Having recently discovered a magnificent online forum which specialises in offering all manner of matches available for download, I took a quick look in the folder marked ‘Classic Matches’. Not even sure what I was looking for, I typed ‘Chelsea’ into the search box and hoped for the best. The list which followed included Champions League meetings with Barcelona (too modern), the final against Manchester United (too painful) and the FA Cup Final win over Aston Villa in 2000 (too dull, although the ending’s pretty good).
None of those fit the bill for a lazy Sunday afternoon, but then one game stood out from the rest. Chelsea V Liverpool in the fourth round of the FA Cup in 1997. Perfect.
Upon downloading and viewing, memories came flooding back immediately. Distinct evidence of how far the club has come in the thirteen years between then and now presented a frightening reminder of the passing of time. There stood an unbuilt Shed End, while advertising boards around the ground promoted the new Nintendo 64 games console (out ‘1st March 1997’) and the launch of an exciting new television station, the much-hyped Channel 5, back when it was still written as a digit.
Chelsea – managed by Ruud Gullit – had eased into the fourth round after beating West Brom 3-0 at home in their previous FA Cup tie, while Liverpool had edged past Burnley. When the draw was made, pitting the two clubs together at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool would have been feeling the more confident of the two sides; in the last ten meetings, Liverpool had won half of them, including a 5-1 win at Anfield in September 1996, just a few months before the fourth round tie kicked off.
Gullit sent his side out with an adventurous wing-back system, with goalkeeper Kevin Hitchcock playing in one of what would eventually become just sixteen games that season for the loyal custodian. The two Italian forwards, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola, were ably supported by their cultured countryman Roberto di Matteo – now West Brom manager –in midfield, while the steely Dennis Wise also added bite between the defence and the attack.
Liverpool also fielded a side boasting some big names, with captain John Barnes – past his best but still a threat – leading out a team which included David James, Stan Collymore, Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp amongst others.
The game was screened live on the BBC, with John Motson and David Pleat providing commentary on what was to become a modern-day classic for Chelsea fans.
The match kicked off with typical haste and bluster, with both sides making mistakes but Liverpool clearly on top. Frank Leboeuf and Steve Clarke struggled to keep The Reds at bay, and it wasn’t long before Hitchcock was beaten.
Inside the first ten minutes, the then-Premiership leaders Liverpool carved open Chelsea at the back. A deep cross into the box from Jason McAteer evaded everyone in the box, eventually settling at the feet of McManaman. His first touch was excellent, but his second saw the ball escape him, only to fall kindly for Stig Inge Bjornebye on the left. Unmarked, he drilled in a low cross to a similarly unguarded Fowler, who tapped into an empty net with Hitchcock stranded at his near post.
Just over ten minutes later, Liverpool doubled their lead through Collymore. A pass just inside Chelsea’s half from Zola found Newton, who failed to control the ball and instead presented the Liverpool number eight with a clear run on goal. He took just two touches to beat Hitchcock comfortably.
It appeared as if the visitors were all but in the fifth round now, 2-0 up and with Chelsea yet to truly threaten James other than through a half-chance for Vialli, who unfortunately blazed over, and a sliced effort from Wise after a mazy run saw the captain make a foray into the box.
Liverpool also had chances though, with the lively McManaman just screwing a shot wide and sending a low effort into Hitchcock’s hands when through on goal, as Chelsea were regularly caught on the counter-attack.
Nothing seemed to be working for Gullit’s men; Zola was easily closed down when he received the ball, not allowed any time or space to produce some magic, while the defence were overrun at times. Liverpool’s midfield looked stronger and more cohesive too, with nothing being created amongst Chelsea’s middlemen.
Fowler’s niggly attitude was also stopping Chelsea from getting any kind of foothold in the match. A spiky end to the half saw the striker involved in an altercation with Leboeuf, with the French defender shoving Fowler away after he held on to the ball while Leboeuf looked to take a quick free-kick.
Thankfully, as the half-time whistle saw Liverpool go in just the two goals up – and Leboeuf got some kind of retribution by spraying his water bottle into a small cluster of Liverpool fans near the benches – Gullit prepared to unleash his not so secret weapon from the subs bench. Step forward Mark Hughes. The barrel chested forward had been kicking his heels for 45 minutes, and he wasn’t prepared to wait any longer for a chance to turn the game around.
The Welshman had only scored five goals in his previous 24 games that season, but with Chelsea failing to exert any pressure on Liverpool’s backline, the call rang out for an uncompromising target man with a never-say-die attitude. Hughes fit the bill, and replaced Scott Minto, allowing Zola to drop deeper and giving Vialli the opportunity to stretch his legs and make some dangerous runs, often leading the Liverpool defence astray.
Liverpool emerged in the second-half looking to maintain their lead, even if it did mean neglecting their vibrant attacking verve of the first period. Defending deep, they attempted to nullify the potential threat of an invigorated Chelsea, but instead they invited more and more pressure.
Hughes threw himself around the pitch for the first few minutes, and in turn, his team-mates showed more vigour. Leboeuf jumped highest to head a chance on goal from a corner, but James saved. Hughes and company bounced off their Liverpool counterparts, always making sure they were first to the ball. Newton, Wise and Di Matteo latched onto the desperate balls the Reds were launching out from the box, just happy to get rid rather than start an attack of their own.
As the clock approached 50 minutes, Newton found Clarke just inside Liverpool’s half. A raking ball into the box stuck to Hughes’ chest, and the striker smartly swivelled past a confounded Bjorn Kvarme before shooting neatly past James. Gullit remained impassive on the bench, while Hughes merely puffed out a deep breath – visible in the cold January evening’s weather – as he accepted his team-mates congratulations.
Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool: a consolation, or a sign of things to come?
Liverpool already looked rattled, with the previously superb McManaman now reduced to a mere observer, along with the isolated Collymore and Fowler. Chelsea were running things now, and Di Matteo tested James with a shot from outside the box, which the future England number one could only beat away.
Mark Wright was the busiest man in a red shirt now, rebuffing attack after attack as Chelsea pushed for an equaliser. In the 58th minute, not a single Liverpool player could do anything as Zola picked up the ball just outside of the penalty box ‘D’.
It was Leboeuf this time who had delivered into the box, and as Dan Petrescu tried to find a way into the area, he was tackled. The ball was loose though, and Hughes pounced on it, prodding towards the tiny Italian with a desperate lunge. Zola took a touch to steady himself, then bent a left-footed shot high into the top corner of the Liverpool goal. An equaliser, and what an equaliser! Barnes was sat on his backside, staring in awe at Zola’s genius, having been dispatched by the warrior Hughes.
Motson was dumbfounded by the turn of events, revelling in the action as much as any true football fan. He mistook Vialli for Zola on several occasions, but who could blame him after a frenetic hour of play like this? Regularly passing mention of the vociferous Chelsea support, he was enjoying the show. Thankfully for Motson and the Blues fans inside the ground and at home watching on television, Chelsea weren’t finished yet.
Zola picked up the ball on the left, now given licence to roam, and he found Petrescu in the centre. Patiently waiting for a chance to arise, the Romanian played a perfect through ball into an onrushing Vialli – or Zola, as Motson excitedly squealed – who evaded his marker and fired past James to put Chelsea ahead for the first time in the match.
Gullit’s side had turned around a two-goal deficit inside less than twenty minutes. Liverpool were looking for a way back, but Chelsea weren’t prepared to let their lead slip. They held on for another ten minutes before extending their lead and quashing any hopes of a Liverpool comeback.
Patrick Berger – just on as a substitute for Bjornebye – tugged at Vialli’s shirt almost on the corner of the box and conceded a free-kick. Zola stood over the ball and – without hesitation after the whistle was blown – chipped in a delightful ball towards Vialli. A powerful header flew past James, and Chelsea now led 4-2. As the Blues players celebrated, an astonished Wright stood hands on hips in the box as his team-mates made their way past him towards the centre spot for the restart.
The final fifteen minutes saw a resolute Chelsea, with Leboeuf continuing his impressive performance and helping to send Liverpool’s attacks away. Even Dennis Wise won a header in his own box!
The whistle still came as a relief at the end of the match, not least because it made everything just witnessed real. This actually happened; the fairytale element was non-fiction, just an ounce of magic from the FA Cup. Chelsea had defied the odds to win the game.
Days like that didn’t come around too often, and with Chelsea still the pretenders they were in the late 1990s, it was the start of something big. Of course, Gullit led his side to an FA Cup win that season. The rest, as they say…