THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
Today being a cup day and all that, I’ve found a piece we had on the site a few years ago. As it’s topical I thought I’d run it again for all you newbie CFCnet readers.
With Chelsea’s appearance in the 2002 FA Cup final rapidly approaching, Mark Wheeler looks back at some of the despair and rapture that the Blues have experienced in the competition in years gone by.
The first team to win the FA Cup in my lifetime was Chelsea. Unfortunately, this means that I was cruelly denied any memories of seeing Chopper Harris lifting the famous trophy in 1970 or the pulsating replay against Leeds United at Old Trafford, when both teams literally kicked lumps out of each other. I was still in nappies and busy squirting out of both ends at the time — a behavioural trait that I really should have grown out of by now.
When I was older, the first match that my old man ever took me to was at Stamford Bridge. Obviously, after that I became a dedicated Chelsea fan. It was always my dream to see the Blues win the FA Cup, even more so than the league. But year after year my dream would be shattered, normally in early January in some obscure part of the country where the natives have webbed fingers.
Then along came 1994. Chelsea were managed by Glenn Hoddle, and despite a pretty poor season in the league, the team put together a cup run of Orwellian portent. The quarter-finals paired us with Wolves at the Bridge and a Gavin Peacock goal was enough to see us into the semi. Luton Town, with Kerry Dixon leading their attack, were dispatched with two more Peacock goals at Wembley, setting up that fateful final against Man Utd.
After building up my boyhood dreams of FA Cup glory, Chelsea went and got stuffed 4-0, thanks mainly to David Elleray’s inept refereeing a bad tackle by Eddie Newton. It was the only time I ever remember it raining at an FA Cup final. After the match I threw a bit of a Greta Garbo — I could not face going out as I just wanted to be alone, with my abject misery.
The Blues narrowly missed out to Man Utd again a couple of years later. In a semi-final at Villa Park, Michael Duberry smashed a long-range effort off the crossbar before Ruud Gullit headed Chelsea into a half-time lead. But in the second half the wheels cracked, fell off and disintegrated. Both Chelsea wing-backs tried to play on after picking up injuries and a disastrous attempted back pass by Craig Burley gifted Beckham the chance to score the winner. Once again, my childhood hopes had been thrown out the window, stamped on and crushed into dust.
But in May 1997 the dream finally came true. There was simply no way that Chelsea were going to lose the final to Middlesbrough. I felt incredibly confident, but not convinced enough to share my faith with friends on the big day. I remember ripping a hole in my jeans as soon as I sat down at Wembley and then looking up to see Roberto Di Matteo smash in his record-breaking goal. Seeing Eddie Newton add the second after half time was extra special after his cock-up in the 1994 final. It also made the 1997 final the perfect blend of new Chelsea (imported overseas flamboyance) and old Chelsea (home-grown talent).
There was no trip home with chin-on-chest and not a rain cloud in sight over Wembley that day. Of all the trophies that Chelsea have won since, for me, that was my best ever moment as a Chelsea fan. After the years of disappointment and seeing dross like Coventry and Wimbledon winning the FA Cup, it was finally our turn. The celebrations back on the Fulham Road were great fun. Everybody in the boozer sat on the floor to sing the Meadow Song and the beer was flowing well into the night.
Chelsea repeated the triumph in 2000 in the last FA Cup final to be held at Wembley, beating Aston Villa with a solitary Di Matteo goal. It was a great day out, but not a great final.
Although we celebrated joyously, the rush was not quite the same as it had been in 1997.
This year, however, it could be so very different. Firstly, the setting for the big occasion has shifted to Cardiff. I have only heard good things about the Millennium Stadium from anyone who has been there, and there are plenty of suitable venues for pre- and post-match entertainment. Should we defeat the Arse to deny them the double and put an end to the much-touted south end jinx, it would be a sweet moment indeed.
Although my childhood dream has been realised already, this could be one moment of triumph that I dared not dream about. A place in the history books awaits, so now is not a time for faint hearts. Once more into the breach, and other such Shakespearean tosh. Sing your hearts out for the boys and glory could be ours.
Oh, and sorry if the title of this article means that you have that dreadful song by Europe running through you head for the next week or so.