WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
A nineties footballing megastar turned up at Stamford Bridge on a cold winter’s night shortly after the turn of the Millennium and immediately headed himself into Chelsea folklore with a winning goal against Spurs. George Weah’s stay in London wasn’t a long one, but he knew how to make an impression…
There was a tangible sense of bristling excitement inside Stamford Bridge as the new arrival made his way to the touchline early in the second half.
George Weah, former World Player of the Year, had only flown into London hours earlier, signing the relevant paperwork on his loan deal from AC Milan before making his way to the ground, where he had been named as a substitute by Chelsea manager Gianluca Vialli. Now, he was preparing to make his debut in the 56th minute of a London derby against Tottenham on a cold Wednesday night just after the turn of the Millennium.
The Liberian striker was a bona fide superstar in January 2000. He had been one of Milan’s biggest names at a time when Serie A ruled the world and the rossoneri were a force to be reckoned with. Everyone had seen his famous goal against Verona in 1996, when he had picked up the ball inside his own box and proceeded to run the length of the pitch before guiding the ball into the far corner.
However, the 33-year-old had fallen out of favour at the San Siro by the midway point of the 1999/2000 season and the west Londoners – who had topped the Champions League group that Milan had finished bottom of earlier that season – had reacted quickest to the news that he might be available.
Vialli wasted no time in putting him in the team either and when he emerged from the bench, wearing Chelsea blue for the first time, Weah’s mere presence triggered an audible buzz, which broke into a monumental cheer as the world-famous striker entered the fray.
30 minutes later, he was celebrating the winning goal – the only goal of the game – three minutes from time, in front of the Shed End. His powerful leap at the back post had taken him a full foot higher than Stephens Carr and Clemence, who floundered as he headed Dennis Wise’s cross past Ian Walker.
His eyes wide with delight under the floodlights, Weah’s celebrations dominated the back pages the following morning.
“WEAH ON THE MARCH WITH LUCA’S ARMY!”, read the headline on the inside back page of the Daily Mirror, punning on defeated Spurs’ famous FA Cup final song, while the looks of delight on the faces of his team-mates Jon Harley and Chris Sutton seemed to be derived almost as much from the presence of Weah in their midst as from the delirium of a late victory over their London rivals.
Back-to-back draws in their previous two games had left Vialli with the feeling that he needed another option up front. The partnership of Tore Andre Flo and Gianfranco Zola was suffering a mid-season crisis of confidence, while big-money summer signing Sutton had failed to settle in. Weah’s arrival changed that as Vialli decided to partner the Liberian with Sutton, viewing the physically imposing duo as an alternative double act to Zola and Flo.
Sutton teed up Weah for a wonderful goal to see off Leicester in the FA Cup fifth round and in the following round, against Gillingham at Stamford Bridge, Weah produced a moment of magic that drew gasps from the stands, casually leaning forward in the centre circle in anticipation of a dropping ball and flicking a volleyed pass over his head with the heel of his back foot. Of course, the audacious pass found its mark and it was the highlight of a 5-0 win, in which Weah also registered his third goal for the club.
In total, he struck five times in 15 games for the Blues – including a goal and assist against Liverpool – but it is the excitement of that debut against Spurs that lives in the memory. A swan song should probably focus on the player’s last club, but although Weah later turned out for Man City and Marseille, his shortlived loan spell at Chelsea is perhaps seen as the most significant of the moves he made in the latter days of his career.
He signed off from Blues duty with an FA Cup winners’ medal and bounced around the Wembley pitch following the last-ever Cup Final under those famous twin towers wearing a vest with a specially printed message for his son.
“I believe in God, Timothy,” it read.
After the way his debut had played out in January, his certainty in a higher power was no surprise.