Wednesday, 20 June 2018
Gianfranco Zola - April 2004
Extract from Over Land and Sea a Chelsea Football Odyssey
by Mark Worrall first edition published in 2004 by Gate 17
Cagliari FC vs Como FC
Serie B Italia
Stadio Sant’ Elia Sardinia Italy
Saturday 3rd April 2004
‘Put a brandy in that will you love,’ said Sir Larry, pointing at the beer glass on the table in front of him and pushing his fingers comb-like through his greying mane of black hair.
‘Is that a Miriam son?’ he continued, adjusting his spectacles so he could focus his eyes more intently on the sylphlike figure of the olive skinned, waitress who was endeavouring to take our order as we sat outside the Antico Caffe in Cagliari’s Piazza Costituzione.
‘Well it looks like a Miriam mate,’ I replied, rubbing at the stubble on my chin, ‘but I reckon that underneath that tight black skirt, partially concealed by the flimsiest of G strings, you’ll find a regular black box as opposed to the meat and two veg that Miriam was hiding from her suitors.’
‘Right … right, but she’d definitely get it yeah,’ replied Sir Larry, sparking up a Marlboro and smiling as he watched the waitress pour the brandy he’d just ordered into his beer glass.
‘Grazie love … this ought to do it … cheers lads … happy birthday Ugly John.’ Sir Larry raised his beer glass, as we did ours, and drained the contents.
The occasion was Ugly John’s 40th birthday. Before Christmas we’d made a plan to celebrate it in style by making a pilgrimage to Sardinia … a trip that hopefully would include watching Gianfranco Zola playing for his hometown club Cagliari against Como in the Italian Serie B, the equivalent of England’s Championship … and here we were!
I looked around the table; it was a good turn out, even if the slightly botched travel arrangements had meant that a couple of lads had dropped out at the last minute. Originally we’d all been booked on a return flight from Luton to Cagliari but then the carrier, Volareweb, decided at the last minute to cancel the return flight back to London leaving us slightly snookered.
Ugly John eventually manage to sort things out so that we still flew from Luton out to Cagliari with Volareweb but inconveniently the return leg of the journey would involve driving to the north of the island and taking a Ryanair flight from Alghero back to my favourite airport in the whole wide world, Stanstead.
We hadn’t planned on hiring a couple of cars, but in the end it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as our hotel was a fair distance from town and the weather could at best be described as variable.
Right now though, the sun was so intense I could feel my bald pate starting to protest at the lack of protection I’d afforded it. Fuck it, I thought to myself, we’re only here for a couple of days … if I burn, I burn.
Ossie didn’t look too concerned about the potentially harmful effects of the midday Sardinian sun either, stretching himself out along the length of his chair and rolling up his jeans to his knees. All he needed now was a knotted hankie on his head and he’d complete the perfect image of the English tourist abroad.
Young Dave’s leathery skin had long since lost its elasticity and was probably impervious to the suns injurious ultra violet rays. He could bask lizard-like for hours, sitting in silence as he was now, studying Ugly John’s Lonely Planet guide to Sardinia, speaking only to confirm what he wanted to drink next.
Sir Larry was Sir Larry. Extremes of temperature didn’t faze him, quite simply he was a human phenomenon whose alcohol soaked body was resistant to a wide number of ailments ranging from the common cold to Malaria. Recently he hadn’t been so lucky with the Poison Ivy but he’d figured an extra brandy with his beer would soon clear that up enabling him to wax his dolphin with any Miriam that took his fancy.
Ugly John was sat there next to Sir Larry with his eyes closed and a broad grin on his upturned face. Ossie had cruelly suggested that it was Ugly’s 50th birthday not his 40th, but from where I was sitting he seemed to be wearing reasonably well. At least he still had a full head of hair, which was still the same dirty blonde colour as it had been when I first met him twenty odd years ago.
Ugly John’s locks had been the topic of a lengthy discussion in the bar at Luton airport the previous evening. It had a synthetic nylon-like quality to it which reminded me of the Action Man dolls of my childhood. ‘Suedehead!’ Ossie had proclaimed, garnering support for a new nickname for Ugly John. But Ugly John, ‘Brutto Gianni’ as I’d introduced him to a couple of Miriam’s we’d chatted to over breakfast this morning, was Ugly John in the same way that Sir Larry was Sir Larry although I had to admit that the nickname Suedehead was a pretty good one.
Augmenting our impressive line-up of middle aged, itinerant thrill seekers were a couple of battle scarred veterans whose friendship I’d nurtured during the early halcyon days of the rave scene.
Neither Sergeant Barnes or El Jocko had a great deal of affinity with Chelsea FC, but they did share with us a genuine love of the game and of course the birthday boy, Ugly John.
Sergeant Barnes was razor thin and absurdly youthful in both his appearance and outlook on life. The youthful looks he attributed to a spartan lifestyle that was dominated by a love of cycling and the fitness regime that went with it.
Barnes was my conscience, pulling me back time and again from the precipice when my recreational drug abuse threatened to become something more habitual. Always sharply dressed, he had the gait to accompany the militaristic moniker by which he was known.
This had been the first time that Ossie and Young Dave had met Sergeant Barnes and they had both automatically thought that he was known as Sergeant Barnes because his surname was Barnes and he’d achieved the rank of sergeant during the course of an army career.
They were right about the surname, but little else. Young Dave’s whimsical notion that Barnes was a war hero who’s face had been scarred during active service in the Falkland’s or the Gulf was way off track.
Sergeant Barnes was the Tom Berenger character in the film Platoon. At the time Barnes and Berenger bore an uncanny resemblance to each other, well according to my ex wife anyway … the same ex wife that thought my ‘Uncle’ Robert looked like Mel Gibson. It was all easy … the surname of the character in the film and our mate were the same and so plain old Jonathan Barnes became known as Sergeant Barnes.
With the passage of time Barnes’ personality had become aligned to the character he was named after. Our Sergeant became prone to belligerent outbursts, provoked more often than not by the sight of a lardy girl wearing ill fitting clothes that had been purchased from Top Shop rather than the shabby behaviour of the fellow members of his ‘platoon’.
A recent mishap hadn’t helped his temperament; the scars Sergeant Barnes bore on his face were not old shrapnel wounds but the legacy of a life threatening road accident that had also seen him break his back in two places and dislocate his left shoulder. The main thing was he was alive, most definitely kicking, and here with us today to celebrate Ugly John’s landmark birthday.
If the scythe of the Grim Reaper had missed Sergeant Barnes by the narrowest of margins then it had missed El Jocko by a cats whisker. El Jocko should have been rechristened Lazarus, for his was the greatest comeback of all. Less than a year ago, whilst on a climbing holiday in South Africa, he’d fallen fifty metres down a sheer cliff face.
It had taken twelve hours for the rescue team to reach him and a further twelve hours to get him down off the mountain. His injuries were so grave that it was thought for some time he might never walk again. It was a full month after the fall before the neurological unit at the Cape Town hospital El Jocko found himself in, pronounced him well enough to be flown to a hospital in Paris the city he’d called home for the past decade.
The dreadful accident had taken its toll on El Jocko. His right leg and lower back were held together by a Meccanoesque assemblage of metal pins, screws and plates and he now walked with a pronounced limp and a slight stoop. His once powerful frame had been decimated by muscle wastage resulting from the lengthy period of inactivity which El Jocko, a hugely talented all-round sportsman, had found maddening to endure … but he was back, and it was great to have the pleasure of his company again.
If my memory served me well enough I’d only ever been to three football matches with El Jocko and it had rained heavily on each occasion. The first time I’d taken him down to the Bridge, we’d got soaked to the skin watching a one sided 5-0 demolition of Sheffield Wednesday.
The second time El Jocko had invited a few of us to his home town city of Edinburgh where we had watched the team he’d followed as a callow Scottish youth, Heart of Midlothian, take on the mighty Bayern Munich who’d fielded a side which included a very young future defensive stalwart of the successful Chelsea cup side of the late nineties, Erland Johnsen.
I don’t remember much about that game, a UEFA Cup tie, but I do recall it pissing down with rain and El Jocko taking us to a drinker called the Athletic Arms where he introduced us to the delights of a potent Scottish brew called Eighty Shillings and the local delicacy of Mars Bars deep fried in batter.
The final time I’d attended a match with El Jocko oddly enough was here in Italy, Genoa to be precise … Italia 90. Since El Jocko had been sporting enough to come and watch England play on more than one occasion, it was only fair that we reciprocated. Unfortunately for El Jocko the game we went to see was Scotland’s embarrassing defeat at the hands of the football super power that is … Costa Rica, and it had tipped it down then.
Piazza Costituzione is located at the top of a gentle hill that slopes down to the sea. I sat there nursing my beer and watching the rays of blazing sunshine streaking through the branches of the poplar trees lining the uneven flagstone road which led down to the sprawling port of Cagliari.
As the afternoon shadows cast by the trees lengthened, I couldn’t help but notice the dark, brooding clouds out to sea which seemed to be creeping slowly inland bringing with them a murky malevolence which El Jocko wryly commented on.
‘Looks like we might have a bit of rain to the west later,’ he drawled slowly, sounding like a TV weatherman, his lilting Scottish accent adding a bizarre level of credence to the forecast.
El Jocko looked at Sir Larry and then at the waitress who was hovering nearby before leaning over and whispering in my ear, ‘Will yae order me a stiff brandy Marco, get her tae pour it in ma beer like Sir Larry has it and then for the love of Jesus Christ tell me who the feck this Miriam is yae all keep talking aboot.’
Despite the ominous looking clouds which blackened the horizon, the sky above our heads remained holiday brochure blue. As we walked down the hill to the port area it became obvious to me that the wealth which was so clearly flaunted on mainland Italy, and which had been clearly visible in the elegant and stylish city of Rome, seemed to be missing from Cagliari.
Sardinia may be rich in history and culture but Cagliari as a city is an agglomeration of bland apartment blocks, modern office buildings, medieval walls, baroque churches and a centre that is characterised by a maze of narrow cobbled streets and a castle.
An article I’d read recently about Sardinia described it as being the ‘land of magic full of designer views.’ Everywhere I looked though all I could see was graffiti. It wasn’t even in the artistic style of the hip hop urban ‘tag’ graffiti that we are so used to seeing back in London, this was just plain old vulgar, political sloganeering. Nothing was sacred, every wall, statue and monument that we passed was sprayed up; the only tagging in evidence here was the ubiquitous and strange stencilled image of a lady’s red halter neck brassiere.
We walked past a group of North African men were stood outside the upmarket department store La Rinascente on Via Roma selling the usual range of fake designer goods.
‘Y’know Sardinia is nearer to Africa than Italy,’ said Young Dave, giving us the benefit of some more of the knowledge he’d absorbed from Ugly John’s Lonely Planet guide.
‘Look at the Miriam’s in there,’ said Ossie, pointing excitedly at a group of young women with dark tresses and film starlet looks who were gathered at a cash desk just inside the main entrance to the store. ‘Would they get it Marco?’ he asked, looking at me knowingly.
‘Not half son,’ I replied, wolf whistling my approval to accompany the enthusiastic round of applause the women were receiving from Sir Larry and Sergeant Barnes in particular.
‘Yeah so anyway son,’ I said to El Jocko, pausing briefly to light one of Sir Larry’s Marlboro’s, ‘basically it’s to do with this reality TV programme they’ve been showing these past few weeks on Sky One. The programme was called There’s Something About Miriam and it was all about these blokes trying to win the affection of this gorgeous looking Mexican model … who happens to bear a striking resemblance to all the birds we’ve seen so far out here … including those chicks in the shop back there.’
El Jocko looked slightly perplexed as he poured himself a generous glass of red wine from the carafe that Ugly John had just handed him.
‘Oh I see, fair enough,’ he said, as he picked up the wine glass and put it to his lips … ‘well what was it then, this something about Miriam?’
‘Well like all these reality TV shows, eventually there are just two geezers left and Miriam has to pick the one that has impressed her most … so she picks this bloke Tom who she’s had a few snog’s with … and he’s well happy cos he gets ten grand and a week with Miriam on a luxury yacht cruising around the Med … thing is Miriam then reveals that she is in fact a transsexual who still has a full set of tackle … poor Tom’s crushed and all the other blokes piss themselves laughing.’
‘I still dinnae get it though,’ said El Jocko, rubbing his index finger around the top of his wine glass. ‘So if this Miriam’s really a geezer then why are you lot all raving on about her and likening all these lovely Sardinian birds to her … I mean er … it?’
‘I dunno son … from the chest up … you would mate … what can I say eh lads?’ I looked around the table for support and received approving nods from everyone apart from Sir Larry.
‘It aint bleedin normal that … er scusi signore ancora Brandy inna that please.’ Sir Larry punctuated his lambaste with a request to the waiter to put a brandy in the carafe he was holding close to his chest. ‘I reckon you’re all sausage jockeys … never mind G17 you lot should call yourselves the Chelsea poofters.’
We were having an early tea in a run down trattoria at the far end of Via Roma. At the far end of Via Roma was the Cagliari club shop where we’d been reliably informed we could purchase tickets for their match with Como which was taking place later in the day. The reason that we were in the trattoria and not the club shop was simple … the club shop was closed.
In Italy, a country renown for putting off until domani what should be wrapped up today, pretty much everything shut down between 1.30 and 4.30pm.
‘Jeeeesus Christ!’ exclaimed Sir Larry, throwing both his mobile phones onto the table. ‘Listen to this for a win double.’
‘Go on then,’ said Ossie, trying to grab one of the phones.
‘United have done Arsenal 1-0 in the cup and the Chels are 1-0 up at the Lane.’ Sir Larry puffed out his chest proudly and poured the brandy the waiter had handed him into the carafe he was holding swirling the contents around to make absolutely certain they blended well.
There was a certain amount of kudos attached to being the first to disseminate welcome news such as that which Sir Larry had access to through his new 3G mobile phone.
‘That’s fucked ‘em for the treble then, cocky Gooner shits,’ I said, clapping my hands and clenching my right fist and waving it at the others.
‘Now all we’ve got to do is something we haven’t done for the last eighteen times of asking,’ retorted Young Dave. ‘Beat the fuckers ourselves on Tuesday night and we’ll be off like as not to Madrid in the semi-final of the Champions League … and what a laugh that will be … no treble for them, no double even … lovely … all easy … all gravy ha ha.’
That’s the way things were working themselves out. Following our tenacious victory in Germany we had beaten Manchester City 1-0 in the league and then drawn the return leg with Stuttgart 0-0 at the Bridge.
Claudio had been given a hard time by the press for his tactics but none of us gave a flying fuck because Chelsea were through to the Champions League quarterfinals. Surprisingly Manchester United had been knocked out by FC Porto, but Real Madrid were in the draw as were AC Milan … and Arsenal.
It was inevitable that Chelsea would be paired with Arsenal when the draw was made, gloriously predictable in fact. I’m sure you could have heard the rumble of collective groans and cries of ‘fix!’ across the whole of West London when what was inevitable became a reality.
The draw for the semi-finals of the competition had been made at the same time; the winners of our tie with Arsenal would meet the winners of the tie between Real Madrid and Monaco. Elsewhere, AC Milan faced Deportivo La Coruna and FC Porto had been paired with Lyon.
The pressure drop on Claudio Ranieri was immediate. In the face of growing media speculation that he was to be sacked at the end of the season he remained concretely resolute.
Back to back league victories against Bolton Wanderers and Fulham had done little to change things. Kenyon was in for Sven who was stalling on signing a new England contract and despite Chelsea being a comfortable second in the Premiership it looked like Claudio Ranieri would soon be on the outside looking in, just like Ken Bates who’d finally resigned from the clubs board and stormed off in a huff aiming many a tabloid broadside at the new Chelsea board.
Worse still Carlo Cudicini had injured his hand in training and whilst Marco Ambrosio had turned in a surprisingly capable performance in keeping a clean sheet at Bolton, he’d looked slightly less composed in the local derby with Fulham.
The Spider was not going to be back between the posts for the visit of Arsenal in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal, in fact he was going to be out for a good few weeks … the portents for the match hadn’t been good.
‘Ranieri’s blue and white army … Ranieri’s blue and white army …’
The atmosphere at the Bridge that night had been electric, the support for the team and the manager unparalleled.
‘Your support is fucking shit,’ we’d chanted at the Arsenal fans strung out silently along the lower tier of the East Stand.
When Eidur gave us the lead, I’d thought that the roof of the Shed was going to lift off. I wasn’t too happy about being in the Shed, we’d originally been told that, as with the Stuttgart match, the section that we normally occupied in the Mathew Harding Upper Stand would be closed in accordance with the wishes of UEFA.
What a load of old toffee apple, I’d reflected. What exactly was Peter Kenyon playing at? I wondered if Roman was pleased with the way his new CEO was performing … what exactly had he achieved since he’d joined us from Manchester United?
Probably quite a bit, but from where I was sitting all he’d managed to do was alienate and annoy every single Chelsea supporter in the ground. In a two page interview that had appeared in the Chelsea magazine Onside, there hadn’t been one single mention of the burning question that was on every fans lips. Would Claudio Ranieri still be the manager of Chelsea FC next season?
Kenyon had been responsible for the signing of Peter Cech, and more recently the highly rated Dutch winger Arjen Robben … so what? The Robben signing, what was that all about? Trying to put one over on his old club United? What about Damien Duff? Wasn’t he good enough? What was going to happen to him?
‘We don’t want Eriksson … We don’t want Eriksson.’
The chant was as defiant as it ever had been; the England manager watching from the stands wasn’t deaf … he’d just put pen to paper on a contract extension. If Roman had hired Kenyon with the proviso that he deliver Eriksson then what now?
The absolute bottom line was the simple fact that we didn’t need Eriksson … and I’d wondered if Mr Abramovich had finally realised that. He’d won us over with his money … but now the talk about him was less approving, and as I’d contemplated what his next strategic move to enhance the fortunes of my team would be … the Arsenal only went and fucking equalised.
1-1 it finished and as I’d watched the players troop off the pitch I’d thought to myself that it wasn’t over. The difference was that the players weren’t just playing for themselves or the club, they were playing for their manager … our manager, the man Ranieri. “Together with all our hearts” … Come on!
Chelsea went through the month of March unbeaten, rounding things off with an emphatic 5-2 drubbing of Wolves at Stamford Bridge. Kenyon must have all but choked on his prawn sandwiches when he’d heard the news that Claudio Ranieri had been voted ‘manager of the month’.
We’d had our letters from Eddie Barnett informing us that we’d seen enough away games in Europe to merit a ticket for the return leg at Highbury … and we’d be there, and I could hardly wait.
This pleasantly distracting trip to Cagliari to watch Gianfranco was a welcome sideshow. I looked at the people sat around the table with me; at the lads who were going to be at the Arsenal game and I felt confident. Something gloriously unpredictable was going to happen on Tuesday night … Chelsea were going to beat Arsenal in their own backyard.
‘You ok son?’ said Ugly John, poking me in the ribs. ‘You were a bit quiet in the restaurant earlier … is everything all right?’
‘No I’m fine mate … I was just thinking about Tuesday night … you know I really think we might do it … I’ve just got that feeling.’
‘You gonna put a bet on then?’
‘Fuck off, don’t be silly … that’d be the kiss of death, and besides I don’t gamble anymore.’
Maybe I would, but I was on tenterhooks enough without risking a monkey on Claudio and the boys. If I got back into the gambling it would be some other time … next season maybe.
The Stadio Sant’ Elia had played host to England in the 1990 World Cup Final’s but I didn’t remember it looking like this. El Jocko’s weather forecast had been unerringly accurate; the shadowy clouds that we’d seen gathering over the port earlier in the afternoon had made their way inland, bringing with them the type of incessant rain you would normally associate with a tropical monsoon.
Each of us had wisely invested the princely sum of 3 Euros to procure plastic Macintoshes which we had donned to protect us from the elements … we may have looked like nerdy trainspotters, but at least we were dry.
The bowl shaped stadium, originally built to house 40,000 spectators, had been modified on its three open sides using a combination of secure scaffolding and pressed steel to create temporary stands which brought the fans closer to the action. This had probably halved the capacity to 20,000 … tonight the visit of Como had attracted a crowd approaching 10,000 at best.
‘Como, Como … vafanculo … Como, Como … vafanculo.’
The continuing deluge did nothing to dampen the passion of the Cagliari supporters whose most vociferous elements were gathered at each end of the ground. The local Ultra’s to the right, their end bedecked in red and blue banners and flags, led the unremitting chanting inviting Como to go and fuck themselves.
MARCO & UGLY JOHN FLYING THE FLAG AT CAGLIARI
When the players took to the pitch, it was to a fanfare from the brass band located amongst the fans in the end to our left. Their cacophonous trumpeting along with the flares which shrouded both ends in billowing blankets of red smoke served to create an atmosphere which reminded me of the time Chelsea had played AC Milan in the San Siro.
Through the gloom I could make out the pint-sized figure of Gianfranco Zola who was stood by the halfway line wearing the number 10 red and blue halved shirt of Cagliari.
As the game started and I watched him make his first mazy run at the Como defence it was clear that he hadn’t lost the magic. The hair was shorter and maybe he lacked just that extra yard of pace, but this was still our Franco; the little man who’d brought so much pleasure to tens of thousands of Chelsea supporters.
‘Gianfranco Zola … la la la … Gianfranco Zola … la la la.’ Young Dave got us all at it, and our singing attracted the attention of a group of bedraggled Cagliari supporters who came over, shook our hands and offered us swigs of the cheap red wine they were drinking from litre sized plastic bottles.
These hardy Sardinians, wearing customised black bin liners to keep themselves dry, were an interesting looking bunch. Their leader, a tall Arabic looking man with coal black eyes and a long grey beard bore an uncanny resemblance to the worlds most wanted terrorist, Bin Laden … which led to Sergeant Barnes christening him Osama Bin Liner.
Cagliari are Sardinia’s principle club. Founded in 1920, they have spent most of their life entrenched in Serie B or the lower reaches of Serie A. Their moment of glory came in 1970 when they lifted their one and only Scudetto. As champions of Italy, Cagliari numbered amongst their ranks the legendary Luigi Riva, and the team formed the core of the Italian side that reached the final of the World Cup in Mexico that summer.
Franco spent the formative years of his career with two of Sardinia’s lesser teams, Nuorese and Torres before moving to the mainland to join a Napoli side managed by a certain Claudio Ranieri who coincidentally had previously been responsible for the stewardship of the team we’d come to watch today, Cagliari.
Initially the understudy to the legendary Maradona, Zola’s career had flourished in Naples once the Argentinean left for Spain. In all he made 105 appearances for Napoli scoring 32 goals, a period during which he also won the first of 35 international caps.
Success with Napoli earned him a transfer to big spending Parma for whom he made 103 appearances and scored 49 goals. When he moved to Chelsea for £4.5 million in November 1996 he was already 30 years of age and few people, myself included, thought that he would go on to become the greatest player in Chelsea’s 99 year history.
Zola, wearing the number 25 shirt, played the first of his 312 games for Chelsea, a 1-1 draw away to Blackburn Rovers, alongside Gianluca Vialli and Mark Hughes. In the six years that followed he gathered enough plaudits and winners medals to satisfy the ambitions of most players and was voted ‘footballer of the year’ by his fellow professionals in 1997.
Of the 80 goals he scored in the blue of Chelsea, three sprang readily to my mind which exemplified the compelling genius of Gianfranco Zola.
Chelsea were trailing 2-0 at half-time to a cocky Liverpool side in a fourth round FA Cup tie; Zola inspired a famous recovery, scoring the equaliser with a wicked left foot shot from the edge of the penalty area. Chelsea went on to win the match 4-2 and several months later Denis Wise lifted the FA Cup at Wembley.
Zola entered the fray as a seventieth minute substitute in the Cup Winners Cup final against VfB Stuttgart in the Rasunda Stadium, Stockholm. With the game evenly poised at 0-0 and heading for extra time, Zola latched onto a Wisey pass and dribbled the ball towards Stuttgart’s goal before unleashing a venomous shot into the roof of the German outfits net. The match ended in a 1-0 victory to Chelsea.
Chelsea were 2-0 up and cruising to a 4-0 FA Cup third round replay victory over Norwich City when Graeme Le Saux hit a corner straight to Zola at the near-post. With a shimmy of his feet Gianfranco deftly back-heeled the ball into the net on the volley for a stunning goal which looked doubly amazing when we’d watched the replay on the scoreboard.
Now in his 38th year and rapidly approaching the career landmark of 700 first team appearances I wondered if Franco was going to add to the 200 odd goals he’d scored by obliging us with one of his gems here in the Sant’ Elia tonight.
Sadly it wasn’t in the script. What we were treated to for our 12.5 Euros admission money was a pulsating encounter between two desperate teams. The home side pushing for promotion and the away side striving to avoid relegation.
Whilst Cagliari pressed for an opening in the difficult conditions with the lively, highly rated Esposito going close twice and the majestic looking Honduran international Suazo hitting the post, it was Como who took the lead against the run of play.
Despite having had a man sent off in the 17th minute Como always looked dangerous on the rare occasions they were able to breakdown the Cagliari midfield. On the half hour mark Como scored and the home support were momentarily silenced, all that could be heard was the sound of the rain beating down onto the reinforced steel gantry that we were stood on.
Geographically, Como is located to the north of Milan, 425 kilometres from Cagliari. The forty odd supporters that had travelled all this way to watch their team understandably went ballistic in response to the goal. Already soaked to the skin, they removed their shirts and began to dance in the rain invoking the wrath of the Cagliari ultras who responded by pelting them with eggs and tomatoes.
On the pitch, Cagliari continued to press forward; the atrocious playing conditions and the fact that their opponents were playing with only ten men began to work in their favour and, following a neat little one two with Zola, Esposito drilled the ball home from the edge of the box.
The home support cheered wildly and celebrated in some style by launching firework rockets into the air and igniting flares. The smoke from the flares billowed down onto the pitch mixing with the mist that was already present because of the rain to form an opaque fog which hung in the air for several minutes forcing the referee to postpone the restart until it had cleared.
At half time we took refuge from the elements under the stand and cracked open a welcome beer as we listened to Young Dave’s summary of proceedings thus far. The general consensus was that Cagliari were well on top even though this wasn’t reflected in the score-line.
Whatever Como’s manager said to his players during the lemon break inspired them sufficiently to re-take the lead five minutes after the restart. Cagliari, buoyed by the fervent support of their own fans, continued to play with passionate verve and it wasn’t too long before the crowd favourite, Esposito, equalised once again with a close range volley which saw the ball skid along the wet surface, hit the post and just evade the outstretched fingertips of the Como goalie on its way into the back of the net.
That goal seemed to break the spirit of the Como team who began to look jaded; niggling fouls crept into their pattern of play with Zola and Esposito becoming the main targets on which to vent their frustration.
Como, with ten men camped in their own half behind the ball were now playing for the draw and as the minutes ticked by it became clear it was going to take something special to break the deadlock.
With less than ten minutes to play Zola chipped a ball square across the centre circle to the second half substitute Langella who advanced into the Como half, beat two defenders and from a distance of at least 35 metres rifled the ball into the top left hand corner of the net. Goal!
Langella, removed his shirt and sprinted to the home supporters gathered behind the goal who responded with a pyrotechnic display of Bonfire night proportions. It was pure football theatre; everyone, ourselves included, rejoiced.
‘Serie C … Serie C … Serie C,’ chanted the Cagliari supporters, taunting the now forlorn looking Como fans. The ultras unfurled a huge flag, which one of their numbers ran with from corner to corner behind the goal.
‘Fuck me,’ said Sir Larry, pointing at the flag, ‘that looks like it could have been a Chelsea Headhunters flag dunnit … look at it.’ Sir Larry was right; the flag, a St George cross on a white background, was characterised by four black heads in each quadrant. Each head, tilted slightly back, was facing to the right and wore a headband.
‘That’s the flag of Sardinia,’ said Young Dave, with the confident air of a man who knew what he was talking about.
‘Fuck me … page the bleedin Oracle,’ interjected Ossie, slapping Young Dave on the back. Young Dave, unfazed by Ossie’s actions continued with his explanation. ‘The heads are those of four Moors and are said to represent defeated Arab kings … although there is a school of thought that suggests that they may have represented slaves …’
‘Bleedin ell Young Dave,’ said Ugly John, shaking his head and showering water everywhere, ‘how the fuck do you know that?’
‘All in here mate,’ replied Young Dave, pulling out Ugly John’s copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Sardinia which he had shoved down the back of his jeans in order to keep it dry.
The discourse ended when our attentions were drawn once again to the action on the pitch. A free for all, handbags at ten paces, fist fight had broken out between both sets of players. It took the match officials a few minutes to sort everything out and restore order, a process that involved another red card being shown to a Como player.
At the final whistle the Cagliari players went to each end of the ground to applaud their own supporters and as they left the pitch I noticed something strange had happened … the rain had stopped.
Cagliari Calcio 3 :: Como FC 2
We left the stadium and went to get a beer and a hamburger from one of the many kiosks outside. I removed my plastic Mac and threw it into a bin, it had served me well enough. Although my jeans were soaking wet from the knee down and the cuffs of my shirt were damp I was still reasonably dry although my hands had gone all crinkly in the manner they used to when I spent too much time in the bath as a kid.
The car park behind us was alive with the sound of revving engines and bibbing horns which cut across the excited chatter of the supporters still streaming through the exit gates we were now facing. The youngsters among them delighted in jumping into the huge puddles that had formed on the surface of the stadiums perimeter road they had to cross to reach the car park, but nobody cared. Everyone was far too wet already, a few splashes here and there wouldn’t make much difference.
Half an hour passed by as we mulled over the match and Franco’s performance. The car park behind us was almost empty now and the floodlights in the stadium had been switched off leaving us standing in the gloomy yellow half light of the street lamps. I looked at my watch, it was 11pm.
‘Right lads,’ I said, pointing at the large wrought iron gates that spanned the entrance to the players car park at the rear of the stadium, ‘that should have given the little fella enough time to get changed, come on lets see if ‘Uncle’ Robert’s worked his magic yet again.’
I’d told ‘Uncle’ Robert about our little trip and he’d promised to have a word with one or two people about the possibility of organising a meet with Zola after the game. It wasn’t something that any of us normally got involved with but we’d bought Ugly John a Chelsea shirt with UJ 40 on the reverse for his birthday and thought it might be a nice touch if we could get Franco to sign it.
‘Uncle’ Robert had sent me a one line email which read, go to the players entrance at 11pm and when Franco comes out tell him Gary sent you. That’s what I liked about ‘Uncle’ Robert, there was never any flannel in the way he communicated, he always got straight to the point.
The Gary that ‘Uncle’ Robert was referring to was Gary Staker. Gary did the majority of the translation work for Chelsea’s Italian contingent and was known to be a good friend of Zola’s, so it was quite possible that if he’d remembered to tell Franco we were coming then the little man might well grant us our wish.
There were twenty or so Cagliari fans gathered at the gates which were being marshalled by the local Carabinieri and a couple of stewards. The players came out in ones and twos, getting into their X5’s and ML’s, pausing at the gates to wind down their windows and sign autographs.
The Cagliari goalkeeper Pantanelli, a tall strikingly handsome man with a mane of long black swept back hair walked across to the gates drawing adoring sighs and gasps from several teenage girls who reached out their hands to touch him.
‘He’s over there look.’ Ugly John pointed at the diminutive figure of Gianfranco Zola who had emerged from the players’ entrance and was now walking towards us.
He made his way over to the right hand side of the gate and shook the first of many hands that were thrust his way between its bars. He spent some time talking to Ken and Nicola a father and daughter combo from Kent whom we’d met earlier in the day before eventually making his way across to us.
‘Gianfranco, we are all Chelsea fans,’ I said in English, wondering if the little fella ever got sick of the attention. ‘Did Gary mention to you that there were a group of lads coming out to see you play?’ I asked hopefully.
‘Yes … of course, Gary did tell me … you have a friend who is having his 40th birthday today.’
‘That’s me Franco,’ said Ugly John, propelling himself through the scrum of people now gathered at the gates.
Franco spoke to the stewards and then nodded at Ugly John. The gates opened slightly and we bundled Ugly John through the gap. The lads with cameras took several pictures of Franco and Ugly John shaking hands and then Franco signed the shirt we had given Ugly John for his birthday.
He also signed a Cagliari shirt that Sergeant Barnes had bought for his nephew and a menu that Young Dave had brought with him from his own restaurant. Number 25 on Young Dave’s menu is Spaghetti Gianfranco Zola.
CHELSEA LEGEND ZOLA FINALLY MEETS HIS HERO UGLY JOHN
Gianfranco Zola is a Chelsea legend; I could wax lyrical, but the inimitable Claudio Ranieri, in his own personal touchline tribute to the little fella said everything I wanted to say, and so much more.
“Zola,” said Ranieri, “is not only a great player, he is a man. First of all you must look at the man … and when you look at Zola you know what you have. You have somebody who you know will give you everything he has, and with him you know there is so much. I’m privileged to work with him, and I knew that when I first worked with him back in Italy many years ago.”
Extract from Over Land and Sea a Chelsea Football Odyssey
by Mark Worrall first edition published in 2004 by Gate 17