FourFourTwo's 100 best foreign Premier League players ever: No.7, Gianfranco Zola

Few players illustrate Chelsea’s transformation from mid-table grafters to stylish Euro-chasers quite like the tiny Italian with a giant smile. Few others can tell it quite like Craig Burley either 

Craig Burley, Chelsea

When you talk about Gianfranco Zola you have to put it into context, because Chelsea weren’t the Russian-owned juggernaut they are now. Nope – it was a club that’d had its problems.

But Zola was something completely new. The people at Chelsea who brought him to the club deserve a huge amount of credit because he was at his peak – it wasn’t as if he was coming to us near the end of his career.  

Starting with Glenn Hoddle, Chelsea had started to attract bigger-name players than they had done in the past. We had Mark Hughes, Frank Leboeuf and then Ruud Gullit, who I suppose was the player who really accelerated the change. When Zola walked in, though, it was a real stand-up-and-take-notice moment.

Gianfranco Zola

Zola scored 80 goals during his seven seasons at Chelsea

Don’t forget that he was once seen as the heir apparent to Diego Maradona at Napoli; now there he was arriving in the same west London changing room as me.

Obviously the game then wasn’t as globally available as it is now – there wasn’t wall-to-wall football on TV – but we all knew how good he was. It’s worth remembering that we also got him for just over £5m… and you couldn’t get Ross McCormack to climb over his front gate for that amount now.

One in, one out

Spencer knew that, as technically good as he was, the end was nigh for him because this guy was just sheer quality

He had a huge impact straight away, but his arrival also signalled the demise of John Spencer at Chelsea.

Now, John was a really gifted footballer and he was flying playing behind Hughes at the time, but I’ve never seen a footballer so deflated that someone had been signed. He knew that, as technically good as he was, the end was nigh for him because this guy was just sheer quality. Of course, that’s what happened. Spenny ended up going to QPR soon after.

Off the pitch, Gianfranco fitted in immediately. Even now, he’s one of the nicest people in football. He was the same as Gianluca Vialli; between them they had pretty much done it all, but although they struggled with their English to start with, they picked it up quickly. Even now, even if I haven’t seen him for a while he’ll come up to you and give you a hug – that’s the kind of guy he is. There are no airs and graces with Gianfranco.

He also learned to play golf when he was with us and he got the bug. He couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a baseball bat at the start but it was all part of the way he integrated with the boys.

Like Vialli and a few of the other Italians in that side, he was in the gym before training. That was a real eye-opener for us because it was something that we just hadn’t seen before. We would arrive at Harlington, Chelsea’s old training ground, and he would have already done his gym session.