This match may not feature in many Chelsea fans’ video library of classic matches, but reaching the FA Cup final is still a great achievement. The Blues supporters rallied to CFCnet’s call to bring as much celery as they could carry and this had the desired effect on the atmosphere. Villa Park was a sea of green in the Chelsea areas as the flying veg was chucked in the air and the celery song was belted out at full volume. Even the players were greeted by a flurry of celery as they exited the tunnel before kick-off.
Chelsea started the match stronger than their neighbours despite losing Graeme Le Saux to a calf injury in the opening minutes. He was replaced by Albert Ferrer, who put in a fine performance. But clear-cut chances were at a premium all evening. John Terry had the first effort on target when he hit a superb volley from just inside the penalty area, but he was denied by a fine save. Carlo Cudicini was only called on to make one save in the first half, but it was a critical one. He dived to his right to beat out a powerful shot. Mario Stanic was next to go close but would perhaps have done better to have crossed rather than shooting, despite winning a corner.
However, the corner brought the only goal of the match. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink swung the ball in from the left and it bounced off Mario Melchiot before Terry shot home, via a defender’s foot, from a tight angle. JT already enjoys cult status among Chelsea fans but his star is still rising. Were it not for his impending court case he would surely be a shoe-in for the England World Cup squad.
Chelsea defended far too deep in the second half and allowed Fulham to carry the game to them. It made for nervous viewing and sections of the crowd were unhappy at Chelsea’s lack of forward momentum. Chances came later in the half though. A delightful Eidur Gudjohnsen chip bounced back off a post but the Icelander missed two simpler chances created by Jesper Gronkjaer. Emmanuel Petit also went close despite Gudjohnsen nearly taking the ball off his foot.
The crowd grew even more restless when Hasselbaink was replaced in the closing stages by Slavisa Jokanovic. What Claudio Ranieri had in mind for extra time had Fulham equalised remains a mystery. The Joka, despite being booed by some on his entrance to the fray, did not put a foot wrong and the final whistle soon followed. The celebrations began and Le Saux was in the middle of them — on crutches. Terry was kissing his badge in front of the Chelsea supporters and you get the feeling that he is one of the rare breed who really means it, rather than just doing it to curry favour.
Then came the nightmare journey home. Many fans did not get back to the capital until the early hours of the morning. The delays were caused by congestion — with practically everyone at the game trying to get back to London — and road works. My brother, being a motoring genius, managed to avoid the worst of it. However, CFCnet contributor Jeremy Walters was appalled to hear that I was enjoying a kebab in Muswell Hill at midnight when he had just passed Warwick Services.
Even the team coach and Ken Bates’ Roller got caught in the traffic. The day after the victory, Bates said: “I’m delighted for Claudio, as if we had lost yesterday it would have been a pity to sack him just after he had signed a new contract.” One would imagine he was joking, but with Uncle Ken you never can tell.