Sunday January 26, 1997
Chelsea 4 Hughes (50) Zola (58) Vialli (63,76)
Liverpool 2 Fowler (10) Collymore (21)
Two days ago Chelsea beat Luton Town 3-1 in this year’s FA Cup 4th Round, at a bleak, snowy Stamford Bridge. Fan & atmosphere free, it was a joyless, bloodless, undernourished pastiche of a real cup tie. Yesterday saw the sacking of Frank Lampard. Mr Abramovich & his boardroom lackeys may or may not recruit (& shortly after sack) better coaches in the next few years. They certainly won’t appoint anyone who understands the club & its genuine supporters better. Social media has been packed to the rafters with oddball anti-Lampard trolls during the recent barren run that all top sides have had to endure at some point in this oddest of seasons. The nadir was reached when Frank’s wife recently announced her pregnancy on Instagram. One Chelsea ‘fan’ responded by imploring her to miscarry. You can’t help but wonder if the Lampards aren’t better out of it. Vile, disembodied voices like this seem to resound & find audiences more readily than normal at present, or is it simply that the true fans cannot drown out perennial backgound malevolence by showing the appropriate trademark love for a legend like Frank Lampard at matches?
Recalling my favourite ever Chelsea game, which took place 24 years ago today, is a welcome release from the all pervading sourness around Chelsea Football Club at present, & I pity the haters, most of whom have likely never even visited Stamford Bridge, let alone enjoyed the vibrant, manic, action packed match I am about to try & describe. Reliving both the events on the pitch & the crowd reaction to those events is all the more poignant given present pandemic circumstances.
“It is only by way of pain one arrives at pleasure” –
Operation Spanner. The title of a book recalling the managerial hiring & firing policies of Roman Abramovich since 2003? No. It is actually the name of a cause celebre that reverberated around the British (& eventually European) law courts for nigh on a decade following the Greater Manchester Police being handed the first of a series of videotapes in the autumn of 1987. These contained a variety of wince inducing acts of violence committed & received by men. A nail was passed through a hole in a foreskin prior to said nail being hammered into a block of wood. Ouch. The man’s penis was then subjected to a series of cuts with a scalpel. Double ouch. Leather straps, canes & nettles were used as objects of torture, with some branding thrown in for good measure too. Hair dryers & ice cubes came into play as instruments for alternate supplies of painful hot & cold applications to the genitals. Hot wax & ball weights were involved. Ball weights? One man had his testicles sandpapered. Try that on me & you would definitely need to put a dust sheet down. Expecting to discover a trail of grotesquely injured & possibly dead bodies the police instead tracked down a group all steadfast in claiming all activity was consensual. As gay men in an era when more conventional sexual practices could be a death sentence many civil liberties campaigners supported their right to evade criminal procedures for indulging their preferences, odd & unfathomable as they appeared to many others. In 1989 16 men were eventually charged with a range of offences. This at least deflected The Sun from lying about Hillsborough for a while. 8 men were eventually jailed & 3 unsuccessfully appealed to the European Court Of Human Rights around the time this match was played, a decade on from the beginning of the original investigation. Caning a man’s cock & inflicting injury, willing victim or not, was thus officially unlawful as well as an affront to the sensibilities of the guardians of social morality. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but lose the scalpel & the ball weights matey. Ball weights?
One thing still baffles me now. Other avenues of suffering existed in the mid to late 1980’s. It was possible for grown men to inflict pain & torment on each other, to torture themselves & watch others endure unimaginable agonies at the same time. Legally & played out in public, all for a fiver apiece. Just get yourself & your pals along to Stamford Bridge once a fortnight, where John Hollins & Ernie Walley were respectively manager & coach of Chelsea Football Club. The Operation Spanner crew may still have ended up feeling like they were serving some kind of a sentence, albeit in an open prison, but think of the saving in hot wax & nails.
Happily, by 1997 watching Chelsea had become fun again. We all loved player-manager Ruud Gullit almost as much as he loved himself, & a cosmopolitan & flamboyant team was being constructed. Like the 1970 team it emulated when winning the FA Cup, this Chelsea team could be as infuriating & inconsistent as it was often brilliant, & unlike the sides imprisoned in the Hollins/Whalley era it was rarely dull. I am advised by people with drug knowledge that a shot of pure China White heroin is likely to be the pathway to a blissful death should you be bedridden when the moment comes. I would settle for shutting my eyes & enjoying a 25 minute rerun of the second half of this extraordinary FA Cup tie, starting with Mark Hughes opening the Chelsea scoring & concluding with Gianluca Vialli (or ‘Gianluca Of Vialli’ as John Motson excitedly mispronounces his name at one point in match commentary) heading his second & Chelsea’s fourth goal 25 minutes later. This insane, pulsating, thrilling match had everything & is undoubtedly my favourite Chelsea game of all time. It would be crass to say that this game enabled its spectatators to completely cover the waterfront of human emotional responses, but it is difficult to think of many life experiences that enables us to be aquainted with such a variety of them over such a short period of time. In the final at Wembley four months later a stunning Roberto Di Matteo strike after 43 seconds gave me one of my happiest single memories ever, but as a consequence we spent the next 89 minutes wishing for nothing but the sound of the final whistle. Imagine going to see Prince in the same era, hearing him start with a stellar version of Little Red Corvette & immediately wanting to pack up & go home after that on the grounds it can’t get better. No music fan reacts like that. Football supporters do. For an hour this Liverpool game was a tortuous, painful, bleak & embarrassing nightmare for Chelsea fans. Less than an hour later it was Liverpool fans left with the feeling that someone had just nailed their todgers to a collective block of wood. Both sets of supporters enjoyed the extreme discomfiture of the other as events unravelled. Sadomasochism was alive & well at Stamford Bridge on this chilly January day. However it was blue joy that was unconfined as we spilled out of the Stamford Bridge forecourt to the exits, gliding across fresh layers of black ice now forming on the pavement, courtesy of countless recently deposited Liverpudlian tears.
My physical & emotional responses to this match, from several hours before kick off until the end of the day, can broadly be broken down as follows:-
- Twitchy apprehension
- Increasing tension & nervousness
- A growing sense of impending doom
- Despondency as this pessimism increasingly seems to be justified
- Fear of abject humiliation.
- Laughter in the face of adversity & opposition scorn
- Forlorn clinging to any remaining shreds of hope
- Cautiously embracing a heartening & unexpected lifeline
- Simultaneous relief & delight
- Hyterical ecstasy
Euphoria after a football match ends usually subsides to be replaced by the need for sleep within hours. This time it survived through the rest of the day & for several days after. Roll the rollercoaster video.
After 27 years of much suffering I was attuned to my careworn brand of masochism, but the sadistic glee I took from seeing Liverpool fans squirm was a little surprising. Usually I responded to glorious victory by saying little or nothing to followers of the vanquished opposition, remembering how irksome their crowing had been to me on the more usual occasions that the boot had been on the other foot. Not reacting in kind threw them, giving me a moral high ground (possibly illusory) on top of the other spoils of victory, a sort of kind to be cruel tactic. Outwardly I maintained this even on this occasion but inwardly there was an additional glow. Liverpool were different, a fanbase never slow to gloat, not attuned to much on the pitch adversity themselves. I had been scoffed at enough by Liverpool fans over the years. I had earned that additional inner, glow, tinged with sadism as it was.
‘It’s so so easy being a Liverpool fan isn’t it?’ said Dave to his pal Euan, observing their victorious opponents swaggering into the Birmingham night all around them as they make their way to the car for the weary trudge home. It is April 1992 & after two matches & four hours of FA Cup Semi-Final football, during which Liverpool have never once been ahead, their team Portsmouth have finally tanked miserably in the penalty shootout at the end of this goalless Villa Park replay. Euan has flown back from Australia especially for the match. Quite possibly he may have mentioned this a few times in the intervening years. For Liverpool it’s another day at the office. Another Cup Final beckons. Doubtless they are delighted to win but their ecstasy appears to be on a vastly diminished scale to Euan & Dave’s deflation. Dave was right in the purest footballing sense, but off the pitch Liverpool as a city as well as a fanbase had plenty to contend with back then, not least the club’s presence at two of three hideous ’80’s stadium disasters. What Dave cannot be expected to know is that Liverpool’s predominant position within English football, which has lasted since the early 1970’s, is about to be put on hold for at least a quarter of a century. They will still be major players but not the biggest boys in the playground. Manchester United will win the league for the first time in 26 years the season after this game, & enjoy a spectacular twenty years of similar triumphs until Sir Alex Ferguson retires in 2013. Arsenal will be their main rivals for many of the coming years, winning the Premier League without losing a game in 2004. I experience a similar sensation to Dave & Euan at a rain soaked Wembley Stadium Rail Station after Man Utd clinch the Double in 1994. Their fans regularly prove to be vainglorious, glib & smug in victory. Think scores of Terry Christian clones. Yeah, that unbearable. Arsenal fans are generally glib & smug anyway, it’s in the Gooner genes. When Chelsea’s turn arrives in the noughties the sense of entitlement escalates horribly & very, very quickly. Having had far more barren years than the aforementioned clubs you might expect Blues fans to have a bit more humility, but in truth it is pretty well concealed, especially in the first era of Jose Mourinho, always a man whose default standpoint of more talent than grace rarely strays far from the surface. I have gone into fan exile by then, happy that the club are thriving, but uncomfortable at the financial doping that both accompanies & fuels this success. Somebody refers to me as a foul weather fan at the time. Others see the timing of my exit from the Matthew Harding Upper as mere perversity.
Hindsight thus permits us to view the bumptiousness of Liverpool fans in the last quarter of the twentieth century with a little more tolerance. A little more. Numerous league titles & 4 European Cups in seven years would warp anyone’s perspective as well as blowing their mind. Contending with the recent horrors of Heysel & Hillsbrough was anything but easy, unimaginably awful in fact. On the pitch failure was usually a stranger, but beneath it all their fans were not hugely different to anyone else’s. I stood on The Kop once, in 1982, a disappointing 0-0 draw against bitter enemies Man Utd. After half an hour without a goal supporters around me started getting on the back of one of their forwards, struggling for form & goals at the time. His Name? Kenny Dalglish, quite possibly their greatest ever player. Dalglish soon returned to his brilliant best, but the speed with which terrace impatience manifested itself on the day was telling. The club’s recent renaissance under Jurgen Klopp has reminded many of us of what became unbearable all those years ago. The endless, nauseating media love & the Scouse not English, People’s Republic Of Liverpool bollocks, as if nobody else in England rejected Brexit in 2016 & a Johnson administration in 2019. This member of the electorate would doubtless be inaccurately regarded as a Chelsea Tory boy by many Merseysiders, keen to invoke negative cliches on the likes of me that they understandably resent when similarly broad & sloppy sweeps of the stereotype brush are applied to themselves. As it can be with Chelsea fans I did encounter Liverpool followers in the 1980’s through until the early ’90’s only too happy to conform to the stereotype. Dave, the emigre Scouser, who spent many a Friday afternoon & early evening in my local bemoaning that Oxford ‘wasn’t a place for a real drinking man, not like Liverpool’ while spending years living in Oxford & seemingly doing little else beyond proving that the city actually provided ample recourse for the drunken bore. Then there was the unbearable young woman I spent two days with on a course, who championed all things Liverpool & trashed all things southern constantly. It later transpired this was her first visit to the south & throughout it she never once left the site of the course, an Alan Partridge like travel tavern on the outskirts of Oxford. One late ’80’s summer night in the pub a lairy young Koppite had me pointed out as a Chelsea fan by an unhelpful & idiotic work colleague. ‘Yeah, he looks like a fuckin’ southerner’ he exclaimed, leering at me scornfully from the bar. A southern born man, living in the south, in a southern pub, looking like a southerner. Spotter’s badge Mr Einstein. Some of us wear our place of origin more lightly than others, accepting it as an accident of birth rather than something that has to define us. I must try walking into a Liverpool pub one day & trying the same routine in reverse, & doubtless could look forward to sampling some of that much vaunted superior northern friendliness in the process.
Football was an escape from an unhappy period at work throughout this 1996-7 season. Inconsistency, including too many home draws, & a 2-4 mugging by Wimbledon, failed to dampen my enthusiasm at being able to watch the likes of Lebouef, Petrescu, Vialli, Di Matteo & the recently arrived Gianfranco Zola weave their magic. I broke my leg in July during a kick about on an all weather pitch & spent the rest of the summer in a large plaster cast seemingly striving to ape the one sported by Oliver Hardy in the sublime County Hospital. Stan Laurel doesn’t bring me any hard boiled eggs & nuts but my first journey of any distance gets me to Stamford Bridge to see Roberto Di Matteo score the first home goal of the season in a mid-week game against Middlesbrough, Juninho, Ravanelli & all. Too embarrassed to use the lifts I struggle up & down the steps to & from my seat in the Matthew Harding Upper & arrive home exhausted as a result of this brainless act of bravado. When Frank Lebouef cancels out Andy ‘Judas’ Townsend’s opener for Aston Villa a few weeks later the false teeth of the man next to me fall out in the celebrations. As he scrambles haplessly around my oversized cast in search of them I fear I am about to be the unwilling recipient of an accidental act of fellatio. At least he already had his teeth out.
My 6 year old nephew Nick’s remarkably accurate depiction of my broken leg incident in July 1996. He had hitched his star to Liverpool Football Club by the time the FA Cup tie in 1997 came around, & I am reliably informed that he burst into tears as Chelsea’s remarkable second half renaissance unfurled in front of his sorrowful young eyes back home on BBC1.
This one is from my friend Andy’s son Matt (scarily now older today than I was then). Following his unwise decision to support Man Utd I had given him a few old programmes from Cup Finals & games at Old Trafford over the years. I fear ‘Sporting Hero’ may be pushing it somewhat!
Eventually returning to work I am overlooked for promotion, correctly as my rising bitterness has affected my performance & added to a growing lack of respect between myself & immediate colleagues, mutual & justified from both sides, but nothing compared to the contempt I feel for the mendacious, cowardly, & arrogant standards of management on display higher up the ladder. This is a family firm where brothers refuse to be seen in the same room as brothers. The chairman would have suited the football world to a tee. Every two or three years he makes an inappropriate high level appointment, presents them as a new messiah, swiftly tires of his new toy, or perhaps I should say tool, & then pays them a handsome lump sum to disappear prematurely into the sunset. Sound familiar? The current retail MD has had his honeymoon period & is on the verge of being deposited into an affluent wilderness. When he disapproves of something in my department he puts an angry note in the customer suggestion box rather than deign to speak to shopfloor guttersnipes like me. Staggeringly puerile. Other members of the management team kowtow to this weapon, displaying little respect for anyone else in the process, not least themselves. He is supposedly a ladies’ man, despite being an arrogant, socially inept dick looking like post-Roxy Music era Brian Eno on a spectacularly bad day. Minus the talent. ‘It’s in the eyes’ says the shop manager. I suspect it’s more in the job title & wallet but can’t comment on the eyes as the brave soldier has avoided eye contact with anyone in our department since the pathetic suggestion box fiasco. Eno does go beyond eye contact with at least one deluded female member of staff, caught in flagrante in his (doubtless deliberately) unlocked office by another member of the managerial team, a classic, cringey, paper shuffling,’I’ll Come Back Later’ No Sex Please We’re British moment. What was her name? Virginia Plain reputedly. I may have been mediocre but strangely had usually used our office to conduct book related tasks rather than turning it into a filing cabinet, paper clip & sellotape filled alternative brothel. While he is being paid an inflated salary to boost his inflated ego by inserting his inflated phallus into the lower orifices of the terminally dim, half hearted secondments are offered to me in the wake of my failed job interview. It is considered desirable to put some distance between me & the new boss in my existing department. They don’t trust me to conduct myself with enough professional decorum to assist the new incumbent on his arrival the day after the Liverpool match. They had trusted me to run the department during the massively busy Christmas period of course. Politely declining any exciting new side alleys I instead take two weeks holiday leading into the Liverpool match. I promptly go down with the flu. Happy New Year.
It is more than my traditional Eeyore fearing the worst pre-match tension that makes me fear the worst as I make my way to London on the day of the match. Liverpool are top of the league, but I am less concerned by the early season 5-1 gubbing they handed out at Anfield than our recent avenging of this defeat on New Year’s Day, courtesy of a neat, first half Roberto Di Matteo finish. A cup game shortly after a league encounter between two clubs frequently comes up with two different results. The match tickets arrive alarmingly & unusually late & are for the Matthew Harding Lower. Bill & I have largely plumped for Upper since sitting in Lower for the first game ever in the stand, a 1-0 home defeat to Everton in November 1994. Being sat there fuels my superstitious side in a bad way. On taking our seats we find we are scrunched together at the back of the stand, & a decent view of most of the pitch can only be achieved by straining the head at a slightly odd angle. Claustrophobic & uncomfortable, the discomfort is soon accentuated by the first half action. Liverpool score twice at the deserted Shed End, then under reconstruction, through Robbie Fowler & Stan Collymore. They should have scored more. A well placed Fowler heads wide, Steve McManaman shoots weakly instead of squaring the ball to Fowler for an easy tap in. McManaman also dribbles a shot mere inches past Kevin Hitchcock’s right hand post. Chelsea don’t get started. The recently out of favour Gianluca Vialli neatly evades a Liverpool defender only to balloon over the bar horribly with only David James to beat. Otherwise the best effort is a long range, right foot drive by Scott Minto, & when your best effort is a long range right foot drive by your left back you know you’re in trouble. Half time comes & 0-2 is, if anything, a relief. As the teams leave the field Dennis Wise overhears John Barnes say ‘ this is easy, no problem’ to Robbie Fowler. Few could have disagreed with this appraisal of events at that moment.
Scouse joy unconfined as their team leads & dominates
Half time is usually respite, sometimes a temporary life raft before an impending monsoon but at least renewed hope, however foolhardy, can be allowed to breathe & expand. Here it appears to be stifled at birth. Half times at Chelsea are dominated by the pitchside antics of Neil ‘Spy’ Barnett, a man inordinately fond of the sound of his own voice at the best of times. This is not the best of times but Neil either misreads the mood horribly or bravely invites the noisy scorn from the Liverpool fans that his fuckwitted intervention invites on this occasion. They are massed in the East Stand Lower tier, next to where Spy dispenses his traditionally smartarsed pitchside addresses. Among the usual announcements, Chelsea Pitch Owers Share purchases & the score & scorers of the youth team’s morning 6-3 win over Gillingham, he will frequently make provocative, humorous asides at the opposition fans with varying degrees of success. A former player will usually be introduced & that man today is Eric ‘Rabbit’ Parsons. It would have been ungallant to cancel this but Neil gives it the big ‘un when introducing Eric, including the fact that he was in our Championship winning team, then our ONLY Championship winning team, back in 1955 no less. Liverpool have won 18 Division 1 titles at this point. Had we known there would be no advance on this until 2020, during which Chelsea would win the league 5 times, Neil’s unveiling of dear old Eric might not have tickled Scouse funny bones as much as it did. Clearly nobody did know this, so Neil bigging up our sole title win in front of a fanbase with 17 more of the same was staggeringly ill judged. Barnett could have done the introduction in a more understated way & kept all the same information in the process, but Neil doesn’t do understated, so there is a dramatic sweep leading to Eric’s pitch entrance. ‘He’s 73 now’ he bellows & on hobbles the former winger, now on a walking stick. Cheers Spy. Scouse glee knows no bounds. In all honesty you can’t blame them but at this moment I don’t want to live this life anymore (a reminder at this point that this is my favourite Chelsea match ever!).
Barnett’s love of the spotlight has seamlessly played into opposition hands & our misery appears all but complete. Despair turns to rage for Bill as Barnett continues to crap on rather than slink away like any normal person with a semblance of humility would do after opening a 73 year old man up to quite unwarranted ridicule. I want everything to stop, the game to be cancelled, to call it quits & slink back home. The thing Bill most wants to stop is Neil Barnett. ‘What are we getting next, a fucking meat draw’ he shouts in frustrated fury as Spy’s self absorbed waffle continues unabated. I need this. Nobody else but me responds in any way or laughs. Bill is apolplectic. The combination of his rage & the absurdity of this entire interlude transfers me from a state of despair to one of helpless laughter. For the first time all afternoon I am, perversely, beginning to enjoy myself. Years later we go to a 3rd round FA Cup tie at Watford & they actually DO have a half time meat draw on the pitch. Fortunately Neil Barnett is unavailable for comment. We’ve heard quite enough from Neil by then.
Minto is replaced at half time as Ruud rolls the dice & puts Mark Hughes up alongside Vialli. Sparky is a famously rugged & spiteful physical presence & Norwegian defender Bjorn Kvarme, Liverpool’s newest signing, is about to experience a 45 minute footballing hurricane his Anfield career never really recovers from. Hughes has form against Liverpool from his glory years at Old Trafford. I can even remember a loud radio commentary reporting him scoring as I waited to board a packed post-match tube train back to Victoria at Fulham Broadway late one Wednesday evening. We cheered the goal. Cheering a Man Utd goal was rare, cheering a goal scored against Liverpool less so. Alongside Kvarme in the Liverpool defence is England’s Mark Wright, who went to school in Oxford a few hundred yards away from where I am typing this. Dominic Matteo is also in the centre of the Liverpool rearguard, with Stig Inge Bjornebye at left back & Republic of Ireland international Jason McAteer at right back. McAteer is the star of a shampoo advert for Wash & Go around this time. He is a perfectly pleasant looking man, but I am led to believe this is a prime time for handsome footballers, Davids Beckham & Ginola to the fore. In this match alone there is the aforementioned Scott Minto & Jason’s pretty boy colleagues Patrik Berger & Jamie Redknapp. You suspect the big cheese at Wash & Go settled on Jason after a flurry of rejections, but fair play to him anyway, a decent player who seems like a good lad & shares my healthy dislike of Roy Keane to this day, not least his confirmation that the eccenticities & perversity of the latter’s wildly overrated punditry are a carefully contrived & bogus construction.
Hughes arrival sparks a turnaround in fortunes so dramatic that McAteer’s shiny haired head will be spinning by the final whistle, Kvarme will already be pining for the fjords & John Barnes will be choking on his half time complacency. Five minutes after the restart Hughes chests down a Steve Clarke cross on the edge of the box, holds off the advances of Wright & Kvarme with ease, & hits a low right foot shot past James. The start of something good, a partial saving of face, or the tail tweak incurring the wrath of the beast that had all but devoured our cup hopes in the first half? It takes eight minutes for the moment in the game that swings momentum inexorably towards the first & most pleasing of these alternatives. A Chelsea move finds them on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area once again, the ball breaks untidily & Hughes emphatically overcomes John Barnes in working the ball back to Zola using what looks like a full, menacing set of studs in the process. The stunning, powerful left foot drive that follows dips & swerves as it passes the helpless James & roars into the top left hand corner of the net. 2-2! Bedlam!! I don’t buy into the big happy football family fan myth. Frequently I feel alone in the crowd at Chelsea, adrift from the general mood & linked only by an entirely illogical affinity for the same 11 men out on the pitch, who equally I share little else in common with. The beauty of moments like the Zola equalizer is that all that melancholy introspection evaporates, at that moment you really are one. Everyone, regardless of race, gender, political persuasion or relative wealth, is consumed by it. The Hughes goal brought hope & kept the tie alive. Zola’s gem is on another level. Gianfranco has only been in the country for 2 months but had already cemented himself in every Chelsea fan’s affections. The man was a delight & already had his own song, the first (& best) of several over his 7 year stint at Stamford Bridge, an amendment of an old Ray Davies classic. Zola. La la la la Zola.
Tight lips & folded arms abound as half time Liverpudlian smugness evaporates in the London mist
Liverpool are stunned. I don’t know it at the time but they have not surrendered a two goal lead in nigh on 33 years, when Blackburrn Rovers beat them 3-2 at Ewood Park in August 1964. The atmosphere is now electric in all areas bar the lower tier of the East Stand. From the depths of despair less than 10 minutes before hope now springs eternal. Perversely the joy is more intense for the suffering endured in the previous hour. Like losing your wallet & after a sweat drenched, panicky search finding it in the last place you look, in my case traditionally entangled in the laundry basket among the grubby t-shirts & Calvin Kleins. The difference here is that you are with more than 20,000 people reacting with similar joy & relief.
The cramped seating & crooked neck are irrelevant now. All 6 goals are scored at the other end of the ground, populated only by advertising hoarding obscuring the rubble where The Shed had once stood. I don’t have the greatest view but it’s good enough to witness all the vital action. The West Stand to my right, itself to be replaced & demolished at the end of this season, is rocking. Even the staider areas of the East Stand, the middle & upper tiers, the posh seats, seem to have been taken over by the growing hysteria. Five minutes after Zola’s goal Chelsea take the lead, a clever slide rule pass from Dan Petrescu wrongfooting the Liverpool defence & putting in Vialli for a one on one with David James. Luca wins, flicking the ball past James with the outside of his right foot, & all around is now gleeful chaos, save for the now static, stunned, punch drunk away following. Their numbness is clear, so swift & unfathomable has been the change in fortunes for their team, so masterful a mere half an hour earlier. Like we care. The wallet has not only been retrieved intact but closer inspection now reveals that the 1967 incarnation of Brigitte Bardot has slipped her phone number into one of its inner pockets on the back of a Gauloises fag packet. These days Luca’s goal would be put on hold pending a monstrous, life sapping VAR offside check, starving the moment of it breathless, urgent, electric flow. During the home game against Derby the previous week Dennis Wise had celebrated his goal by running up to Vialli on the subs bench & ripping off his shirt to reveal a t-shirt bearing the amatuerish but heartfelt marker pen message Cheer up Luca we love you. The love was all around him now. The deft movement to elude the opposition defence was peak Vialli, a perfect foil to Hughes. His blunderbuss strike partner has instilled the traditional fear & loathing in his opponents which has paved the way for this devastating turnaround.
Man up & face the camera ponytail
Face the camera ponytail! The rest of us regularly get to feel like this.
Logic should ensure a sense of sobriety at this point, foreboding at what this Liverpool team can conjure up. They pile on the pressure at times during the rest of the match, & Kevin Hitchcock’s goal survives a few scares. However, football at both its best & worst frequently shows contempt for logic & I would guess very few people at this match deflected from this doomy old twat’s instincts that this was now Chelsea’s day. A team that had looked like piling up a cricket score in the first half could probably have stayed on the pitch until the following day & not scored again now. It has been decreed, God only knows by who. James makes a fine save from a long range Di Matteo shot but the next goal, 12 minutes after the last, also goes to Chelsea. From wide on the right Zola floats a lovely inswinging free kick across the Liverpool goalmouth. Vialli meets it & powers a header into the net, virtually unchallenged by a defence that would probably have cleared the ball without blinking in the first half. Vialli’s second goal heralds the sudden arrival of 25,000 people into football heaven, 25,000 people who less than half an hour ago had foreseen a forthcoming week wearing ear plugs & averting the eye of every rival fan on the planet. For the first time in 33 years Liverpool have blown a 2 goal lead & they know it. Hands clasped despairingly to the sides of the head is their template in the aftermath of this goal, on & off the pitch. One exception is Mark Wright, one hand on each hip as he stands forlornly, staring into space, looking for all the world like a man who has just had his balls sandpapered red raw. The game is up. And over. I doubt that Rabbit Parsons was ever familiar with the ode to S&M that is the Velvet Underground’s masterly Venus In Furs. It’s a shame, because in an ideal world Eric would now have applied fresh dubbin to his 1955 shiny shiny boots of leather, thrown his walking stick into the Liverpool end & made a late, glorious comeback, rolling back the years & leaving the dandruff free head of Jason McAteer for dead with a pinpoint cross onto Viall’s gleaming head for the Italian’s hat trick. I suppose you can’t have everything.
Nice to see Lily Savage putting in an appearance
Dry your eyes la
Chelsea went on to win the FA Cup & break their 26 year trophy drought, a mere fortnight after 18 years Of Tory rule had been ended with a landslide Labour election victory on May 3rd. Less than 3 weeks after the big day at Wembley I watched England bowl out Australia for 118 on the first day of the Ashes series at Edbaston. England won the Test handsomely. Things were going swimmingly but Australia soon hit back & won the series comfortably in the end. My penchant for repeatedly backing the winning team had only lasted a month or so but it was great while it lasted. Liverpool finished 4th in the Premier League. The League Cup in 1995 would be their last silverware of the millenium. I am not sure this was ultimately such a terrible thing, not for their followers & certainly not for the rest of us. Taking success for granted may have been an inevitable consequence of their most golden of years but this was a fanbase so unused to failure that recalibration through an enhanced sense of perspective was long overdue. Unlike those poor birds, the Grey Landes goose & the Barbary and Mulard ducks, hideously force fed corn and fat through a tube to unnaturally enlarge their liver so that gluttenous fools can eat foie gras, the liver of the liver bird had been engorged via a similarly ceaseless diet of glory & silverware. In 1997 I craved a taste of success, not an endless stream. Had I been offered a Faustian pact at the final whistle of this magnificent match, whereby Chelsea would win the 1997 FA Cup & nothing else again in my lifetime, I would probably have taken it. Had it been offered at half time, at 2-0 down, with only Neil Barnett’s ego, Eric Parson’s walking stick & Liverpool laughter for company, I would have bitten the devil’s hand off. As it was I enjoyed more triumphs at home & abroad before I stopped going in 2004 & walking away then ensured I never got the advanced sense of entitlement, & eventually ennui, that afflicted some Chelsea fans when the ruthless, relentless pursuit of glory began in earnest during the Mourinho years. As for Liverpool, they had to wait 30 years for a league title, but still managed to accumulate trophies in a manner that remained the envy of many. There was a domestic & European treble in 2001 & the small matter of two more Champions League victories, one achieved from a half time position of three goals down against AC Milan in 2005. Liverpool are a great team again now. Humility still appears to have often eluded them in the meantime, but pulling their trousers down in 1997 is still a thrill that lingers, & offered a sharp reminder to their supporters of the realities of fandom that came with the territory for most of us during those 25 years that they imperiously strutted through the football grounds of Britain & Europe. For Chelsea this was one of a handful of games that were giant steps across the bridge between the old days & the Chelsea of today, a half great team, in a half finished stadium, offering a glimpse of the potential this club had. Standing on that bridge was an enormous thrill even if I failed to make it all the way across to the other side. Would I swap the memories of this match for a seat at Bolton in 2005 or Munich in 2012? Scoff if you like but I think the answer is no. We all have our time & this was mine. I’m back watching Chelsea now anyway, happy that merely spending money doesn’t even guarantee a place in the top 4 these days, let alone a league title, though only too aware that the finances of football remain horribly skewered in favour of the big teams.
Returning to a job after two weeks off is usually difficult, not least when your work colleagues & managers have thumbed their collective noses at your abilities & made it clear your presence is no longer welcome. No matter. I floated into work the following day. The first thing my new boss did after shaking my hand was congratulate me on the epic events of the previous day. Adam was a Geordie & consequently a fan of the Toon. No distance between us was required after all. He only stayed a year or so, but we worked well together & I can’t remember a single cross word being exchanged between us during this time, though his partner objected to my polishing off a full bag of chocolate footballs she had left in our office for him prior to luring him away for an extremely long coffee break. Like Sparky, Gianfranco & Luca I saw the chance & took it. No big deal anyway, there was never a chance that the sandpaper & ball weights would come out.