what was an emotional day at Stamford Bridge.

In November, Gullit signed Gianfranco Zola from Parma for £4.5 million. The Italian would go on to be regarded by many as one of Chelsea’s greatest ever players.

Gullit’s playing role was ended in March after he suffered a broken ankle against Derby County, the team would go on to finish a respectable sixth place.

The season would be remembered though, for the FA Cup triumph over Middlesbrough, where Gullit would become the first overseas manager to win the competition. It was also Chelsea’s first significant trophy since 1971.

More impressive signings followed in the summer of 1997, with Dutch goalkeeper Ed de Goey, defenders Celestine Babayaro and Graeme Le Saux, midfielder Gus Poyet and striker Tore Andre Flo all joining the club.

Despite a Charity Shield defeat to Manchester United, the 97/98 season started well with some big victories including a 6-0 win at Barnsley, the infamous 6-1 at White Hart Lane and the 7-1 thrashing of Tromso in the Cup Winners’ Cup.

However in February 1998, the shock news of Gullit’s sacking as Chelsea manager was announced.

Gullit and the Chelsea board then had a very public falling out about the reason for his departure.

The board claiming they had offered to make Gullit the highest paid manager in the Premier League, while the Dutchman claimed he had just one meeting with the club about extending his deal.

Gullit was replaced by Vialli, who like his predecessor would take on a player-manager role.

“He left his legacy as a player as he made us better and a manager as he won the FA Cup and signed some top players” said Lee of Gullit.

He added: “I got on well with him and he was great towards me.”

On the 27th August 1998, Gullit was back in management, this time at Newcastle United where he replaced Kenny Dalglish.

Gullit arrived promising to bring ‘sexy football’ back to the North East. But the team struggled after their poor start to the season and finished in 13th place.

They did, however, reach an FA Cup final, and despite losing 2-0 to Manchester United, achieved European football at St James’ Park.

Gullit’s time in charge of Newcastle lasted exactly one year and one day, when he was sacked after a very high profile falling out with star player Alan Shearer.

Again, Gullit took to the press to voice his opinion on his sacking, after facing accusations of being a ‘part-time manager’.

The job was to be his last in English football.

Despite this, Gullit’s influence on the English game is still clear. Chelsea went on to win the Cup Winners’ Cup and another FA Cup under his replacement Vialli.

From then on, most of his signings were still at the club and were key players in helping the team secure Champions League football in 2003, which would ultimately see Roman Abramovich buy the club.

Gullit is a regular guest on Sky as a pundit for Chelsea matches, he also narrated the story for the recent release of Chelsea’s 2020/21 home kit, demonstrating his fond relationship with the club even today.

The Dutchman’s signing catapulted Chelsea into a different world and it’s clear that without his signing, things would look a lot different, not just at Chelsea, but in the Premier League.

Article by Dean Mears via Football’s Finest