Cooke, Bonetti, Harris, Hudson, Webb, Baldwin, Dempsey, Graham and Venables. Just being in the presence of some of the names on the (very green) pitch at Stamford Bridge on Saturday to celebrate the life of Peter Osgood would be enough to leave even the calmest of men open-mouthed and stuttering, but to upstage them in a manner that Ossie himself would have been proud takes someone truly special. There may only be one king, but William Gallas now sits comfortably in amongst Stamford Bridge’s illustrious royalty.
Following a week of scrutiny, criticism and doubt, judging by the rapturous applause and renditions of Ossie’s hymn some 40,000 of us clearly needed the cathartic release that was the minute of appreciation for our legendary number 9. In the Bates era, contact with former players seemed to consist largely of insults traded in the media, so the sight of those who contributed so much to the club’s history on the pitch together was both an emotional and heartening experience. In these days of title wins, multi-million pound players and global brands, remembering a very different but equally important part of Chelsea’s past is essential; Peter Osgood’s sudden departure proved beyond doubt that we should cherish our greats whilst they are still around. Much credit is due to the late Tony Banks and the club for their efforts in rebuilding links with our former players, a process which we hope will continue.
The game itself was absorbing rather than thrilling, at least for around 92 minutes or so. Mourinho appeared to have mixed up his pre-match and half-time scripts, with the Blues putting in their customary high-tempo second half performance prior to the interval. Both Essien, back after his European ban and Wright-Phillips, hoping to cement his place in the starting lineup during Robben’s four game enforced absence both looked as impressive as their pre-Chelsea reputations and price tags suggested. They combined to open the scoring after just 13 minutes, with Wright-Phillips deftly collecting Carrick’s careless back pass and cutting back for the Ghanaian international who succeded where he had failed a few minutes earlier. Essien’s first for the Blues, 1-0 Chelsea, business as usual.
That we did not press home our first half superiority might well have been our undoing on any other day. A lapse of concentration allowed Spurs to claw their way back into the game on the stroke of half time; the increasingly assured Michael Dawson out-jumped Huth and flicked on for Jenas, previously anonymous and in some doubt as to the location of his Nokia if the Blue faithful were to be believed, who lost Gallas and pushed the ball past Cech. 1-1, and another rousing half-time talk needed by Mourinho if we were to keep the 16 year unbeaten record in the league intact.
In the second half, Martin Jol opted for caution and a “what we have, we hold” strategy with a tighter midfield which shut off a previously plentiful supply to Cole and Wright-Phillips; Essien and Lampard were denied space and time as Spurs clung doggedly to their point and the game looked to be heading for a frustrating stalemate, with further questions likely to be asked of Mourinho and the form of his men.
Chances fell to both sides and as ever, the line that separated heroes from villains in football was wafer-thin. Gallas misjudged Ledley King’s superb long ball and lost Jenas for a second time; only the England midfielder’s indecision spared the Frenchman from becoming villain of the piece. Crespo’s fluffed volley capped an afternoon to forget for him, an occurrence as rare as a Spurs victory in this fixture and Drogba will be cursing the dirt on the fingertips of Paul Robinson’s gloves which denied him the glory of the winning goal. A second league draw at the Bridge this season seemed likely, but what happened next was the stuff of the most implausible of Hollywood film scripts. Tribute to a deceased legend? Manager and team under pressure? Stunning last minute winner from an unsung hero? Don’t be daft, it never happens like that seemed to be the opinion of those foolish enough to head for the exits.
With Poll eyeing his watch, the Bridge witnessed a moment of magic that defined the emotion of Chelsea’s day and the frustrations of Spurs’ season. A tired looking Stalteri was bamboozled by Duff and Gallas; the latter stepped inside, and with some form of Obi-Wan style “Use the force Billy” instruction coming from Ossie, unleashed the kind of shot that the great man himself built a career on and one which even last season’s parked bus would have struggled to stop. Eleven players, a manager and 40,000 close friends forgot all about the nightmare in the Nou Camp and did as we do best; collected another three points from Spurs and abandoned all common sense for a few wonderful moments of complete and utter pandemonium. Absolutely fucking brilliant, I agreed with the bloke in the row behind whose seat I ended up in.
The on-pitch celebrations said more about the mood at Chelsea than the thousands of words written in the aftermath of the West Brom game and our Champions League exit. Mourinho exploded from the dugout and reached the near-possessed Gallas before he could get within 10 yards of the touchline and both quickly disappeared beneath a heap of ecstatic bodies. Both the circumstances and the unlikely source of the goal undoubtedly added to the hysteria, but anyone doubting the team spirit and the bond the players have with their manager should surely look elsewhere for cracks in the Roman empire.
For the post-match pleasantries, Mourinho kept himself clear of the limelight and left his captain and goalscoring hero to deal with the assembled army of hacks. Gallas was typically understated about his contribution, albeit that he did acknowledge that it was the best goal of his career (had a striker said the same it wouldn’t have sounded ridiculous); John Terry suggested that most on the pitch knew that the Frenchman’s strike was a goal as it left his boot. The misty-eyed romantics amongst us disagree, preferring to think that the outcome was settled long before Gallas’s foot had connected with the ball.
Much has been made about Spurs’ revival under the affable Martin Jol, and not without good reason. Their overall strength as a side, especially during a second half in which their impressive work-rate looked to have won them a point, is testament to Jol who is still in a good, if slightly faltering position to guide his team into the Champions League next season. His main concern must be their stamina and a lack of concentration over the course of 90 minutes, arguably the primary causes of their remarkably short season with late goals proving to be their undoing on several occasions.
As suggested in this column some months ago, securing Gallas on a long-term deal that keeps him at the Bridge for the rest of his career has to be the most important business of the close season; allowing him to depart for Juventus for a nominal fee would be absolutely unforgivable. His overall contribution to the side during the last five years has been immeasurable; Saturday will surely have dramatically shortened the odds on him becoming Chelsea’s Player of the Year. Makelele, Cole and Terry all have strong claims in a season where no one player has truly shone, but such a show of appreciation for Gallas might hopefully have some influence on him when it comes to deciding upon his home for the remainder of the decade.
And just to prove that events really couldn’t get any stranger, a positive note about the referee. After Mark Halsey’s glaring ineptitude at the Hawthorns and Markus Merk’s obsessive use of the whistle, all credit must go to Graham Poll who handled a potentially fiery London derby with a great deal of skill and intelligence. Top marks to the man in black.
Tottenham’s last league win against Chelsea came on February 10, 1990. The Premier League was just a stirring in the loins of Dein, Edwards and co., Nelson Mandela was contemplating his imminent release from prison, Sinead O’Connor was at the top of the charts (sobbing like a Spurs fan in the video) and Gary Lineker was an irritant on the pitch rather than in a television studio. In an ever-changing world, it is comforting and indeed essential to have constants like Billy Gallas around.
Fulham next weekend, that most local of derbies for which I shall be 3,500 miles away in New York. If anyone dares to call it soccer…