There is something of the throwback about Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival in the Premier League. His apparent immunity to the ravages of time set aside, he recalls an era – in the not-too-distant past – of when the Premier League was going through the “retirement home” phase of its foreign influx. It was not until the turn of the millennium that the English top flight could claim to be a five-star destination for an elite player at the peak of their powers (and, some may argue, it has never sustained that) so, in the mid-1990s, its clubs were often in the market for last year’s fashions.
There were some notable exceptions, as the Premier League began to flex its muscles: Jurgen Klinsmann’s single-season first spell at Spurs, a 26-year-old Dennis Bergkamp arriving at Arsenal with plenty to prove, and Middlesbrough completing the considerable coup of Juninho. Otherwise, thanks to a combination of advancing years and the Bosman ruling, some stellar names were on route to unlikely destinations.
By the summer of 1995, Ruud Gullit was done with international football and was just about done with yoyo-ing between Milan and Sampdoria in Serie A.
Despite the wear and tear – the sort that had already finished his long-term teammate Marco van Basten’s career – Gullit was still in finer fettle than history cares to remember.
While certainly not the towering, emphatic presence who had secured the Ballon d’Or in 1987 and propelled a photogenic Holland to the European Championship the following year, Gullit was still capable of some totaalvoetbal excellence. Having spent his career playing almost any midfield or attacking position you could conceive, Gullit bowed out in Italy with 38 goals in the three seasons that followed his 30th birthday.
Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Sampdoria had twice been a release for Gullit from the demands of Milan – where Fabio Capello had declared that the 32-year-old “makes a fresh impression less than the others” – and the likes of Roberto Mancini and Attilio Lombardo were certainly more accommodating to his latter-years playing style.
With his time up, but reputation intact, Gullit had plenty of offers on the table: lucrative ones from Japan, adventurous ones from Turkey, underwhelming ones from France…and a curious one from Chelsea. Firmly entrenched in mid-table, the club needed a USP to persuade Gullit, even if trophies weren’t now his main motivation.
“Well, it was Glenn Hoddle,” Gullit explained to the Independent in 1996. “He’s my type of player. In Holland we couldn’t believe how little England played Hoddle. If he’d been Dutch, or Italian, or French, he would have won a hundred caps. From the start I knew Glenn’s intention, otherwise I wouldn’t be here now. ‘This is the way we’re going to play,’ he said, and that was the challenge. I’d heard of two players, but knew absolutely nothing about the club.”
— MotherSoccer (@MotherSoccerNL) January 23, 2016
Hoddle and flown to Italy to try and negotiate the signings of both Gullit and Paul Gascoigne, who would instead embark on a new chapter with Rangers. One set of dubious knees was perhaps enough, but Gullit was immediately defiant about his physical state.
“If I didn’t think I could meet the challenge I wouldn’t have done it. It was the same when I left Milan for Sampdoria. They all said I had knees of crystal and couldn’t play two games in a week. Then I had a great season with Sampdoria, we won the Italian Cup, and everyone said: ‘What’s happening, how can this be?’ I feel so fit and good right now, which is why I must take advantage of my situation.”
— 90sChelsea (@90schelsea) October 28, 2016
The awe-struck welcome began in slightly unorthodox fashion: a debut, in Chelsea’s famous colours of tangerine and graphite, away to Gillingham in a pre-season friendly. “The setting was so unlikely as to be surreal, but there was no mistaking the dreadlocks,” wrote the Independent’s Glenn Moore at Priestfield. “Ruud Gullit, former European and World Footballer of the Year and one of the best footballers of his generation, was playing at Gillingham. Had it not been for the extensive advance billing, it would have been like finding your mother on stage in a strip club.”
From that moment, Hoddle’s vision for Gullit was clear: Chelsea were going to play with a sweeper. 3-5-2 was close to becoming all the rage in the Premier League, and Gullit was going to slot in behind such luminaries as Erland Johnsen, Frank Sinclair and Andy Myers.
“I am very fit and by playing sweeper I can control the speed of the game. If you have possession of the ball you don’t have to run around chasing after it.”
Crystal knees or not, the Dutch footballing brain was well-preserved. Gullit’s Premier League debut came against Everton at home – in which he popped up all over the pitch – and his remit to prompt imperiously from the back was immediately obvious in the early weeks of the season.
Enjoying the freedom of the Stamford Bridge pitch, Gullit was also settling well into London life, away from the relentless glare of Serie A’s ultra-professionalism. One July afternoon, outside his Ealing hotel, Gullit climbed into his club-issued Toyota, tuned to Kiss FM and set off into town: “I drove until I got to Piccadilly Circus, taking in all the sights, and for the first time for a long, long time, I felt truly happy. It was like, ‘Ah, this is it. This is what I want’. I had a good feeling about London.”
Strolling around looking several classes above was one thing, but Gullit was happy to abandon his station whenever the opportunity presented itself. His first Chelsea goal, a technically immaculate volley against Southampton, was the reward.
With the silky smooth inevitably came the rough, gleefully delivered by noted respecter of reputations Vinnie Jones.
Galvanising though Gullit’s presence surely was, Chelsea would repeat their 11th-place finish of the previous season. If his aim was to enjoy life as a big fish in a smaller pond, Gullit had been a qualified success with his 50-yard passes and – defying his body – the occasional game-changing burst of pace and purpose.
He finished runner-up to Eric Cantona for the Football Writers’ Player of the Year, but the foundations for Gullit’s Chelsea legacy were laid the following summer. With Hoddle tempted away by the FA’s eternally poisoned chalice, Chelsea turned to his spiritual successor.
Before the 1996/97 season began, Gullit had transformed the Chelsea squad: out went Paul Furlong, John Spencer, Gavin Peacock and Terry Phelan, and in their place came Frank Leboeuf, Roberto Di Matteo, Gianluca Vialli and – eventually – Gianfranco Zola. Even with his extra responsibility, Gullit’s belief in his own playing ability hadn’t dimmed – some vain cameos from the bench would come to characterise his player-manager spell.
Gullit’s departure in February 1998 – reportedly over his after-tax demands for his new contract, which he denied – was as out of the blue as his arrival had been less than three years earlier. He had delivered Chelsea the FA Cup, their first silverware in 26 years, but now he was unseated by a member of his own squad. Vialli took his own tentative first steps into management, ushering Chelsea even closer to their current status.
Thanks to the elevation of the Premier League, the momentum of which Gullit’s arrival certainly helped, world-class players are no longer such a long shot. The downside to that strength in big-name depth is that the surprise factor has all but vanished. £90m for Paul Pogba, somehow, doesn’t blow one’s mind in the same way as Ruud Gullit marching around the edge of a Stamford Bridge penalty area, telling Scott Minto what to do. At one point, not too long ago, we were not worthy.