MEANINGLESS FRIENDLY?

By Mark Worrall
Jul 30th, 2007

As far as pre-season friendlies go, it doesn’t get more traditional than what is now known as the Football Association Community Shield. This annual match contested between the champions of the FA Premier League and the FA Cup winners has, in recent years, been devalued in part by virtue of the fact that the game has been played at the Millennium Stadium rather than at Wembley.

Arriving home in the small hours of the morning after witnessing the Blues majestic triumph over ‘the’ Arsenal in last seasons so-called ‘Snarling Cup Final’, I can’t have been the only Chelsea fan who’d applauded the welcome news that Wembley was ready to open its hallowed new doors, and that the days of having to endure the mind-boggling traffic-jam tedium that accompanied journey’s in and out of the Welsh capital were over. Several months later, Chelsea’s FA Cup final triumph over the Red Devils had been made sweeter still courtesy of the much-maligned London Underground network that transported us swiftly back to SW6, ensuring we were able to continue our lager-handed celebrations long before the sun had set on that glorious day.

This will be the third time that Chelsea and United have faced each other in the Shield. With honours even, and memories still fresh in the mind of the stinging criticism meted out by certain sections of the media regarding the war of attrition waged by his charges in the course of securing last seasons FA Cup victory, I have no doubt that the Special One will be promoting a more expansive approach to a game which may widely be perceived as an irrelevance, and therefore an opportunity to experiment. Having said that, any game against Manchester United, as far as all true Blues are concerned, in particular those of us who are making the trip to Wembley, is a must win game. United have spent big, Chelsea have spent shrewdly. As intriguing an encounter as it is, the two previous Shield meetings between the teams yielded little in terms of clues as to what lay ahead in the following season.

My Godson, Joshua, celebrating his tenth birthday, will be watching Chelsea at Wembley for the first time in his short life. The excitement in his young voice was palpable when he’d found out that he would be attending. Try telling him it’s a meaningless friendly. Back in 1997, when the Blues first encountered United in what was then known as the Charity Shield, the midwife had only just smacked the rosy cheeks of baby Joshua’s backside to check if his lungs were functioning correctly. On that day, his Dad, the legend that is Ugly John, along with me and the rest of the nascent Gate 17 posse witnessed the Blues, managed by Ruud Gullit, succumb to United 4-2 in a penalty shootout following a spirited 1-1 draw, in which Sparky Hughes had given Chelsea the lead with a powerful header against his old club.

On that occasion, a freshly bespectacled Alex Ferguson, had unveiled Teddy Sheringham, a replacement signing for Gallic Kung Fu Grandmaster Eric Cantona, as his new star striker. ‘Oh Teddy, Teddy … you went to Man United and you won f*ck all’, we would chant at every given opportunity the following year, as United had followed up their Charity Shield victory over the Blues by being knocked out of the Coca Cola Cup and FA Cup by Ipswich and Barnsley respectively, losing out to Monaco in the Champions League, and finally relinquishing their Premiership title to ‘the’ Arsenal. What a shame.

It wasn’t Sheringham, but Norwegian defender Ronny Johnsen who’d levelled proceedings, and when the game went to penalties, it was another Scandinavian, red-nosed custodian Peter Schmeichel, taking full advantage of a change of rules which now permitted goalkeepers to move before the ball was kicked, who eventually steered the game United’s way. In a season of contrasting fortunes, the Blues recovered from their Charity Shield defeat to go on and win both the Coca Cola Cup and European Cup Winners Cup. The 2-0 Coca Cola Cup Final victory over Middlesboro was secured with goals from Roberto Di Matteo and Frank Sinclair, bizarrely the two miscreants in the penalty shootout debacle against United. A true Blue day of atonement.

Fast forward three years and United and Chelsea were back at Wembley to contest what would be the last club game to be staged at the venue before the bulldozers moved in. On this occasion it was the turn of the Blues to parade a new star-striker. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink took just 22 minutes to demonstrate why then manager, Gianluca Vialli, had been right to persuade the club to fork out a record £15 million pounds for his services, and his committed display was a breath of fresh air to a Chelsea forward line previously suffocated by the ineffectiveness of the expensively embarrassing flop that had been Chris Sutton. Hasselbaink’s Dutch countryman, Mario Melchiot, completed the scoring in a 2-0 victory for Chelsea that was remembered not for the confident manner in which the Blues had overcome the Premiership champions, but for a piece of Roy Keane thuggery, which saw the United captain receive his marching orders in the 61st minute following a studs-first tackle from behind on Gustavo Poyet.

Again the season unravelled in contrasting ways for the two protagonists. This time though, United fared better, ending up Premiership champions. Less than a month after the Charity Shield victory over the Red Devils, Vialli was astonishingly fired in controversial circumstances. The demonic spectre of glorious unpredictability reared its head once again in what turned out to be a Satanic September as new manager, Claudio Ranieri, unable to settle a side languishing in 17th place in the league at the time, presided over a humbling 1st Round UEFA Cup exit at the hands of Swiss no-hopers St Gallen; a team who numbered in their ranks a former cuckoo clock maker and a part-time taxi driver. Liverpool and ‘the’ Arsenal terminated the Blues interest in the domestic cup competitions and they toiled long and hard to claw their way back up the table, eventually doing enough to qualify for the following seasons UEFA Cup competition.

Joshua will enjoy his big Wembley day out, by and large it’s been all gravy for him as far following Chelsea has been concerned. ‘Don’t worry son, you weren’t born then’, we tell him when his delicate young ears are assaulted by rival chants of ‘where were you when you were sh*t?’ During the past decade Chelsea’s pre-season preparations have comprised of trips to Wembley and the Millennium Stadium, as well as taking part in a number of prestigious intercontinental exhibition tournaments, the recent ‘World Series of Soccer’ being a prime example … but it wasn’t always that way.

Thirty years ago, as a callow punk-rocking youth, I recall being overwhelmed at the prospect of witnessing my first real taste of pre-season international action. Newly promoted Chelsea had been invited once again to participate in the Anglo-Scottish Cup, a quaint competition which had been created as a new incarnation of the fabled Texaco Cup. Fulham, Leyton Orient and Norwich City, provided the less than cosmopolitan opposition in the Blues distinctly un-Scottish qualifying group. I did my bit though, marching to Craven Cottage in a pair of tartan bondage strides where I watched a youngish Chelsea side, who’d frustratingly just lost the managerial services of Eddie McCreadie following a dispute over his request to be permitted a company car, go down 1-0 to a Fulham side bristling with famous has-beens. This was followed by a 2-0 home victory over Orient with the Blues goals coming from Jock Finnieston and Tommy Langley, but with Fulham already through to the next phase of the competition, Chelsea then drew a meaningless match with Norwich 2-2 at the Bridge, Ray Wilkins, and Finnieston again, obliging for the Blues.

The tournament was eventually won by Bristol City, who prevailed 3-2 over St. Mirren in a two-legged final. Chelsea finished the season in 16th place in the old First Division, one place above Bristol City and, in an age when only two points were awarded for a win, a massive 28 points behind champions Nottingham Forest. Liverpool, who would themselves be sensationally beaten by the Blues in a dramatic 3rd Round FA Cup tie at the Bridge, knocked Chelsea out at the first hurdle of the old League Cup, whilst Second Division Orient, gained revenge for their Anglo-Scottish Cup defeat by astoundingly knocking Chelsea out of the FA Cup in a 5th Round replay which also took place at Stamford Bridge. The following season Chelsea were relegated, I didn’t know it back then, but I was destined to be ‘there when we were sh*t’ for quite some time.

Pre-season ‘friendlies’ past and present have had a different flavour for the Blues down the years. One thing’s for certain though, in general they have been a fairly inaccurate barometer with regards to forecasting what might lay ahead. The outcome of this ‘charitable’ fixture with United will have little or no bearing on what transpires in our gloriously unpredictable blue-tinged Chelsea world during the next ten months, but it would be nice start as we mean to go on by giving the Red Devils an insight into the future and hammering them out of sight. Who knows? Next April when they come down to the Bridge maybe we’ll be chanting a revised rendition of that witty little ditty they treated us to a few months ago. It might go something like this … ‘Ferguson are you listening? Did you keep our trophy glistening? You came back today and we took it away, walking in a Jose wonderland.’

Here’s hoping. Up the Chels!

Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classic Over Land and Sea. His new book, Blue Murder, Chelsea till I die, is out now. Signed copies of both books are available to buy with free postage within the UK at www.overlandandsea.net

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