With Eden Hazard the odds on favourite to pick up the PFA Player of the Year award on Sunday (possibly the under 23 category too), now sparks the perfect time for us to publish our first Legends feature – focusing on players who made a big impact on the club and were a huge hit with the fans.
For the first of the series, I wanted to talk about a favourite player of mine, while maybe less of an obvious pick in the Legends category, definitely one nonetheless.
The skilful Romanian, Dan Petrescu.
Dan had a great career at Chelsea, featuring prominently for five years and becoming an instant fan favourite. With his trickery and dynamism (and a whopping 33 assists), Dan was influential in an evolving Chelsea team with some of the most captivating and exciting football I can remember watching. Getting included in the Premier League Overseas Team of the Decade cements his place in Premier League history as one of the best imports to grace our league.
Signing Dan Petrescu from Sheffield Wednesday came with a lot of excitement for Chelsea fans. After a Great World Cup, followed by an impressive first season in England, Dan arrived at Chelsea for £2.3 million and joined under Glenn Hoddle – and his debatable sweeper formation. After previously trying the system by using full-backs on the flanks, Dan soon proved to be the solution, adding a new dimension to the team.
The nifty Romanian made his debut against Leeds in November 1995 (he could have saved the train fare and stayed in Yorkshire). Losing 1-0, we weren’t beaten again until after Xmas, with Dan scoring his first goal along the way. An 18 yard strike was enough to beat Newcastle, and a second goal soon arrived in the 2-1 defeat of Wimbledon on Boxing Day.
Petrescu’s first season was strong throughout, scoring in the FA Cup quarter final against Wimbledon, only to be unfortunately suspended in the semi final – a painful defeat to the old foe Manchester United at Villa Park, on a ridiculously awful pitch that was graced by a highly impressive “King Eric”.
The 1996/97 season was a truly memorable one for me. Ruud Gullit became player manager of the club and some key signings really made our starting 11 sing. Frank Leboeuf, Roberto di Matteo, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola all wore Chelsea blue for the first time – the latter 3 all playing major roles in the future of the club. The Hoddle formation was kept, and the team sheet in the league was looking pretty impressive for our growing club.
Premier League Starting 11 – Chelsea 1996/97
GK – Frode Grodas
LB – Scott Minto
CB – Steve Clarke
CB – Frank Leboeuf
RB – Dan Petrescu
M – Craig Burley
M – Dennis Wise
M – Roberto Di Matteo
FWD – Mark Hughes
FWD – Gianluca Vialli
FWD – Gianfranco Zola
(most used starting 11 by position)
Dan scored his first goal of the campaign in a 1-1 draw at Blackburn, the same game that introduced Gianfranco Zola to English football. Dan scored soon after against a poor Sunderland in a 6-2 demolition, with his third and final goal of the season coming against The Dons, yet again. Although dropped in the FA Cup semi final, an extra centre-half was used with the tactics paying off, he was included for the remainder of the season and of course that famous win in the Wembley Final against Boro – that Chelsea fans will never forget. As a 12 year old boy, I ran down the stairs at 3pm, only to just miss the Di Matteo wonder goal, walking into the room staring at Bryan Robson resting his head in his hands.
Dan Petrescu’s flair for getting forward saw him move into midfield permanently in the following season, and the rewards were huge from the start of the 1997/98 campaign. Scoring in three games on the bounce, one being the most audacious of chips, over the stranded Jim Magilton.
The season was a turning point for Chelsea, finishing 4th in the Premier League and playing across three tournaments. Dan finished on five goals for the league season, with further goals in cup tournaments including a belter against Arsenal in the Coca Cola Cup semi final, and playing against Middlesbrough, again, in the Final. Two goals in extra time from Sinclair and Di Matteo saw us with another piece of silverware heading back to the Bridge. Dans’ strange sending off in the Cup Winners Cup Final against Stuttgart, which I’m still failing to understand, wasn’t enough to stop the Blues, with Zola scoring the 1-0 winner.
The start of the 1998/99 season was difficult for Dan, being left to the bench for the first handful of games, only to return to score against Wimbledon – yet again. Chelsea ended up with a 3rd place finish and that all important first taste of Champions League football, Dan making over 30 appearances and being pivotal in the final push over the line.
The following season was a demanding one for both the nerves of the players, and the fans too. A memorable goal for Dan against Galatasaray in the Group Stages is always worth a watch, and the club managed to reach the quarter finals, along with another trip to Wembley in the FA Cup. The Premier League campaign was affected by the extensive fixture list, and defeats from both Arsenal and Manchester United killed us off, with Dan being subbed off in the latter and reacting heatedly.
The response from Gianluca Vialli was to drop Petrescu, and it soon came clear that the defeat at Old Trafford would have been his last in a Chelsea shirt, even missing the FA Cup final in May (not even benched), defeating Aston Villa to lift the cup. That summer would see Dan sold to Bradford City for £1 million, and it was easy to feel gutted that he would be missing from the team sheet after the summer.
Dan Petrescu made a great impact on Chelsea, in such a defining era for the club. For me personally it solidified my love for the club and the game. Playing exciting and overpowering football is the wish for most football fans, and I found Dan to be integral in the impressive Gullit / Vialli era.