It makes me feel very old that it’s 25 years since I moved to England, but sometimes it still seems like yesterday. I fell in love with London straight away because I found a kind of freedom that is priceless. It was my happy place and the Chelsea players were my ‘lovely boys’ – let me try to explain why.
My favourite moment has to be winning the FA Cup. Winning the European Cup for the first time with AC Milan was incredible, but that equalled it, honestly. I was a new manager, and Chelsea were a new club, in terms of winning trophies. I didn’t expect it but all of a sudden it clicked, and it was an amazing time.
I am very proud I was there at the start for Chelsea, and to see what the Premier League has become too. Both have moved on so much, they are unrecognisable. But they had to start somewhere.
When I came it was as part of a new direction for English football and maybe we are at a similar time now because of the coronavirus pandemic. This should be a wake-up call and all the clubs have to think about managing themselves in different ways now.
The problem in England, for me, is that there are players here who earn way too much money, who are nowhere near good enough to do that. If the big stars earn the big money, that is OK. But I see players who are not even close.
Money changed the Premier League in lots of good ways but, if this blip in the competition happens again, then a lot of clubs are going to be bankrupt if they continue doing what they are doing now, and spending the amount they do. They have to be careful, and they may have to change their model again.
When I joined Chelsea, in June 1995, the Premier League was very different to the way it is now. I wasn’t the first overseas player to come here, but I was one of the first to arrive with a big name, from a bigger league, such as Serie A.
Looking back, that summer was probably the time the Premier League really began to change into the competition it is now, and it had to. Italy was the king then – all the best players were there. English football was very basic in comparison, and the English wanted to have people from outside so they could try to get their game back again to the highest European level.
Dennis Bergkamp, David Ginola, Juninho. They all came at the same time as me. The way I saw it, it was an adventure. Personally and professionally, I needed to leave Italy after eight years with AC Milan and Sampdoria and, with the Premier League taking off, England just seemed the right place for a fresh start, at the right time for me to do something new.
I was 32, nearly 33, I had been at the top for a long time and had won a lot too. Some people probably thought my legs had gone and I was coming here for the ride – to take the money and just get ready to retire. They were wrong.
Nobody I spoke to that summer understood why I chose Chelsea. I must say I didn’t know much about the club or even that part of town when I went there – it was just because Glenn Hoddle was manager, that’s what persuaded me to go.
When I came for the first time to see Stamford Bridge, I was like ‘what the hell kind of stadium is this?’ I was used to playing in the best stadiums in the world, but here there were only two stands. The place wasn’t just a building site, it was a total wreck. You had to walk around on planks of wood.
The training ground too, was very different to what I was used to. Chelsea’s facilities now are world class but then they were based at Harlington, which was a school. There was nothing there – just five little locker rooms, and the only thing in any of them was a wooden bench and a hook. That was it.
But I loved it. It was almost like I was going back to when I had just started playing, when I was nine years old. It was fantastic.
Of course I knew when I joined that Chelsea wouldn’t be challenging for the title. There was no Champions League for them then – they were not one of the top teams in England, let alone in Europe. But I knew where the club wanted to go, and I knew what was happening in English football – and I love challenges. It was the same when I left the Netherlands for AC Milan. When I arrived in 1987, they had not won a European trophy for 14 years. When I left, I had won two European Cups.
Glenn had to sell Chelsea and their ambition to me – he said they were at the start of a journey too – but what was most important was that it was Glenn. In the eyes of the Dutch, he was the best English footballer ever but in England he was not appreciated. In the Netherlands, we said ‘oh my god, he was a player meant for us, not for you’.
He had first phoned me up a few months previously to say he wanted to sign me and because I saw him as a player who played skilful football, I knew for sure he would not be a manager who would want to play the long ball and that was a very important factor in my decision.
In the newspapers, I was linked with all sorts of teams in lots of different countries. Bayern Munich were one, Galatasaray another. Then there were Monaco, Feyenoord, and even a team in Japan. But I didn’t talk to any of them and in May 1995 I met up with Glenn in Milan, and I was ready to sign. Chelsea, here I come.
I’d never played in English football before, but I knew all about its reputation as a physically demanding league. Back then, wherever you played, players did not always get the same protection from referees they do now either.
So, after the first press conference when I was announced as a Chelsea player, I went away to work hard and get ready.
I was used to being in the spotlight with AC Milan and, when you are in the spotlight, you always have to perform better than the rest. If you don’t, you get criticised. I had been the world player of the year twice, and my attitude was always that I had to do the best I could. I wanted to prove myself again, and lead by example, so I went away to Portugal, rented a house next to a golf course and trained hard every day by running around and around it.
When I came back to Harlington a few weeks later for pre-season training, I was in good shape. The first thing I noticed, though, was the food the Chelsea players were eating. It was not the food to play good football – it was steak and sausages with gravy and chips, all these kind of fried things. You cannot do that.
That was one big difference to Italy, and the other was the style of football. It was too honest in England. I laugh when I think about it now because, yes, there were a lot of big tackles, which is what I’d been warned about, but it wasn’t a problem because you could see them coming from a mile off.
For me, with the experience I had from Serie A, it was easy to deal with because I was expecting it. In Italy they would kick you hard too, but they were a lot cleverer about it. It’s worse that way, believe me, when you don’t expect it.
Of course when I came to England I was a name, and at first some players thought they could target me. A kind of ‘welcome to the Premier League’, I guess. The funniest thing ever is when Vinnie Jones tried to do that, when we played Wimbledon.
I knew even before the game that Vinnie wanted to make a name just by killing me. So I was ready for him, I knew it would happen at some point, and it did. At the start of the second half, I received the ball at an angle and I had my back to him, but I could almost hear him coming for me. I just knew.
So, the moment he was slide tackling me, I just lifted myself a little bit off the ground. Yes, I knew he would catch me but, no, it would not be how he wanted to catch me.
So then I rolled over and he got the red card – he had already been booked – and when I got up, I said to him: “Now Vinnie, now we can play football.” He was swearing non-stop at me and then in the newspapers the next day, he said how I had been squealing like a little piggy and things like that. I just thought ‘well, I got you there, I got you there’.
The funny thing was that we became friends soon after that, and we had a laugh about that moment. But that’s an example of how some things that were supposed to be a barrier for some foreign players coming to the Premier League, were not a problem for me. I had learned a lot in Italy, and it gave me an advantage in England in lots of ways, even if the original plan for where I would play did not quite work out.
It wasn’t Glenn who asked me to play sweeper for Chelsea at first – it was me who told him that, if I joined, I wanted to play there, not as an an attacking midfielder like I was in Italy. I’d started out at the back at the beginning of my career, and it was a position I loved.
But the thing was, I was too much of a footballer to play in that position in the Premier League, the way it was then anyway. When a long ball came into the penalty area, I would take it down on my chest and then look to play from there. Glenn said: “Rudi, no, no, no. I understand what you’re trying to do, but you put my defenders in difficulty like that.”
Nowadays it would work – look at how many Premier League teams try to play out from defence. Back then they were used to always heading or clearing the ball away as far as possible, and I wanted to pass it around to them at the back. They did not want that pass, so Glenn said no, and asked me to change position to do it further forward instead.
I don’t remember the game where that change was made but I do remember one of my team-mates, Gavin Peacock coming to me when I was in midfield and saying: “Rudi, how come you’re always free?” I couldn’t explain it to him, because it was just experience – you just learn how the ball comes out of certain situations, and that you will have space if you stay in a certain place. In England, there was more of that space than there was in Serie A.
Off the pitch, I felt so much more freedom too. In Italy everything was so intense, the whole time. It was difficult for me to go out because there were so many reporters following me, especially in Milan, but here no-one was chasing me, and no-one wanted anything from me. I could breathe again.
At Milan and Sampdoria, I was used to going into a training camp before every single game. Can you imagine? Now we had only one session most days and we even got Sundays off. I could meet people, and go to places. I had a social life.