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Players like George Weah simply didn’t come to England, until the money and confidence started rolling in. We look back on his time at Chelsea, for whom he signed 20 years ago this week…
English football was slowly getting used to the idea of bona fide, established international superstars coming to these shores back in 2000. Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Jurgen Klinsmann had all come over even if they were at the back end of their careers, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Dennis Bergkamp and Marcel Desailly were signed in more or less their pomp, and in the following few years Juan Sebastian Veron and the first tranche of Roman Abramovich signings trod the path.
But there was something a bit different about George Weah. Ballon d’Or winner, Milan spearhead with Opel on his front and No.9 on his back, scorer of that goal against Verona that time, Gazzetta Football Italia hero. Weah was from that generation of foreign players that we had seen enough of to be extremely excited about, but not so much that he was ubiquitous. A man from Channel 4 espresso-decorated Saturday mornings and sleepy Sundays when you’d glance up from the sofa and see him do something extraordinary, and then he’d be gone.
He was almost a myth, the sort of name that sprang to mind when you thought of the absolute elite, almost existing on a higher plane of reality. It probably helped that we never saw him at a World Cup, so there was still an air of mystique about him. For the English at least, he was among the last word-of-mouth footballers, the sort of player that people told you were brilliant by the worldly sages who knew about these things, rather than you seeing them all the time to decide for yourself.
So it scarcely seemed believable when, in early 2000, he rocked up at Chelsea. By the 1999/2000 season Weah had found himself edged out at Milan, Oliver Bierhoff, some young tyro called Andriy Shevchenko and, slightly more implausibly, short-lived Spanish import Jose Mari ahead of him in Alberto Zaccheroni’s pecking order. He wanted out, unhappy with life on the bench and itching for some football again.
And so, a club was found, and he announced his intentions to the Italian media. “It is 100% that I am going to Marseille,” Weah told Gazzetta dello Sport. “I’m going because I want to finish my career in France.”
He had been the best player in the world.
At the same time, Chelsea needed some goals. Gianluca Vialli was their manager by this point so no longer muddied his boots, Gianfranco Zola was more a creator, Tore Andre Flo was solid but rarely prolific and Chris Sutton, signed the previous summer for the then-astronomical fee of £10million, was…not having the best time of things.
So when there was a whiff that Weah might be available, Chelsea despatched their chief tapper-upper and got former Milan man Desailly to pick up the phone. “It was late, about 10 o’clock and I was in bed,” said Weah. “Marcel said it would be good to sign for Chelsea He told me that I would like London.”
And that, apparently, was that. Chief executive Colin Hutchinson travelled to Italy to cross the Ts, and returned triumphant. “Clubs all over Europe have been trying to get him, but we’ve pulled it off,” he said, although Weah himself didn’t sound quite so delighted. While he did ultimately go for Desailly’s ‘London is nice’ pitch, you would struggle to say he gave the impression of a man delighted to be at Stamford Bridge.
“I’m told Arsenal wanted to sign me and I would love to play for Arsene Wenger [under whom Weah made his name at Monaco],” he said “But Chelsea were the club who came in for me and wanted to sign me the most.
“I wanted to remain in Italy – in this way they [Milan] have ruined my life. I wanted to go to Roma, but Adriano Galliani told me he did not want to strengthen a rival team.”
Still, the important thing was he had arrived, and his colleagues were excited. “He had been the best player in the world,” Gus Poyet tells the Totally Football Show. “When he arrived we were all excited to have him in our team. He quickly adapted – he made instantly a connection with the English players, which helped him to integrate very, very quickly, for footballing reasons but also for relationships off the pitch.
“I imagine one of the biggest shocks for Weah was the training ground. After coming from Milan to Harlington then at Chelsea, it probably had a big impact.”
Books had to be balanced, though, so it’s a strange quirk of history that to help fund the loan signing of George Weah, Chelsea sold Bjarne Goldbaek to Fulham. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices like that in football.
Weah arrived on a chilly Wednesday in January, with a game against Spurs due that evening, spent half-an-hour with the squad and after some high-octane admin was completed (his registration only went through 90 minutes before kick-off), was straight onto the bench at Stamford Bridge.
“I’m just grateful to be given the chance here,” Weah said, taking on a slightly more humble tone than before. “The manager asked me if I was up to playing and I hope that is just the start of something good.” Not that Gianfranco Zola was thrilled initially, left out of the squad entirely for that first game as Vialli plumped for Flo up top with Sutton and Weah among the subs. “I guess he’s upset and might be a bit hurt,” Vialli said. “I don’t expect players to be happy if they’re not involved.”
Everyone else was pretty pleased, though. Vialli called for the big men just before the hour mark, and with three minutes remaining Bernard Lambourde slid the ball down the right side of the box, Dennis Wise clipped over the cross and Weah battered a couple of Spurs defenders out of the way and bundled a header into the corner of the net.
“It was the best possible start for George and the team,” Vialli said. “He showed up on the morning of the game for the first time and had only 30 minutes with the players. But I think he is already enjoying it because, as well as pressure, there is also enjoyment at playing in England. He wants to show that he is still one of the best strikers in the world and that AC Milan were wrong to let him go.”
In theory, the man with the most to fear about Weah’s arrival was Sutton. By the time the great man arrived, everyone had more or less acknowledged that Sutton’s move from Blackburn had been a mistake – he’d only managed one league goal so he was the obvious man to lose his place. But as it turned out, there was a bit of a love-in between the two, very different strikers.
“I don’t want to discriminate or show preference but I play very well with Chris,” said Weah. “He is a real striker and we try to help each other.” Sutton, who would later name a cat after his fleeting strike partner, returned the compliment: “George has helped me and given me fresh belief. He has helped rejuvenate me.” Sutton later named Weah in the XI of best players he had appeared beside, along with Alan Shearer, Desailly and Ian Crook.
Weah wasn’t exactly prolific at Chelsea, scoring four more goals after the Spurs game, but the impression he created on his teammates was clear. “I played against him many times when I was at Strasbourg,” Franck Leboeuf told the Times, “and from first-hand experience, I can tell you that there are few strikers tougher to stop.”
George has helped me and given me fresh belief. He has helped rejuvenate me.
“He was absolutely top class,” says Poyet. “He was capable of controlling everything. You could throw a long, high ball to him and somehow he would control it and bring it back. I remember one time he controlled the ball with his head and it dropped to me to score a volley from outside the box [against Newcastle in the FA Cup semi-final]
“You could rely on him for so many things. Sometimes you were under pressure, and you needed someone to do the extra bit – he was that type of player. Luca had a way of playing where he would change things – use that sort of presence, or go a little more ‘continental’.
“With George, you had two options: you had a guy with presence in the box and who was very strong to hold the ball up, but who was also very good with his feet. I took advantage of his presence around the box, for me to be free to score goals.”
People were watching Weah’s performances from afar too, particularly back home in Liberia. “Everyone in Liberia admires and looks up to George,” a spokesman for the country’s president, Charles Taylor, said shorty after he arrived at Chelsea. “What he does and wins has a real effect on them. George usually comes home at the end of each season and we are hoping he will have something to show the people.”
In most circumstances, that would have probably sounded like warm encouragement, but warm encouragement wasn’t really Taylor’s vibe. A ruthless warlord, when running for election in 1997 Taylor used the catchy slogan ‘He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.’ When a chap like that hopes you bring him something nice, you’ll want to have something nice to bring.
Weah did earn an FA Cup medal, starting the final as Chelsea beat Aston Villa 1-0, so perhaps that was enough to satisfy Taylor. But that was his last game in a blue shirt, Chelsea choosing not to extend the 33-year-old’s loan beyond that season.
Milan cancelled his contract that summer, and he went club shopping. He told Le Parisien that he was “90 per cent certain” that he would end up in France, but a move to Monaco collapsed, he was courted by Fulham, offered to Celtic and Rangers but eventually ended up signing for Manchester City. Naturally.
By that stage he was, shall we say, phoning things in a bit, but for a few games at Chelsea, the idea of this elite player being at home in English football was normalised, and we saw the mythical George Weah.
This piece originally appeared on the Totally Football Show in January 2020…
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