My Favourite Match: Chelsea vs Liverpool, The 1996/97 FA Cup
We briefly started the My Favourite Match season during the summer with my own personal selection of the 1984 European Championship semi-final between France and Portugal. This morning it’s back, with Andrew Harding recalling a 4-2 win which, as a seven year-old, came to define his relationship with the London club.
When posed with the question what is my favourite game of football, there is one game that leaps to the front for reasons of intense emotion. The first game I can remember where the impending doom of a defeat and the sheer joy of jubilation were inflicted on me. I was only seven years old. Given that the game was played almost fifteen years ago, my memory is one of emotive recollection rather than imagery. The writing of this presented me with the chance to re-assess the game. At the age of seven, I’d only been interested in football sufficiently for seven months or so. I had acquired reasonable knowledge of the game and a passing interest grew thanks to the 1995-96 UEFA Champions League Final and Euro ’96. They developed my interest in the game as a whole but on an emotional level, it was a FA Cup Fourth Round tie played on a cold Saturday evening in January 1997 that elevated my liking of the game into a passionate adoration.
Earlier in the season, Liverpool had torn Chelsea to shreds at Anfield and the resulting 5-1 defeat is quite probably my least favourite game in terms of emotional impact. I was growing up in a time where the Premier League was gaining momentum in its self-absorbed drive to become the best footballing product on the planet. While everyone had an affiliation with the hometown club (Shrewsbury Town in my case), everyone also had a Premier League club who for whatever reason they’d manufactured to form an emotional link. Mine came from my mother who had a liking for Chelsea in the days of Osgood, Cooke and McCreadie (in my mum’s case, especially McCreadie). Unfortunately, I was one of a minority who didn’t support either Liverpool or Manchester United. In terms of numbers I would say the school was more balanced towards Liverpudlian red than the Mancunian equivalent. Looking back at this it was only inevitable that, aided by my dislike of popularity, I would develop a tendency to want Liverpool to falter. It was a feeling that would only intensify over time throughout my school days before maturation enveloped me later in life.
Chelsea did beat Liverpool at Stamford Bridge by the solitary goal but such a win was too close and with such a tight scoreline, it didn’t really cover the emotional scope that the 5-1 defeat did. Something was missing to even the emotive score as such. Stamford Bridge at the time was completely missing its South Stand due to construction work. This appeared to not hamper the atmosphere that engulfed the game at all. Yes, that’s right: there was atmosphere at Stamford Bridge. A real one, one full of life and noise and not just mild applause. This game didn’t just have atmosphere but despite a modest crowd of 28,000, this FA Cup tie saw the highest gate receipts at Stamford Bridge: £575,000. Yes that’s right as well: £575,000. How times have changed.
The atmosphere at Stamford Bridge gave commentators the ammunition for the cliché of the cup game and particularly a FA Cup game but this was not cliché for a seven year-old mind. This was amazing and only served to heighten the anticipation prior to kick-off. I began watching the game with my mother and father. Chelsea had started ok when with 10 minutes on the clock, Liverpool took the lead. Frank Sinclair was a defender who has often faced ridicule for his shortcomings and this was one of those as he had shouted that the ball was his and completely misjudged the flight of the ball. The ball proceeded to sail comfortably over the leaping Sinclair’s head and with Petrescu putting his faith in his teammate, he had not expected it to do so, leaving Steve McManaman free at the back post. The dog-haired playmaker hit the ball across the face of goal for a waiting Robbie Fowler to divert it into the net. No one can avoid the sinking feeling after watching your team concede but there was hope. Chelsea had been playing well up until that point. Why couldn’t they come back?
Looking at it now, Chelsea were rather naïve in their positioning particularly in the midfield where McManaman was able to dance his way around and into space. When your man ahead of your defenders is Eddie Newton, you’re always on an edge. Chelsea’s midfield was being dragged about and while they continued to dominate possession, there seemed too big a gap between the midfield and the goal David James was defending. Chelsea’s attacks were very predictable too. Set up with three central defenders and wing-backs, the Blues had opted to ignore their left-hand side almost entirely and focused all their efforts through Dan Petrescu on the right. That’s all good and well but when Petrescu moved forward which he did frequently, there was a gap behind and the man to tend to that gap was Frank Sinclair.
Both teams had started with three centre-backs and wing-backs but Liverpool appeared much more assured in midfield. Chelsea were just beginning to find their feet in midfield when Gianfranco Zola played a ball in the direction of Eddie Newton. The pass had been hit with pace and while it was behind Newton, play was expected to move forward. Newton’s movement to receive the pass was poor but his touch was worse as he prodded the ball into the path of Stan Collymore who seized the ball like a kid with a brand new favourite toy. Collymore dashed forwards and faced with Kevin Hitchcock in a one-on-one situation, slotted the ball past him into the net.
With that, my Dad left the room and would proceed to go outside into the garage. My faith too was hit for six as Liverpool appeared efficient and with such an error came a horrid sense of forthcoming disaster. I persisted with the game despite such thoughts and I’d love to know why. I can think as to why but that would be making a eulogy of my young self.
The thoughts of humiliation were further bolstered as the game progressed and if Steve McManaman had played the ball across for Fowler to tap in, it would’ve done. After finding space yet again behind Petrescu and beyond Sinclair and beating the stretching challenge of Frank Lebouef, McManaman broke clear with Fowler in support albeit with a desperate late defensive runner in the shape of Steve Clarke. McManaman looked up at Fowler on multiple occasions but opted to shoot. The effort was unbelievably tame as it rolled into the body of a grateful Kevin Hitchcock. Chelsea had escaped conceding a third thanks to their prime tormentor’s poor technique in a telling moment. It had nothing to do with Chelsea.
Chelsea appeared energised by the lucky escape but their midfield appeared even more lacking in structure with Eddie Newton appearing particularly brainless at times and he often looked as if he had no idea as to where he was meant to be. McManaman would go on to have another chance at sticking another blade into the body of Chelsea’s ambition. This chance was much more difficult than his last but this was closer as it beat Hitchcock only to go past the post and out for a goalkick.
With John Barnes controlling the tempo in midfield, Liverpool just seemed in control and afforded Chelsea plenty of the ball while content in the fact that the midfield was theirs and therefore the game. Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola continued to struggle with the severely limited support they were receiving from their teammates. The half-time whistle came and while all hope was not really extinguished, it was safe to say that the mood in my home was one of deflation. My mother and I, rather than looking at the highlights of the half and the attached analysis, opted to join my father outside.
Perhaps it was also to get some perspective of what football was in the greater scheme of life. Perhaps it was simply to distract my mind from lingering on thoughts of the teasing I’d undoubtedly receive the next schoolday. What brought such thoughts to the forefront of my young mind was the sight of two Liverpool-supporting school friends who had entered the close. I did what anyone would do and hid. They appeared to hang around for practically no time at all and were soon gone. For reasons I will never remember, I walked out to the end of the drive and noticed a scrap of paper on the floor. The note, horrendous spelling mistakes aplenty so much so that my father had to decipher it for me, was essentially a laughing rant at rubbish “koknees” and that they were proud “scossars” who would always be superior. There was not much time of the break left so soon after I was back inside for the second half. I did so alone. My mother’s faith had obviously been hampered by what occurred in the first half sufficiently enough to not to want to return.
Chelsea made a substitution at halftime. The ineffectual and frankly ignored Scott Minto did not come out for the second half and his replacement would be Mark Hughes who had surprisingly not started in the first place. This change caused a reshuffle and Chelsea changed their formation, utilising a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield and Clarke moving out to left-back with Petrescu playing a more defensive role (something Petrescu would come to ignore later on).
Chelsea were quicker. Passes were finding their men in advanced positions. Complacency hadn’t really had time to develop in Liverpool’s game as Chelsea simply moved better. Things looked positive but there was no score on the board for the Blues. Five minutes into the half and that changed.
Mark Hughes was now the centre-forward with Vialli supporting him and Zola playing in a more withdrawn role. Hughes looked eager and his goal shook the home fans into fervent life. Hughes brought down a lofted pass from Clarke with his back to goal. He took a further touch to steady the ball before swivelling on the spot and striking the ball beyond the reach of David James and into the back of the net. Liverpool’s deep defending had played into the hands of the different shape Chelsea had taken. With that goal, I ran outside briefly to tell my parents of Chelsea’s goal. Optimism had been renewed but not sufficiently enough for them to join me. Yet.
The diamond in midfield had made the passes shorter and Chelsea were able to dictate the tempo, something they’d failed to do in the first forty-five minutes. It was not long before Chelsea would equalise and send a seven-year old into a sprint mentally and physically. The ball was in front of Liverpool’s penalty box and appeared to be on the verge of being dealt with by the defence when Hughes made a stretching challenge that nicked the ball off of Barnes’ foot and into the path of Zola. The diminutive Italian took a touch to steady before rifling a left-footed shot beyond the outstretched hands of James and into the net. With delirious excitement, I took flight and ran out to my parents. The equaliser had the effect I’d hoped and they soon joined me in watching the remarkable match unfolding at Stamford Bridge. The score was 2-2. Roy Evans and his team were stunned. I was stunned. Perhaps more importantly, the “scossars” were stunned too.
Chelsea’s equaliser meant that Liverpool would have to attack and the deficiencies in their set-up against their opponents became more obvious. It would be exploited to its maximum with Chelsea’s third goal. Five minutes after their second, Gianfranco Zola took control of the ball on the left. He then played an incisive pass to Dan Petrescu who’d discovered a mass of land in the centre of the pitch where there was not a red shirt to be seen. Beyond him, Gianluca Vialli saw there was a gap and curved a run into space. Petrescu played an excellent weighted pass between the oncoming two defenders and into the path of Vialli who’d beaten off the challenge of Stig Inge Bjornebye. James had rushed out but Vialli poked the ball beyond him into the net. Replays showed James had in fact got a touch on the ball which if anything had made the ball even more goalward-bound.
Chelsea were leading. Hysterical joy sweeping through Chelsea supporters as they’d somehow come back from almost certain defeat. It would get better. There would be a cherry to go on top of this most delicious and unexpected cake of victory.
Chelsea’s midfield was nothing like that that was on display in the first half. The diamond was rotating and players appeared to know precisely what was required from them in a given moment. The rotation and movement of the players’ positioning kept Liverpool on the back foot and the pressing forced Liverpool into making errors. In particular, Roberto Di Matteo’s pressing of Barnes had caused Liverpool’s passing rhythm to disappear.
Chelsea weren’t content. Their momentum continued to build. The quicker tempo was something Liverpool appeared unable to cope with. A change had to be made and sure enough, Patrik Berger was introduced, replacing Bjornebye. In the process, Liverpool were now going to play the same shape that Chelsea were using.
There was turn to be too little time for the viewing public to see whether the change would have any impact. A free-kick from Zola was crossed into an area where there were five Liverpool defenders and three Chelsea attackers. Why Liverpool were so stationary is any one’s guess but Vialli was able to run onto the ball and header it past David James.
Now came the feeling of certain victory – a shock to the senses for anyone never mind a seven year-old child. The fourth goal would produce an image that has been seared into my memory ever since. With Chelsea players in the background celebrating Vialli’s second goal of the evening, Mark Wright stood in the foreground, hands on hips, looking in the directions of his teammates wearing a look of bemusement at what had just unfolded. Liverpool did try for the rest of the game but sufficient damage had been done to their confidence. The final whistle came. Chelsea had comeback from 0-2 down to win 4-2.
Revelling in the unexpected victory, my dad took straight to the phone and rang the family from where we expected the half-time note to have come from (there’s always been a good relationship between the families, it just happens to be they’re die-hard Liverpool supporters). The phone rang and went to their answering machine where my dad left a message that will always stay in my mind. “We’ve changed our phone number to 01743 4-2 4-2 4-2”. It was my turn to give back the teasing come the next day in school but I cannot recall that at all. Only the change of phone-number stayed with me from the aftermath of the game. Time may well have exaggerated the emotional side of things and childhood nostalgia is only something natural that powers such emotional resonance. I had only watched the game that one time prior to writing this. Now on my sixth viewing, I understand not only why it’s my favourite game but also just why I love football.