THE ROAD TO WEMBLEY
They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but what about the road to Wembley? It’s hardly been a street paved with gold for Chelsea this season; indeed there’s been more of a cobbled feel to it as the Blues had to huff and puff their way past some of this country’s less glamorous teams before coming up against crisis club Arsenal in the semi-finals. It is fitting that the FA Cup Final will be Chelsea’s last game of the season … another eventful chapter in the history of our beloved Blues is drawing to a close … culminating hopefully with JT clambering up the Wembley steps to lift the most famous trophy in world football above his head for all to see and cheer.
As we’d basked in the glorious sunshine that bathed Stamford Bridge on the opening day of the season witnessing a Deco inspired Chelsea take Pompey to the Fulham branch of Sketchley’s, there was talk of Big Phil Scolari masterminding an unprecedented assault on the four major trophies. Robbed of the services of Michael Essien when the Ghana international ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament while on duty with his country, and with the campaign barely a month old, Chelsea and Big Phil were soon in trouble. It hadn’t taken the Blues smarter opponents long to figure out that Big Phil only knew one way to play football. Relying on his full-backs to create width, instead of Cafu and Roberto Carlos, Big Phil had Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole marauding forward allowing a five-man midfield to dominate through the middle. Without Michael Essien though, Chelsea looked less forceful in the middle of the park and in October a Xabi Alonso goal ended a marvelous 86-game unbeaten home league record and put Liverpool three points clear at the top of the Barclays Premier League.
As winter drew in, Deco flattered to deceive, his form dipped in line with the falling temperature. Lacking creativity, the Blues also looked increasingly unsure of themselves defensively and many began to ponder the sanity of the Stamford Bridge mandarins who’d allowed coaching guru and Chelsea legend Steve Clarke leave the Club to join new West Ham manager and fellow legend, Franco Zola, at Upton Park.
The Blues stuttered through November. A convincing Champions League defeat away to Roma was followed by a dramatic penalty shoot-out loss against mighty Burnley in the Carling Cup and an eminently forgettable month ended with another home defeat, this time in the league at the hands of Arsenal. Forget winning four trophies … we just wanted to see Chelsea win a game! Christmas came and went, and the New Year saw the Blues continue to struggle on all fronts but at least there was the good old FA Cup.
6000 Shrimpers came to town and saw League One minnows Southend United stun the Blues at the Bridge with a stoppage-time equaliser to earn a deserved third-round replay. There were rumblings of discontent emanating from the home dressing room and serious questions being asked about Mr Scolari’s ability to do his job.
It was to get worse before it got better.
A bunch of dispirited individuals masquerading as Chelsea Football Club then went to Old Trafford and had an absolute nightmare losing 3-0 to a bemused looking Manchester United side who clearly thought it was still Christmas. Steve Tilson, Southend United’s manager, must have rubbed his hands with glee at the prospect of Chelsea coming to Roots Hall a couple of days after such a desperate performance.
An hour or so before kick off, a thick blanket of fog enveloped the Essex coastline blanketing the rickety old stadium and forcing the referee to call-off the match. Miraculously, the fog vanished as swiftly as it had arrived and the game was back on. It didn’t take Tilson’s men too long to suss out Big Phil’s zonal marking tactics and Chelsea’s inability to defend corners was exposed as early as the 16th minute when Barrett gave the Shrimpers the lead. Chants of “you’re getting sacked in the morning” rang out around Roots Hall, with Scolari looking less than impressed at his team’s efforts. Cometh the hour cometh Michael Ballack, Salamon Kalou, Nicolas Anelka and Frank Lampard. Chelsea roared back defiantly to win 4-1 and temporarily silence the critics. Travelling Blues fans whilst jubilant at the result had been saddened at the sight of Joe Cole limping off the pitch in the 76th minute. Perhaps he’d come back too early from the niggling ankle injury that had dogged him during the first part of the season. Whatever the case, Joe had played his last competitive game of the campaign.
The Blues prepared for their fourth-round tie with Ipswich Town in quite remarkable fashion coming from behind to beat Stoke City 2-1 with two late late goals. Substitute Juliano Belletti equalised in the 87th minute and Super Frank then grabbed an unlikely winner in stoppage-time to cap his 400th appearance for the club in style and relieve some of the pressure building up on his beleaguered boss. The following weekend Chelsea earned a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup thanks to a double from Michael Ballack and a terrific 35-yard free-kick from Lampard, goals which were good enough to see off the Tractor Boys. The 3-1 victory wasn’t all plain sailing though, as the Blues continued inability to defend at set-pieces cost them yet again when Alex Bruce had leveled matters before the break.
February ah February. On the first day of the month, Liverpool rolled Chelsea over at Anfield, and as snowy blizzards engulfed the country, the natives of the Bridge, huddled under their duvets, began growing ever restless. ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’, was the despicable cry from some Blues fans who’d chose to chide the manager rather than encourage the team as they’d played out a turgid 0-0 home draw with the toothless Tigers of Hull City. Two days later Scolari was sacked.
Statistics indicate that Ray ‘the crab’ Wilkins, installed as temporary manager following the sacking of Scolari, is Chelsea’s most successful coach. His phenomenal record of played one, won one, is unlikely ever to be surpassed in the modern era. Mind you, at one point in this solitary game, it hadn’t looked too clever for old frog-eyes Ray. In the 69th minute of the Blues 5th Round FA Cup tie at Vicarage Road, a former Hungarian goat-herder by the name of Tamas Priskin gave Watford a shock 1-0 lead. Fortunately for Ray and the rest of the travelling Blue and White Army, Chelsea’s surprise package of the season, Nicolas Anelka, responded with a brisk hat-trick which stung the Hornets into submission and the Blues were through to the quarter-finals.
Enter Guus Hiddink. Thanks to Mr Abramovich’s long standing friendship with the old Dutch Master, Chelsea were able to hand the managerial reins over to someone who clearly did know what he was doing and the transformation in the Blues fortunes were as swift as they were remarkable. Despite the transfer window having long since closed, Chelsea found themselves with two brand new world-class players in their ranks. Step forward Didier Drogba, who’d been sulking ever since the Special One had left, and the enigmatic Florent Malouda. The Blues brushed aside the paltry threat of Coventry City at the Ricoh Arena and marched into their third FA Cup semi-final in four years making it five wins from five matches since Hiddink’s arrival. ‘Chelsea are back,’ we’d be hollering from Stamford Bridge to Wembley as we kept the Blue Flag flying high.
Arsenal it was who would provide Chelsea with their first Premier League opponents in this seasons competition and the Gunners livelier than usual fans made the tube journey from central London to Wembley a highly entertaining one with their innovative anti-Spurs chants, the best of these being the fabulous, ‘He’s got a twitch, he’s got a twitch, Harry Redknapp he’s got a twitch. How’d he get it? I don’t know. How’d it get it? I don’t care, all I know is Harry’s got a twitch.’ The Gooners soon had the jam taken out of their collective donuts though because, for want of a more refined word, the side they’d come to cheer on were crap! In fact they reminded me of the way Chelsea had played before Uncle Guus showed up at the Bridge. Despite the Gunners taking the lead, it was that man Didier Drogba who gave Arsene Wenger one more reason to regret his failure to spend the £100,000 it would have cost to bring the Ivorian to Arsenal from Le Mans way back in 1998. The Drog scored the late winner that would bring Chelsea back to Wembley for the FA Cup Final on May 30th.
Despite Chelsea having to take to the field in their change strip of yellow, Wembley will be a sea of Blue and White on cup final day in what promises to be, off the pitch at any rate, one of the friendliest finals in years. Hopefully, what transpires on the pitch will be more of a spectacle than the two dour 0-0 draws played out between the teams in the Premier League this season. The Toffees reached the final despite failing to score in open-play against Manchester United and will prove difficult opponents to break down once more with the FA Cup and the prestige that goes with winning it at stake.
Along with the Gooners, ‘Harry’s got a twitch’, our own, ‘He’s half a boy and half a girl, Torres Torres. He looks just like a transvestite, Torres Torres’, one of the seasons most entertaining terrace ditty’s has to be the ‘Sock robbers, sock robbers, sock robbers,’ chant that Liverpool fans sang at Goodison Park the night the Toffees dumped the Reds out of the FA Cup. As they sang, they’d bombarded the Bullens Road touchline with rolled-up balls of footwear in attempt to taunt Evertonians about their proposed move to a stadium in Kirkby. Apparently, the residents of Kirkby are sometimes derided as ‘sock-robbers,’ a deliciously cruel reference to the way that burglars from the area allegedly put socks over their hands to avoid leaving behind finger-prints, and another trophy-less campaign had left Liverpool fans with little else to do than dream up stunts to taunt neighbouring Evertonians.
A swashbuckling Blues victory over the ‘Sock Robbers’ will be a fitting way to round off Guus Hiddink’s all too brief stint as manager. Man of the match? That’s easy. Florent Malouda … this is Chelsea after all. Glorious unpredictability? You couldn’t make it up!
See you at the game.
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classics ‘Over Land and Sea’, ‘Blue Murder’ and ‘One Man Went to Mow’ and the co-author of forthcoming Blues title, ‘Chelsea here Chelsea there’. You can save up to 30% on these titles when ordering on line at http://www.overlandandsea.net/