Morris recalls Zola quality ahead of Bridge return

It has been 15 years since Jody Morris made his final playing appearance at Stamford Bridge and our Under-18s manager is understandably excited at the opportunity to lace up his boots once again and return to SW6 for the Chelsea Legends game this week.

Morris has plenty of fond memories at the Bridge. His debut against Middlesbrough in February 1996 made him the youngest to ever play in the Premier League for the club (17 years and 44 days), a record that still stands to this day, and his first start came the following season against the same opponents.

A maiden goal was scored in extra-time in the League Cup in November 1997, following an earlier strike from Tore Andre Flo, a team-mate in tomorrow's Legends game against Inter Forever. Yet his most standout moment was a couple of years later when he netted the fifth in our 5-0 rout over Manchester United, followed by an equally unforgettable celebration in front of the jubilant home supporters.

‘The biggest thing for me is to play at Stamford Bridge in front of the Chelsea fans again,’ says Morris in the build-up to Friday’s game. ‘It’s something I obviously loved doing as a player but I never had the opportunity to come back and play after leaving the club in 2003.

‘I’m looking forward to meeting up with a few old faces I haven’t seen for a while and some top players, particularly now that those from different eras like Michael Ballack and Michael Essien are getting involved. Hopefully they can add a bit of fitness to the group because the ’98 team are getting on a bit now – I saw Wisey (Dennis Wise) in at Cobham the other day getting treatment and he was telling me he’s in his 50s!’

Morris was the homegrown player in that team of the late-1990s, prior to John Terry’s breakthrough. Born in Hammersmith and brought up just off the North End Road, he rose through the Academy ranks to become a mainstay in the side as we won domestic and European honours, joined by a selection of fine footballers from the continent.

It was that foreign influx that changed the face of English football and made such an impression on the teenage midfielder, who would go on to represent us in the Champions League and make over 170 appearances for the club.

‘The quality Gianfranco Zola brought was outstanding,’ continues Morris. ‘His technical ability was unparalleled in our group and it was incredible to see first-hand the attention to detail he gave to his preparation and the way he was still improving both as a footballer and physically even going into his late 30s. That was something that still sticks with me now.

‘Zola is definitely the one that stands out just because of the pure quality he had. Plus it was always good to have someone in the team slightly smaller than me – I think I’m about a quarter of an inch taller than Franco! With players like him and Gianluca Vialli, it was not just their quality as players but the professionalism and the way they helped transform the English game.’

Morris has had another incredibly successful season as manager of our youth team, winning an unprecedented quadruple of trophies.

Following the tragic recent passing of Ray Wilkins, our former player, captain and assistant coach, the decision was taken to dedicate the Legends Game to Ray’s memory. A donation will be made from the Chelsea Foundation to Crohn’s & Colitis UK, as nominated by the Wilkins family, as the match brings together a host of former Chelsea players who worked with him.

It was Wilkins, himself a graduate of the Chelsea youth system, who took a particular interest in the emergence of a young Morris in the period when he worked as assistant to Vialli. The two remained close over the years and Morris was particularly struck by his mentor’s passing, which is why he feels remembering Ray on such an occasion is an important thing to do.

‘It will obviously be another emotional day, following on closely from the memorial service and a moving video at the Player of the Year awards, but I’m really pleased the club have dedicated this game to Ray’s memory,’ he adds. ‘It’s fitting because he had a massive effect not just on the fans that will be in the stadium but on the players that will be on the pitch too.

‘When you talk about technical ability and people like Franco Zola, you have to say Ray Wilkins was right up there. I never had the chance to play with him properly but you could see when he joined in during training how good he was.

‘It’s only right that somebody of Ray’s magnitude is properly acknowledged in this way, particularly involving people from the era that he had such a massive influence on.’