Part 2: Middlesbrough’s least favourite club
This is the second part of a look through significant games in the years preceeding Roman Abramovic’s take over of Chelsea. Read part 1 here.
May 17, 1997. Chelsea 2 Middlesbrough 0. FA Cup final:
Chelsea’s 1996/97 season begun with great tragedy, but concluded with the club’s greatest success in 26 years.
In his first summer as Chelsea boss Ruud Gullit got straight to work to land big name signings. Roberto Di Matteo, Frank Lebouf and Gianluca Vialli were brought in, thanks to a combination of Gullit’s influence in European football and money provided by vice-chairman Matthew Harding. Lifelong Chelsea fan Harding put in £26.5m in 1994 after Ken Bates called for investors, money which was also used to redevelop the North Stand (now called the Mathew Harding stand). The Chairman and vice-chairman regularly clashed over the direction of the club, and eventually Bates banned Harding from the boardroom.
On October 22 whilst travelling home from a 2-1 League Cup defeat away at Bolton, Harding’s helicopter crashed. Harding, three other passengers and the pilot, died. The death of such a popular figure at the club was a massive blow.
Ending the season with silverware for the first time since 1971 was a fitting tribute to a man who loved the club so much. In November Gianfranco Zola was added to the now star studded squad. The “clever little so-and-so” (according to Sir Alex Fergusson) would go on to be the FWA player of the year, score crucial goals in the FA Cup quarter and semi finals, and was voted Chelsea’s best ever player in 2003.
Until last Saturday if you said “Roberto Di Matteo and Eddie Newton” to any Chelsea fan the first thing they would think of would be the 1997 FA Cup final. Di Matteo got the team off to a blistering start by scoring after just 42 seconds and they never looked back. Newton fired home after Zola flicked the ball across goal to seal the win. Chelsea ended the season FA Cup champions, qualified for Europe and were playing some of the most attractive football in the country. Stamford Bridge was a fun place to be.
May 13, 1998. Chelsea 1 VfB Stuttgart 0. European Cup Winners Cup final.
Another influx of foreign signings (Ed de Goey, Gus Poyet, Tore Andre Flo) followed the 1997 FA Cup win, and there were hopes that a Premier League title challenge would follow. But in February 1998 a dispute between Ken Bates (he pops up in a lot of disputes, doesn’t he?) and Ruud Gullit lead to the first trophy winning Chelsea manager in more than two decades being fired.
Continuing the recent tradition Gianluca Vialli took over as player-manager. Although the title challenge fell away, that was partly because Chelsea were busy elsewhere. 10 months after winning the FA Cup Chelsea were back at Wembley and once again beat Middlesbrough 2-0, this time to win the League Cup and Di Matteo again chipped in with a goal.
Vialli wanted the club to get used to winning trophies, and they quickly were. In May they went to Stockholm looking to win only their second European trophy. The game was close, and both sides had created chances, before Zola came on with 20 minutes to play. The groin strain that had kept the little Italian out the starting line-up wasn’t in evidence when Dennis Wise chipped a ball over the Stuttgart defence and Zola hammered home seconds after he’d come onto the field.
In twelve months Chelsea had won the FA Cup, League Cup and Cup Winners Cup. Now the club wanted to graduate from being knockout kings to league challengers.
September 21, 1998. Blackburn Rovers 3 Chelsea 4. Premier League
The theory was that Chelsea were a good cup team because they had a lot of foreign signings who were big game players, but didn’t have the consistency to get results in notoriously tough Premiership environments. A Monday night fixture at Ewood Park against a big, physical Blackburn Rovers was the perfect example of a game Chelsea were expected to lose.
But Chelsea in the 1998/99 season were very different from the season before. World Cup winning centre back Marcel Desailly and right back Albert Ferrer had been brought in to shore up the defence and the team played with less recklessness. Gone were results like 6-2 at home against Crystal Palace and 6-1 away against Spurs. But the free scoring was replaced with greater resolve and a serious title challenge.
The fiery, controversial win away at Blackburn, courtesy of two late Tore Andre Flo goals, came early in a 21 game unbeaten run in the league. Although too many draws, and an inability to get a win over title rivals Manchester United and Arsenal, would eventually see the Blues finish four points behind champions United, Chelsea’s third place finish meant they qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history.
April 5, 2000. Chelsea 3 Barcelona 1. Champions League quarter final, first leg.
These days when Chelsea and Barcelona meet it is as two of the biggest clubs in football, usually with great consequences for the destination of the Champions League trophy. When Barca first visited Stamford Bridge in 2000 the Blues’ fans could barely believe what was happening.
The might of Figo, Rivaldo and de Boer were in town to take on a team who earlier in the season had been beaten 4-1 by Sunderland. But Chelsea had already pulled off some great results. A 1-1 draw at the San Siro against AC Milan, a 3-1 win away at Feyenoord and a 5-0 win over Manchester United in the league showed this Chelsea team were dangerous.
Barca failed to heed that warning, and in the space of ten crazy first half minutes shipped three goals. A trademark Zola free kick began the carnage and before he set up Flo for a tap in. Flo’s second goal, a chip from outside the area after a ball over the top from Didier Deschamps, looks like it gave Ramires ideas for his trip to the Camp Nou. Barca hit back in the second leg, winning 3-1 in normal time then scoring twice in extra time.
For 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge Chelsea had gone toe-to-toe with one of the biggest clubs in the world and come out on top. At the end of the season a disappointing 5th place finish in the league was made up for by winning the last FA Cup final at old Wembley with a 1-0 win over Aston Villa. Di Matteo, of course, scored the winner.
September 28, 2000. St Gallen 2 Chelsea 0. UEFA Cup first round.
Chelsea’s fall from European grace was swift. After a slow start to the 2000/01 season and revelations of dressing room disharmony fans’ favourite Gianluca Vialli was removed as manager.
Graham Rix oversaw a 1-0 over Swiss champions St Gallen in the first leg of the UEFA Cup tie, but by the second leg new manager Claudio Ranieri was in charge. ‘The Tinkerman,’ defined by his sometimes affectionate sometimes mocking nickname, picked an experimental side including right back Mario Melchiot in a three man midfield.
Chelsea started badly, conceding two goals after 35 minutes, and never recovered. But the worst moment of the match was the sight of Roberto Di Matteo being stretchered off with a triple leg fracture. The injury ended the thirty-year-olds career. After being forced out the game in such heartbreaking fashion it can only be imagined how much winning the Champions League as manager meant to the Italian.
May 4, 2002. Arsenal 2 Chelsea 0. FA Cup final.
Chelsea spent big again in the summer of 2001, bringing in Frank Lampard, William Gallas, Boudewijn Zenden and Emmanuel Petit for a combined total of £32.2 million.
Although a sixth place finish in the league was nothing to write home about, the performance of strikers Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink gave the fans something to cheer. The two scored a massive 52 goals between them, and their form inspired some hope that the Blues could stop Arsenal claiming a third double.
But Arsenal were never under any real pressure and the Gunners made Chelsea look very pedestrian. In 1999 Manchester United had won a treble, and two years after this final Arsenal would go an entire Premiership season undefeated. The duopoly at the top of the English game had been unbreakable since Blackburn won the league in 1995.
The 2002 Cup final demonstrated just how far behind the teams they wished to challenge Chelsea were. At the same time Chelsea’s consistent success in the major cups, regular flirtations with Champions League qualification, and ability to attract big name players proved they were a club with potential.
May 11, 2003. Chelsea 2 Liverpool 1. Premier League.
It seems strange now to afford Jesper Gronkjaer huge significance in the history of Chelsea, but his goal in the final game of the 2002/03 season to beat Liverpool may just have saved the club. It certainly set into motion the process that allowed the Blues to become regular challengers for the Champions League.
A lack of signings over the summer had signified the financial difficulties the club found itself in. With the implosion of Leeds as an obvious precedent there was a lot riding on the concluding game of the campaign.
The game was dubbed “the £20m match” as it was a straight playoff between Chelsea and Liverpool for who qualified for next season’s Champions League. Sami Hyppia had given Liverpool and early lead before Marcel Desailly’s header cancelled out his rival captain’s goal. After 26 minutes Gronkjaer breezed past a John-Arne Rise challenged before curling a shot, whilst falling over, into the far corner of Jerzy Dudek’s goal.
At the end of the game Chelsea fans applauded their team’s win, and said goodbye to Gianfranco Zola was had agreed to end his career at Cagliari, hoping that the money from Europe would keep the wolves from the door. Little did they know that when they returned after the summer they would be supporting one of the richest clubs in the world.
And so followed Abramovic, Monaco, the Special One, the Premiership title, Liverpool, Moscow, Barcelona, the double and eventually Munich and the European Cup. Abramovic will deservedly claim much responsibility for Chelsea winning the Champions League, but it is important to remember that he is just a part of the club’s history. That, and that without Gavin Peacock none of this would have happened.
by David Lyons