The Harder They Come, The Harder They Fall
It is difficult to credit now, but there was a time when Chelsea winning the FA Cup was deemed so unlikely, it provided the comic material for a popular song written circa 1933. “On the Day That Chelsea Went and Won the Cup” (sung by Norman Long) describes ever more unlikely scenarios coming true purely because the world has been stood on its head by Chelsea winning the FA Cup. The fact that Chelsea were a team who’d spent most of their life in the top division and should have been well capable of winning such an important trophy only made the song more pointed.
And indeed it took 65 years from the club’s inception for the trophy to spend a night in the Chelsea silverware cabinet. Then, having whetted their fans’ appetite for the iconic trophy it was another painful 27 year wait before the club had to take the lid off the silver polish tin for any serious purpose in 1997.
In the ensuing 15 seasons, Chelsea Football Club have been down to the tailors for a mass suit fitting and on the phone to the coach firm for a May trip to Wembley on five more occasions. Each time there’s been an extra bit of luggage in the boot on the way back. The only failure was not at Wembley, but in Cardiff in 2002.
As if this wasn’t enough, of those five successes, four have come in the last six years.
When they won the “Cup” in 1970, it was one of a handful of not only major sporting occasions but national events around which the country coalesced. It was a truly significant date in the calendar and there were key items in the buildup to the day and the game, which had grown into a tradition, had become the accepted custom and practice, even if some were more recent than others. So making a “Cup” record, various TV “Cup Specials” on the Saturday morning, the interviews with players’ wives and girlfriends, the team coaches leaving for the stadium being some that I remember. This all culminated with the community singing including Abide With Me. Followed by the teams taking the long walk from the tunnel.
Standing in Wembley at 5.00pm in the afternoon, the Final yet to start, the league season not yet over, a large portion of the crowd seated and unmoved by the singing of the old hymn, it was instructive of how much of a sideshow the FA Cup has now become, simply a vehicle for television and corporate sponsorship. It is not the central, communal experience it once was and the Football Association constantly fail to match intention with practice as they regularly undermine the competition while at the same time trying to find somewhere to anchor it in an ever faster changing sports and entertainment landscape.
If you listened to my destruction of that signature hymn on the recent podcast you may be surprised to know that I do attach a real importance to the singing of Abide With Me. It is of course just a sentimental response on one level but in some ways, while the stadium, the players, how we watch the game all change to some extent, it does provide a link back to all those fans who have stood or sat and watched a Final in the years before. Is it not just one relatively uncontroversial way of recognising a continuity of experience, of acknowledging the unique traditions of the Cup at a time when many of them have disappeared?
(And in case you think these are the bitter ramblings of an old fan exaggerating the past to the detriment of the present, here is a gem from the Sports Illustrated archive about the 1970 Cup Final, written just after the drawn game at Wembley and before the replay, where the US journalist describes it as the equivalent to their “Super Bowl”. You couldn’t in all honesty say that now could you? I urge you to read it anyway as a superb evocation of a particular time in Chelsea’s history.)
But as the hands of the clock crept towards 7.00pm, the importance of holding onto a one goal lead in the face of a Liverpool onslaught proved that for me, my fellow fans, and Chelsea as a football team, the FA Cup still stirs great passions. And in the end, if the fans and the players treat the competition as worthwhile, the essential drama, myth and history will still have some meaning no matter how demeaned the occasion becomes.
What brought thousands of individuals to those tortured moments at close to seven in the evening? Or as David Byrne famously sang, “Well how did I get here?”
A calm, controlled hour of football had seen Chelsea secure a two goal lead, which despite ITV’s best efforts to pretend otherwise by some spectacularly creative editing for their highlights package, was fully deserved. It wasn’t necessarily outstanding, but just as against Spurs, they had started confidently and when after 11 minutes Mata got away from Spearing who had been loose in possession and guided the ball out to Ramires on the right, the Brazilian continued his great form by driving for the box, thus ensuring Enrique was kept off balance and bypassed while he went on to put the ball in off a bemused and wrong-footed Reina inside his near post. The inestimable Sid Celery on Twitter says it was the first goal by a Brazilian in an FA Cup Final.
Liverpool who were lightweight in midfield and seemed overawed by the occasion did create a couple of chances, one of which required a smart block from Ivanovic, but there was no sustained pressure and Chelsea controlled large periods of the game without significantly threatening to extend the lead. So subdued was the game that it seemed like half an hour before Mr Dowd had to blow for a foul. And yet even in these calm and untroubled waters, the singular Mr Dowd managed to book Mikel for his first challenge, having let Gerrard get away with scything down Mata earlier in the game.
The second half yielded another goal seven minutes in, with some smart build up play from Mikel and Lampard, which in truth amounted to no more than a few intelligent well hit passes that proved enough to cut Liverpool apart. The ball was worked to Drogba on the left side of the area. The covering defender and most of the stadium waited for him to work it back onto his right, so he simply hit it early with his left and buried it in the corner. Another record. Four goals in four Finals.
The next five minutes yielded a couple of more chances, one in particular for Kalou and it looked as though Chelsea could turn it into a rout.
It had been and continued to look like a very one-sided affair. If you’ve only seen the ITV highlights you really have to trust me on this. They really did abandon any attempt to treat the footage as reportage and seem to have re-cut the game into a form of “Barcelona-Chelsea”-lite.
The hapless Spearing had been substituted after the goal to be replaced by Andy Carroll. So Liverpool now had two front men, the other being the relatively anonymous Suarez, flanked by Downing and Bellamy, with Gerrard in a more central role. The ensuing 10 minutes had not suggested this was going to change the pattern of the game over much. But then in the 64th minute Bosingwa dented a decent performance by delaying a straightforward clearance which became an unfortunate ricochet into the area, where Carroll was able to make enough room to fire the ball into the roof of the net.
This was the signal for Liverpool to start pressing and for Chelsea to start sitting deep and gradually lose more and more composure. With two Liverpool forwards up on the back four and the wide men pushing on, Chelsea ceded possession too cheaply by resorting to long ball clearances. Thus began an agonising 25 minutes. I kept expecting Chelsea to re-assert some control, but I waited in vain. The next goal was going to decide the game. And it seemed more and more that Liverpool would get it. And if they did, well I for one felt they’d probably get another, or worse win on penalties.
Then with eight minutes to go I experienced that well known sensation wherein your internal organs spread out while your muscular-skeletal arrangement remains much the same. So my heart was in my mouth, my bowels in my boots, my stomach half way out my rectum and a popped kidney bounced down Wembley Way.
Suarez had put a diagonal chip right to left across the area and Carroll rose on the six yard box to head it into the net… except it didn’t quite get there. Petr Cech in one of the greatest goalkeeping saves of this or just about any era had got across to claw the ball onto the bar from where it bounced away. The linesman kept his flag down. Dowd, shorn of penalty opportunities to award to the Reds, must have twitched involuntarily but had to wave play on.
Cue mental impersonations of shouty late period Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday, “You find out life’s a game of inches and so’s football.”
I collected my lights, my thoughts, my shredded composure, took a deep breath and returned to the mental foetal position in which I had been for 15 minutes.
Oh my, time seemed to stretch away. They kept coming and Chelsea kept resisting. Carroll and his goal had really given Liverpool belief and purpose.
Meireles came on for Ramires after 77 minutes but nothing really changed. Somewhere in there Kalou had a breakout run that promised something but he was surrounded and lost possession. Then the board went up with five minutes of added time.
Malouda replaced Mata and gradually the heat went out of it all. It might have been a cameo but Malouda seemed to help bring a little composure to the desperation. They strung a few passes together and then it was over.
Deep, deep joy. John Terry became the first captain to lift the trophy four times for the same club. Ashley Cole has won the cup seven times. That’s more than nearly every other club in the league.
Why did the game change so radically? I couldn’t tell you. I do know that it would have been condemned as a dull and desperate affair had it not lit up just after the hour. And looking back I suppose that will make it all the more memorable. The goal that never was, only adds to the myth. But I can’t say I enjoyed that last half an hour. It was only later that I realised just how disciplined Chelsea had been in not giving Mr Dowd the sniff of a chance at signalling one of his trade mark “penalties”.
Seven FA Cups. I treasure every one. Every one has its own special story, a particular circumstance. This vintage, like the win against Everton under Hiddink has been born out of a season that seemed doomed by early strife and disappointment. The difference, though, is that while Hiddink comfortably secured Champion’s League participation via the league, but failed to better Barcelona (and a referee) in a semi-final, Roberto Di Matteo’s team is doing it the other way around.
Here they are the heroes. Seven Cups means ratings have to be based on the Seven Wonders of the World be they Ancient, Modern, Medieval, Natural, Industrial or whatever.
- Petr Cech – The Great Wall of China. Keeps everything out.
- Ashley Cole – The First Transcontinental Railroad. Another great end to end display.
- Branislav Ivanovic – Hoover Dam. Unbreakable. (Also keeps back the waters when attacked by Geoff Shreeves.)
- Jose Bosingwa – Leaning Tower of Pisa. Always looks on the point of collapse, but I love him.
- John Terry – The Great Pyramid (he’s a such a Giza).
- Frank Lampard – The Statue of Zeus at Olympia. May not be a god, but looks like one these days.
- Ramires – Harbor of Rio De Janeiro. Well he’s our Brazilian wonder.
- John Obi Mikel – The Colossus of Rhodes. Enough said.
- Juan Mata – The Lighthouse of Alexandria. A shining light.
- Salomon Kalou – The Panama Canal. He divides continents.
- Didier Drogba – Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. He knows a thing or two about how to bury ’em.
- Raul Meireles – Mount Everest. It’s all about the mystery of that summit.
- Florent Malouda – Aurora. We’ve seen the sparkling lights just not so much these days.
- Roberto Di Matteo – The Grand Canyon. We can only wonder about the depth.
Like ITV I have had to leave much on the cutting room floor. Here are a few out-takes:
– In the pre-match refreshment period, all the chatter was about Munich and not the upcoming game. A subconscious wish to avoid all the visceral nastiness that we felt was coming our way perhaps?
– The booing of the national anthem. A strange one this. Growing republicanism? The singularity of the Liverpool fan? Is it about Liverpool the place or the club. Do Everton fans feel the same? Is it a demonstration of how fractured the country is becoming? After all it’s a pledging of allegiance to the House of Windsor and so may ignite the debate about an anthem more suitable for a citizen and their love for a place, an ideal, than a mere subject.
– Talking of citizenship, I always thought one had the right to proceed unmolested unless there was reasonable suspicion you were about to be or were engaged in, nefarious doings. It’s difficult to see how you are now anything more than the means by which the concept of public safety is now monetised for the benefit of the security industry.
– On reaching the inner sanctum of the stadium, I watched as an old man was body searched and a couple of dads with their young children were forced to empty soft drinks bottles into plastic beakers. Then later I heard from friends how some opposition “fans” were able to spend the best part of 20 minutes spitting on Chelsea fans below before they were ejected.
It’s difficult not to feel that all the efforts are directed at making fans feel that they are the potential and unwelcome problem. Any amount of unlikely scenarios are dreamed up to allow us all to be subject to rigorous surveillance and interference with the person. Yet when a few thugs start spitting on people the whole shebang is helpless for 20 minutes.
At Spurs earlier this year nothing was done about the flare that went off amongst us or the plain and obvious fact that there were more fans than seats. But at the end when people started climbing over a low barrier to get to an alternative exit, the full force of the security apparatus got fully exercised at a few harmless individuals trying to leave the ground that bit quicker.
– On a positive note I was impressed with how quickly (relatively) we were able to leave the stadium and get a tube train after the post-match celebrations getting down to Fulham Broadway by 9pm for further refreshment.
So the ink dries on another finely written page in the club annals. There is now no other team in the modern era with who the FA Cup can be identified more strongly. That is some change since the pre-war days of Norman Long.
We pack up our tent, leave Wembley behind for another season. The caravan is on its way to Munich via short stop-overs at Anfield and Stamford Bridge. Spirits are high. Chelsea have secured their place in football history yet again. That, as they say in the modern transatlantic argot of the day, is how we roll.
The press reports
The Independent on Sunday, Steve Tongue: “Liverpool, officially the away team here yesterday, produced their wretched Anfield home form for too long before rallying to make a real contest of the FA Cup final. Chelsea, looking worthy winners for an hour or so, ended up hanging on and hugely relieved that Andy Carroll’s late header was ruled not to have crossed the line. Two teams who had scored 35 goals between them in reaching Wembley managed only one in a dull first half, from Ramires, before the encounter came to life. Didier Drogba became the first player to score in four finals but Carroll, sent on as a substitute, brought Liverpool into contention by halving the lead and almost equalising.”
The Observer, Paul Wilson: “Chelsea survived a Liverpool fightback to lift the FA Cup for the third time in four years, Andy Carroll’s excellent second-half goal setting up a close finish but not quite saving the game. The Liverpool centre-forward thought he had done exactly that with a powerful header from Luis Suárez’s cross eight minutes from time that Petr Cech appeared to claw back from across the line, but though the Liverpool bench celebrated prematurely in the manner of Fabio Capello in Bloemfontein, referee Phil Dowd let play continue, correctly as it turned out, since the immediately available replays did not establish that the ball had gone in.”
The Sunday Telegraph, Duncan White: “In the semi-finals Chelsea had been credited with a goal that did not cross the line, in the final it looked like they had been spared one that had. Chelsea were relieved. They had dominated this game for over an hour and then nearly thrown it away as Liverpool belatedly awakened. Ramires had punished Liverpool’s early mistakes and then Didier Drogba had scored his eighth Wembley goal, becoming the first player to score in four different FA Cup finals. Roberto di Matteo made history in becoming the last player to score in the FA Cup at the old Wembley; Drogba tightened his grip on the new.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “The Blues secured our third FA Cup in the space of four years with a 2-1 victory over Liverpool at Wembley in a game which we dominated for large spells, only to find ourselves hanging on at the death.”