Roberto Di Matteo – A Hearfelt Appreciation

The news that Roberto di Matteo has been sacked as manager of Chelsea, just five months into a two year contract, has come as a huge and unwelcome shock to most fans. During an early season edition of The Chelsea Fancast, the presenters and benches were of the opinion that if Robbie failed to deliver silverware, he would probably be out of a job at the end of the season. To have this happen in November, with the club mouthing the excuse ‘a change was necessary now to keep the club moving in the right direction as we head into a vitally important part of the season.’ is probably the biggest blow to fans since the departure of Jose Mourinho in September 2007.

Robbie joined the club in the summer of 1996, one of the few players who emerged with their reputation intact from the shambles that was the Italian national side’s campaign at Euro 96. However, his debut for the club came under something of a cloud, when English lessons from Denis Wise led to an unwelcome appearance in the tabloid media on the day of the first game of the 1996-1997 season against Southampton at the Dell. Unfortunately for a young fan, Wise had told di Matteo that when greeting someone, it was usual to say ‘f**k off’ to them. This understandably left the lad, and his father,who lost no time in telling the press, upset.

Happily, Robbie shrugged off the controversy and quickly won the hearts of the Chelsea faithful by scoring the only goal in our midweek home win against Middlesbrough just three days later, which was marked by one of the most iconic goal celebrations ever seen – The Roman Emperor.

A successful first season, during which he made 33 starts and scored 9 goals in the league, was crowned on 17th May 1997 when he scored what was then the quickest goal in FA Cup Final history after just 43 seconds.

Robbie earned further silverware in 1997-98 as part of the  League Cup and (now-defunct) European Cup-Winners Cup teams, with a second Wembley goal into the bargain. More Wembley history beckoned in 2000 as he became the last player to score in an FA Cup final at the old stadium.

However, in the aftermath of Luca Vialli’s departure, disaster struck in the away leg of our UEFA Cup tie against St. Gallen on 28th September, when Di Matteo suffered a horrendous triple fracture of his leg. Following a brave eighteen month battle, he announced his retirement at the age of just 31. In a graceful tribute, the then Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri awarded him the honour of leading the team out at the 2002 Cup Final against Arsenal in Cardiff.

Robbie went off the radar for a while after leaving Chelsea, having sold his restaurant interests in SW6 shortly before his retirement, although he did make a memorable appearance on MTV Cribs. But he returned to football in July 2008 as manager of Milton Keynes Dons, hooking up with his former Blues team-mate Eddie Newton.  Less than a year later they moved on to West Bromwich Albion, leading the Baggies to promotion in 2010. The first fixture of the 2010-2011 season saw Di Matteo return to the Bridge, as he saw his side thrashed 6-0 in the rain by a rampant Chelsea. However, Albion put that behind them to make their best start to a season in the Premier League, with Di Matteo winning Manager of the Month in September. Sadly, following a poor run of results in December and January, and  despite retaining the support of most of their fans, the Albion board failed to appreciate his talents, and sacked him in February 2011. But a surprise return to his spiritual home was just around the corner. Following an unsuccessful application for the vacant job at Birmingham, Di Matteo was offered the job as assistant manager of Chelsea by Andre Villas Boas. This would turn out to be one of the most significant appointments in our history.

After a bright start under AVB, the club faltered in November, as we seem to do every year, and a bitterly disappointing Christmas and New Year saw the young Portuguese in an increasingly difficult position. After successive away defeats against Napoli and West Brom, Roman Abramovich lost patience and Robbie was appointed Interim Manager of Chelsea on 4th March, a day after Villas Boas was sacked.

Immediately results started to improve. A 5th round FA Cup replay win at Birmingham was followed by a home league victory against Stoke. Then came the round of 16 second leg against Napoli. Having been 3-1 down after the first leg, the Blues turned the tie around to win 5-4 on aggregate. Stunning success followed stunning success. Home and away wins against Benfica came hard on the heels of reaching an FA Cup semi final against Tottenham. The Champions League semi-final games against Barcelona have already passed into fabric of our club’s history. In spite of a disappointing sixth place finish in the league, an F.A. Cup Final win against Liverpool was merely the prelude to the epoch making events of Munich on 19th May, when Chelsea reached the Promised Land of Champions League glory, with Di Matteo’s seeming reward of  a two year contract being announced on 13th June.

Less than six months later, he finds himself out of a job. He leaves the club with his reputation greatly enhanced, a CV which includes winning the greatest club competition in the world, and the endless thanks and love of the supporters. He conducted himself with grace before the media in some of the most testing times the club has known in recent years. One cannot help but feel that he won’t be searching for a job for very long, should he wish to get straight back into the harness rather than spend some time with his young family.

Thanks for everything, Robbie.

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