Twenty years since he won the FA Cup with Chelsea, we spoke to Scott Minto about Glenn Hoddle, Ruud Gullit and one of the most entertaining Premier League teams of the 1990s.
There are several moments in Premier League history which you could look back at and argue played an important role in making the league the behemoth it is today, but in terms of full seasons, 1996-97 was undoubtedly one of the most decisive of all.
It marked the first time an English club broke the world transfer record since the 1950s when Newcastle United paid £15million to sign Alan Shearer. It was when the Premier League welcomed its first mass influx of foreign players as the likes of Patrik Berger, Karel Poborsky and Fabrizio Ravanelli joined English clubs following Euro 96. It was the season in which Arsène Wenger arrived.
It was a gradual process that began before this point and continued after it, but the quality on show vastly increased all of a sudden – and rarely have there been seasons as entertaining.
The Newcastle United and Middlesbrough teams are remembered particularly fondly, as much for their flaws as the entertainment they produced, but there is another team that deserves greater recognition as one of the most exciting of that era: Chelsea.
The Blues were a middling team up until the 1996-97 campaign, finishing 11th or below in their six previous seasons, but the appointment of Ruud Gullit and his ability to attract world-class players to the club soon changed that.
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They finished that season in sixth and as FA Cup winners, and had never finished outside of the top six since until last year’s disaster. They have been helped, of course, by the arrival of Roman Abramovich – but it may never have got to the point of foreign interest in the club had it not been for Gullit and that season.
Minto, who had joined Chelsea from Charlton two years prior to Gullit’s appointment, certainly believes the changes implemented by Gullit and Glenn Hoddle before him were crucial in getting the club to where it is today.
“I had the choice of joining Chelsea or Arsenal when I left Charlton,” he says. “I actually met up with George Graham at Highbury, but I chose Chelsea instead.
“If you look at where they’d been finishing in the league, they weren’t particularly inspiring, but Glenn was laying down the philosophy and the groundwork for what Chelsea became.
“If you talk about the training ground facilities back in 94, at Harlington, where they were at the time, let’s just say Charlton had a much better training ground. It was shocking.
“The grounds were so open that on a windy day you could hardly keep a ball down, and it was owned by Imperial College so instead of one big dressing room there were lots of different rooms. You had a squad of 24 or whatever in five different small rooms.
“The gym was a tiny room, really basic, and not what you’d expect at a Premier League club, but Glenn really took everything to a professional level.
“And as a coach, he was so on the ball. On the tactical side of things and the way he thought about the game and the smallest details, in the mid-90s there weren’t many managers like that.
“Even now, if something happened to Gareth (Southgate), he would still be my next choice as England manager.
“Glenn brought in Dan Petrescu, who was a wonderful wing-back, and he obviously brought in Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes. Ruud was the guy that then attracted Vialli, Zola, Di Matteo, Leboeuf, and then it started to get sexy.
“I think then Chelsea caught the eye of rich owners thinking, ‘this is west London, this is a perfect situation, this is a club that is going places.’”
One might assume Gullit had been helping increase standards at the club even before taking over from Hoddle as manager, but at least off the pitch, that wasn’t the case at all, according to Minto.
“Ruud was very relaxed,” he says. “I think he came to Chelsea to get away from the strict professionalism that was the way in Italy.
“That’s not to say we weren’t professional, but I didn’t learn anything from Ruud in terms of how to live my life or how to train.
“There were others, but Ruud came to Chelsea with his knees apparently gone and just wanted to enjoy his football.
“To think he was allegedly half the player he was in his prime or that his knees were gone and he was still that good was incredible.
“He wanted to come to Chelsea to play as a sweeper, to have a bit of an easy life, but Glenn and everyone realised it was a bit of a waste because he could still boss a game in the Premier League.
“And he did. You couldn’t get the ball off him. He was big, strong, powerful, skilful, could use his left foot, right foot.
“I remember one instance against Man City when someone was trying to get close to him, but he was twisting and turning, and you could see the guy trying to tackle him getting further away thinking I’m not getting anywhere near to him.
And then he stuck it in the top corner from 25 yards.
“Ruud was an unbelievable player, but he was also a very charismatic guy. He was how he comes across on screen, just wanting to have fun.
“I think he wanted to get away from the pressure, pressure, pressure of Italy and just enjoy his football in the last few years of his career.
“He used to love Windsor Davies, and after he became manager, every day he’d come in and say, ‘hello lovely boys’. It was just fun. That was what we had in that last year I was there, fun.”
Minto says the squad was “100 per cent” behind the decision to appoint Gullit as manager after Hoddle left to take the England job, describing it as a “natural progression”.
“He’s Ruud Gullit. That’s not to say he’s necessarily going to be the right man for the job, and it was a big gamble because he had no experience, but he had the support of the guys because he had the respect, he was very popular.
“That season (96-97) was incredible, arguably the best of my career. I had a good one at Benfica and then my first year at West Ham when we finished fifth and I was playing really good football, but over a whole season, 96-97 was arguably my best, certainly in terms of scoring goals.
“Ruud understood the wing-back role. He understood that you couldn’t attack their full-back but also defend against their winger all the time.
“He understood the role and he knew that Dan, while he was one of the best attacking full-backs in world football, wasn’t necessarily the best defending full-back in world football.
“So he had Michael Duberry behind him, and I had Steve Clarke behind me who was a fantastic defender, really underrated as a footballer, and we just clicked.
“Everything that we did, it was good football. Everyone that played wanted the ball.
“Nowadays there seems to be the trend of being happy to be without the ball and counter quickly. While I can admire the pace of the counter-attack, for me as a player but also as an ex-footballer and a viewer, I want to see people wanting the ball and enjoying being with the ball.
“That’s not to say you have possession for the sake of it, but we weren’t like that. We tried things with it. OK, it didn’t work every time, that’s why we finished sixth, but we had fantastic football players who were good individuals and good within a team as well.
“For me personally it was fantastic to make an assist for Zola or Sparky, to whip a ball in for Sparky to head in or just give the ball to Zola and let him take it past three players.”
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Minto names Zola, unsurprisingly, as the best player he ever played alongside. The Italian did not join Chelsea until November that season, Minto’s last at Stamford Bridge, but his impact was immediate.
“His first touch was unbelievable,” Minto says. “I put Glenn (Hoddle) as the most technical player I ever played with because he was just as good with his left foot as he was his right, but with Franco you could put the ball to him almost anywhere and he’d kill it stone dead.
“His touch, his awareness, his balance was incredible. To try and get the ball off him while he was twisting and turning was almost impossible.
“He was the one who you learnt from most in terms of how to train.
“It’s become a bit of a cliché now, but he would be one of the last to leave the training pitch, he would be practising free-kicks, he would be doing a bit extra. He would be warming up in the right way.
“But what he also did, which not all of the players I worked with did, big names or not, was that he would be there on any official night out. He wouldn’t be drinking and he would go after a couple of hours, but he was a team player and he would be there.
“That was something which the players, certainly the young lads and the Brits, really appreciated. He was incredibly humble and incredibly helpful if you wanted to ask him anything. But he was one of the guys as well. He was fantastic on and off the pitch.
“He had so many iconic moments, but the most iconic moment that I was there to see was the goal in the semi-final of the FA Cup against Wimbledon.
“The ball was pinged into him, he did a Cruyff turn with his first touch that would have left any defender in the country for dead, then put it into the side of the goal.
“It was just an incredible moment from an incredible player.”
That goal helped send Chelsea to Wembley for what Minto describes as “the biggest single day of my career”, the 1997 FA Cup final against Middlesbrough.
“I played Champions League football with Benfica, and actually going to Benfica I see as my biggest achievement because it went so well, but without doubt that was the biggest single game of my career.
“I grew up in the 70s and 80s when the FA Cup final was the be all and end all in terms of the occasion. So for me it was fantastic to be in the FA Cup final.
“I didn’t always feel this way during my career, but I actually felt so relaxed, so calm, so confident about it.
“They sometimes say your name’s on the cup. I’m not superstitious in any way and don’t necessarily believe in that, but we came from 2-0 down against Liverpool to win 4-2 and we got a dodgy penalty against Leicester in extra-time in the fifth round.
“When those type of things happen you think maybe your name really is on the cup.
“I just felt really confident going into it. I used to listen to music to keep me calm and get me in the mood, and I remember about 20 minutes before we were due to go out one of the coaches said to me, ‘you’d better take your headphones off and start thinking about the game’.
“But I was just completely in the zone. Walking out at Wembley was amazing and felt completely natural.
“Obviously the start was something we never could have dreamed of, but we should have put the game to bed a lot earlier.
“I think Middlesbrough had a chance quite late on before we got the second, but we always felt in control of that game.
“I just felt so much that we were meant to win the FA Cup and we were going to win the FA Cup, and we did.”
It would prove to be Minto’s last ever appearance for Chelsea before he joined Benfica. As finales go, that one takes some beating.
But for the Blues, it was the start of their journey towards becoming the world super power they are today. The next season they improved to finish fourth and added a League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup to their trophy cabinet, and in 1998-99 they improved again, finishing third.
Four years later they were taken over by a certain Russian billionaire, but without Hoddle, Gullit and that squad of the late 90s, it might never have happened.
Follow Scott Minto on Instagram at @ScottMintoSky to watch his journey with Sky Sports around the English Football League.
By Mark Holmes