Question: what’s one of the most significant Chelsea matches of the last 20 years? Beating Bayern Munich last May? Winning the FA Cup in 1997 to end the trophy draught? Securing Champions League football in 2003 on the final day of the season before a certain Russian billionaire stepped in to take over the club? Yes – sort of. Why? Let me expand. By those of us who have followed Chelsea there have been more highs than lows in the last 20 years than we could’ve imagined but one of the most significant matches we’ve played in that time is against Sheffield Wednesday, on 9 February 1994, in an FA Cup fourth round replay at Hillsborough.
Chelsea were ‘enjoying’ Glenn Hoddle’s first season – with the arrival of a manager known to want to play attractive, creative football, there was a sense around Stamford Bridge that with his high profile, the club would start to move forward following the largely disappointing time under Ian Porterfield. At first there had been encouraging wins against Manchester United and Liverpool with some of the football played not seen since the 70s heyday. Yet as ever with Chelsea, the team started to lose its way with a group of technically limited players being asked to do too much by Hoddle. A disastrous run of defeats just before Christmas 1993 saw the team second from bottom of the league, without a win in ages, barely scoring and hardly able to keep them out. Despite halting the decline against Newcastle and Swindon over Christmas, a 0-0 draw against bottom of the football league Barnet in the Cup (in theory at Barnet but played at Chelsea because Underhill was deemed too small – the replay being won 4-0) hardly set the pulse racing. Even more so as in the fourth round, Chelsea only drew 1-1 at home against Sheffield Wednesday, a team who at the time proved something of a bogey side for Chelsea teams in the early 90s.
Hillborough on a dark February night was hardly the place this Chelsea side was going to fashion a result, especially as they’d won once away from home all season in the league. Yet Chelsea went 1-0 up early on courtesy of John Spencer and by and large, seemed in control. Wednesday equalised, taking the match to extra time. Chelsea went 2-1 up with Craig Burley scoring in front of the Chelsea fans, before Gavin Peacock secured the game towards the end, making it 3-1. A difficult tie, safely (and truth be told unexpectedly) negotiated.
So why is this one of Chelsea’s most significant results of the last 20 years? OK – it didn’t immediately secure the future of the club or the team, it didn’t lead to any silverware and it didn’t do anything to secure Chelsea’s position in only the second season of the Premier League (Chelsea lost the Saturday before the replay to Everton and then lost the following Saturday at Boundary Park against Oldham). But – it did finally show that they could, when it was needed, sometimes, pull a result out of the bag. The win gave them the impetus in the FA Cup that took them to their first final for 24 years, beating Oxford and Wolves next, before the semi-final where Luton (with Kerry Dixon) lost to two Gavin Peacock goals. The final against double chasing Manchester United was oddly incidental (OK – it didn’t feel like that at the time – it felt like the worst feeling ever – but you get the point). For an entire generation of fans brought up on stories of Osgood and Cooke, actually reaching a final after near misses in the League Cup, with only the odd half decent FA Cup run every 10 or so years, felt like an achievement. With United winning the Premier League title, it brought European football to Chelsea for the first time in over 20 years – making their way to the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. It wasn’t the most gifted Chelsea side, it certainly wasn’t the most successful by any stretch; under Hoddle they never finished higher than 11th and the team remained inconsistent and defensively suspect on occasion, lacking real quality in key areas of the pitch. Yet the Sheffield Wednesday win, unexpected as it was, showed they did have something about them and they could bring home a result when really needed (this was witnessed the following year in Vienna and at home to Bruges in the Cup Winners’ Cup).
I’m not saying that one dark and cold night in South Yorkshire changed everything about the club that we see today but had they lost that night, they wouldn’t have secured European football, Hoddle’s job might have been on the line (there were moments especially on the back of losing six games in a row in the league where it was touch and go), they wouldn’t have raised their profile via playing in the Cup Winners’ Cup and I doubt Rudd Gullit would’ve been that keen to sign for them without Hoddle as coach – and we all know how that ended up!