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

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Guile with graft

If people remember what Gianfranco did in games then you want to get a f***ing DVD made of him in training – it was incredible; the quick feet, the goals

If you think of two of the most talented players in the Premier League in that era, you think of Zola and Georgi Kinkladze, who did some great things over a relatively brief period with Manchester City. I’m not comparing them as players, but I was at Derby with Georgi and he was a man blessed with amazing talent. Zola was a man blessed with amazing talent too, but the difference between them was that one was what I’d call a waster, and the other was a consummate professional.

There are a lot of talented guys out there but that work ethic Gianfranco showed can be the difference – he had it all. He was the complete package. That’s the difference between the great players and those who have great ability but bemoan the fact that they didn’t get to a certain level.

Did he inspire us to change the way we went about things? I’m not sure about that. Did he inspire us to play better and to train better, though? Absolutely. If people remember what Gianfranco did in games then you want to get a f***ing DVD made of him in training – it was incredible; the quick feet, the goals. Everything.

The great thing about that Chelsea side, though, was that everyone was still themselves. Wisey (Dennis Wise) would still be running around winding people up. Zola just made the team better, and everyone upped their game.

Stamford style

It was typical of Zola in a big game, and that’s the main thing about him – he never went missing in the big matches

I was so lucky to have been at Chelsea during that period. Gullit was World Footballer of the Year twice, but Gianfranco was technically the best player I played with.

You’d also have to go a long way to find anyone who didn’t think Gianfranco was just a great bloke too. The Italians were fantastic at Chelsea; to a man they were all the same. They worked their bollocks off, they integrated into the British way of life and the Premier League, and they wanted to mix in our cultural circles. That’s what made them so special.

Gianfranco Zola

Zola later spent a couple of years in charge of West Ham, keeping the Irons in the Premier League

Gianfranco loved the Chelsea fans and they absolutely adored him too. It’s easy to forget that we weren’t a club that was used to winning trophies back then – they’d won the FA Cup in the ‘70s but hadn’t come close to winning anything since.

Funnily enough, my final season with Chelsea in 1996/97 was the one that drought finally ended, and the goal Gianfranco scored in the semi-final of the FA Cup against Wimbledon at Highbury was probably the one that stays with me. He had his back to goal and then twisted and turned the Wimbledon defender, before ramming the ball in the top corner. It was just a fabulous strike to seal that game.

It was typical of Zola in a big game, and that’s the main thing about him – he never went missing in the big matches. He always stood up when we needed him to.

Interview: Richard Edwards

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FourFourTwo's 100 best foreign Premier League players ever