Didier Deschamps latched onto a bouncing ball and played a delightful pass into space, dissecting the Barcelona midfield and temporarily stopping Clive Tyldesley’s advert for Coronation Street. A lanky Norwegian striker took the dispatch in his stride and with only inches to spare, lobbed the stranded Ruud Hesp from the edge of the 18-yard box. Chelsea were 3-0 up on Barcelona and in dreamland.
The night of which I speak was, until Claudio Ranieri’s men travelled to Highbury four years later, arguably Chelsea’s most famous European night. The architect of Barcelona’s downfall, a one Tore Andre Flo, was not a secret weapon to followers of the Premier League. For three years the Norwegian international had terrorised defences, often as a substitute, scoring key goals in Chelsea campaigns, at home and especially abroad.
Within eight months of his Catalan butchery, however, Flo’s time at Stamford Bridge was at an end. A combination of the signings of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen mixed with an indifferent run of form had meant that Flo’s glittering Chelsea career had ended almost as quickly as it had taken off.
Tore Andre Flo first made his name during Chelsea’s run to domestic cup glory in the 1997-98 season. Having spent much of the early part of his career in his home country, Flo was signed for the measly sum of £300,000 from Norwegian outfit SK Braan. It was suggested that Flo had looked initially set to bolster Howard Kendall’s attacking options at Premier League rivals Everton before a late change of heart meant joining fellow summer acquisition, Gustavo Poyet in the first team squad at Stamford Bridge.
Flo would go on to celebrate his decision, for whilst Chelsea won two cup competitions that season, Everton’s Premier League survival was only secured on the last day of the campaign. The best moments of his debut season were the two crucial goals scored against Real Betis in the European Cup Winners Cup and a hat-trick scored against local rivals Tottenham. By this stage the 6’4 giant had secured his reputation as a ‘super-sub’- a sigma he would find impossible to shake off over the remainder of his career.
After a decent showing at the 1998 World Cup, where Flo and his fellow countrymen beat Brazil en route to a last 16 place in France, he returned to help spearhead Chelsea’s charge up the Premier League. Scoring less goals than the previous campaign, Flo was again forced to play the role of substitute, however his impact on the defences of the top-flight remained newsworthy.
Chelsea fell short of defending their Cup Winners Cup crown, and were disappointing in both of the domestic cup competitions that season. However, a remarkable showing in the Premiership meant a first venture into the Champions League for the West London club.
Eating at Europe’s top table certainly favoured Flo, who netted 24 times in what would prove to be his final year in the blue of Chelsea. Key goals in games against Feyenoord, the Barcelona tie and the famous away defeat of Galatasaray, only served to enhance the reputation of a man who had finally begun to start more games on the pitch than he did on the sidelines.
Chelsea went on to lose their quarter-final tie with Barcelona, as an extra time deluge of goals extinguished the solitary Flo strike that had looked like granting Chelsea another famous European night. At the end of 1999-2000, firmly established, Flo helped the Blues to a second FA Cup triumph in four seasons.
Sadly for Flo this was not to last. As Gianluca Vialli made a shock exit from the Bridge and new manager Ranieri preferred to pair newly signed Hasselbaink with the irrepressible Gianfranco Zola, the writing was on the wall for the Norwegian star.
Whilst he did make one final major contribution from the bench; scoring twice in a 3-3 draw with Manchester United, it was to be nothing more than a goodbye present for Chelsea fans, as within weeks Ken Bates had accepted a staggering 12 million pound bid from Scottish giants Rangers.
Two mediocre years North of the border followed, as the Norwegian struggled with the weight of expectation placed upon players plying their trade for either of the Old Firm clubs. The fans tired of Flo’s lack of goals in the early stages of his career at Ibrox, and whilst he vastly improved his goal-scoring ratio in the 2001-02 SPL season, all was not well.
When Peter Reid came knocking to bolster his Sunderland front line, offering Rangers little more than half of what they paid for Flo in the summer of 2002, the Glasgow club were more than happy to wave goodbye to the enigmatic Norwegian.
Returning to the Premier League did little to improve the former Chelsea man’s form. Sunderland were really struggling to cope with the loss of talismanic forward Niall Quinn, and Flo, alongside fellow new striker, Marcus Stewart toiled, with little success to keep the Wearside club afloat. Once Peter Reid had been sacked, a torrid season for the Black Cats got worse as Flo found himself fulfilling his usual duty of warming the bench before being given a free transfer the following summer as Sunderland were relegated with a record low points tally.
A modicum of success followed, as the likable Norwegian, played first with Serie A new boys Siena, helping to keep the Italian club in the top flight. Retirement from his national team, brought about by a series of niggling injuries, combined with a move back to his homeland with Valerenga appeared to put paid to any idea of Flo making a return at the highest level.
Yet, only a few months later, in January 2007, a full three years since he last played in the Premier League, Flo was tempted back to English football and a spell with then Championship side Leeds United. Under the watch of old Chelsea team-mate, Dennis Wise, Flo began well, scoring on his league debut. It was, however, to be a false dawn as Leeds were relegated to League One, and Flo was to spend the remaining 12 months of his contract sat in a very familiar position.
A final handful of appearances followed as Flo was convinced to join up with another former Chelsea employee, Roberto Di Matteo, at MK Dons. Nevertheless, by this time the old magic had long left the spindly legs of the man who once brought one of Europe’s biggest clubs to its knees.