As the Chelsea hordes left the Millennium Stadium, there was hardly a grumble to be heard, and quite rightly so. Time and time again, all Chelsea fans ask for is one thing: total commitment in a Blue shirt. Last Saturday, we got that in spades. The team died for the cause. They played like they cared. They battled and fought like their lives depended on it and until the 70th minute had matched the best team in the country blow for blow. Could there be a more moving sight than seeing Eidur Gudjohnsen prostrate on the grass crying his eyes out in front of 25,000 Chelsea die-hards? The resulting chorus of ‘Eidur Gudjohnsen’ brought a lump to many a Blues’ throat as the fans responded in letting Eidur know that his efforts were both seen and acknowledged.
While defeat is never easy, there is little doubt that our two recent FA Cup Final victories against ’Boro and Villa softened the blow. You win some, you lose some. That’s football. It is a testament to the rise of Chelsea Football Club that defeat in an FA Cup Final hardly bares a shrug of the shoulders, whereas 26 years without silverware caused anxiety attacks and runs on Prozac throughout SW6 before 1997. Countless cup finals and semi-finals later, we all look to the future with a casual: “See you in Cardiff next year.” That is confidence and a reflection that we are now one of the top four clubs in the UK on a consistent basis — the Geordies do not count.
There was a lot to be proud of on the day. While Arsenal fans packed the castle and high street of Cardiff city centre, the rest of the city was Blue. Roads were cordoned off as pub after pub heaved with the sounds of ‘Carefree’ echoing around street corners. Klaxons and horns blasted down Blue-lined avenues as the Chelsea hordes made their way to the stadium.
The pre-match drink rated as perhaps the best fun you could have while fully clothed. The Prince of Wales, a cavernous tiered pub with walkways and stand-alone stairways, held about 700 Blues, many being held up by their mates. Celery flew through the air, banners draped from the ceiling and horns blasted their way through the fetid air. The atmosphere was more electric than in the stadium itself. The mere sight of a beefy security guard incited a chorus of ‘Who ate all the pies’ while the appearance of a leggy blonde had everybody ducking from the celery missiles. By 2.45pm, the floor by the bar was half a centimetre deep in a morass of beer, sweat and soggy celery sticks.
In the Stadium itself, the noise from the Blue end put the Gooners to shame. Not that Arsenal have ever had vocal support. Indeed, this time, the residents of the Library did themselves proud with support that would have been more in keeping with a Barry Mannilow concert than a full-blooded FA Cup final. Watching the TV highlights simply reminded me that if the game had been based on fans singing for their team we would have won five or six-nil.
The game started off brightly and although the Gooners shaded the half, no one could fault the Blues for effort. Desailly, Gallas, Lampard and Petit were simply immense and managed to completely shackle Henry, Wiltord and Bergkamp. Indeed, the Gooners were restricted to a couple of chances and those were headers — a notable effort by Bergkamp, who tried to head-lob Cudicini after peeling away from Desailly, and an effort by Lauren who was superbly denied by an intervention from Le Saux. At the half-time whistle, the Blues had had two shots on target to the Gooners’ none.
The second half saw a period of sustained Chelsea pressure. For twenty minutes we were the better team. Every single man in a Blue shirt played with total focus and commitment. Mid-way through the half the noise level reached a crescendo as Eidur Gudjohnsen’s curled effort was only just tipped over the bar by Seaman. At this point we all believed we could do it.
That we did not was down to two world-class goals. While it is too painful to recount the calamitous strikes, the bottom line is that both Parlour’s and Ljungberg’s goals were quality. If you are going to lose, do it properly.
That we lost was really down to the fact that a third of our team was crocked. Babayaro strained his bad groin after only three minutes, Terry, who replaced Baba, had a virus, Desailly was nursing a calf injury and Jimmy could hardly walk. People have criticised Ranieri for playing Jimmy from the off, but in reality it was a triumph of man management. Although no one is bigger than the team, the fact remains that Jimmy is the team. For such a world-class striker to have won sweet FA throughout his career and then be dropped for the biggest game of his life would have been shattering. Jimmy would have crawled on to the pitch to play and for Ranieri to realise this shows a sensitivity and quality of man management that has earned the Italian the respect of the whole dressing room. Of course, it did not pay off, and Jimmy showed the mobility of a carthorse. But he deserved to play, simple as that.
Perhaps the abiding memory of the day was in The Prince of Wales pub and a rare chant of: “Claudio Ranieri’s blue and white army.” On to next season, minus Jody, Jokanovic, Zenden, de Goey and Stanic — that would do nicely. Oh yes, and the re-installation of Albert to right back.