Since reading this post by Rob Smyth in the Guardian, I’ve been thinking about some really depressing Chelsea matches I’ve witnessed. Because, why not? So here they are wrist-slashing reverse order.
6 First Divison play-off, 1988: Chelsea 1 Middlesbrough 0
The only Chelsea game that has made me cry. We were playing Second Division Middlesbrough for the right to play First Division football in 1988-89 (despite having been second in October) and were 2-0 down from the first leg. Gordon Durie gave us an early lead, but we lost on aggregate and the crowd rioted, as was the fashion at the time. The play-off system was changed shortly afterwards and Chelsea therefore became the only team to ever get relegated from the top flight through the play-offs, an honour we can place alongside being the first team to refuse to play in the European Cup and the first team to be created purely as a commercial means to fill an empty ground. It’s all history, you know.
5 Premier League, 1996: Coventry 1 Chelsea 0
A meaningless game, but typical pre-(and post-) Mourinho Chelsea. The week before we had tortured Middlesbrough 5-0 with a staggering performance of perpetual motion and effortless beauty, inspired by the man-god Ruud Gullit. Thousands of Chelsea fans made the trip to Cov for what we imagined would be a repeat performance from a vibrant, thrilling, all-conquering Chelsea. We flopped. Gullit made one sublime pass to Paul Furlong, who fell over. Same old Chelsea.
4 Champions League semi-final, 2009: Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1
Because it stank but also because we outplayed the best team in Europe with a performance that for many reasons will never be fully appreciated for its brilliance and intelligence. Only placed this low to reflect the contempt with which one should regard the rich man’s roulette that is the vile, venal, corrupt and corrupting Champions League.
3 Premier league, 1997: Chelsea 2 Arsenal 3
No, not the Kanu game. By then I was used to seeing Chelsea capsize against Arsenal, and in many ways it was an honour to witness such an extraordinary individual performance. Four times I’ve seen Chelsea take a 2-0 lead against Arsenal but not win the game; four times I’ve seen their full-backs belt last-minute howitzers past our hapless keepers. These memories of dominance and submission can never be erased. This game was a cracker and we looked like we were hanging on for a deserved point when Nigel Winterburn let rip in the 89th minute and scored the best goal of his life. It hurt. I mean, at least Kanu was a great player.
2 League Cup semi-final 2002: Spurs 5 Chelsea 1
It was once said that the only predictable thing about Chelsea was their unpredictability; later this was changed to the only predictable thing about Chelsea is that they will beat Spurs. Before this game, we hadn’t lost to Tottenham since 1990 when Lineker scored a last-minute winner at the Bridge. Since then we’d beaten them by every score from 6-1 to 1-0, and before this semi-final second leg were 2-1 up from the first leg. At White Hart Lane, we were smashed, humiliated, gutted, hung out to dry. The only redeeming features were that Spurs still managed to lose the final and later that season we went on to beat them 4-0, twice, in the same week that I, erm, got together with the delightful Ms GreatWen. Karma.
1 FA Cup quarter-final: Sunderland 2 Chelsea 1
This is the game that festers in the darkest place of my soul. It is the one moment when I considered renouncing my club and football in the conviction that I had been duped into backing a complete stinker, a club that would never come close to winning a trophy in my lifetime. This game is the reason that even now when I consider a potential cup draw, I always wish for the game that will hurt least to lose, rather than the one that will be most enjoyable to win. As a Chelsea fan, I live in constant fear because of games like this.
This was one of those seasons when all the good teams except a so-so Liverpool had been knocked out the cup. Chelsea were drawn against Second Division Sunderland and, stupidly, we felt we had a good chance of getting to the final, or at least the semis, for the first time since 1970.
In the first leg in London, we took the lead but tension mounted. At Chelsea in those days the crowd’s terror was so intense that they would actually turn off the scoreboard with ten minutes to go so nobody knew when the final whistle was coming. Imagine that!
On this occasion, it didn’t matter whether the scoreboard was on or off; everybody was terrified. Sunderland won a free kick, the Shed shat themselves, so did the players, the ball was knocked long, bounced around a bit and John Byrne scored. Replay.
But we could still do it. We went up to Sunderland and battered them, hit the bar, hit the post, their keeper stopped everything and they scored. Despair! Worse was to come. Dennis Wise equalised with five minutes to go. Hope! Then Sunderland won a last-minute corner in front of a delirious away end and a forgettable centre-back in red-and-white stripes hammered home an unstoppable header from about 300 yards out.
Watch this video and you can just hear in the background, somewhere in Sutton in fact, a small boy’s heart breaking in two.
That was it. The best chance Chelsea had of reaching a semi in my lifetime, and they’d blown it. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United fans won’t get it, but every other football fan in the country knows what I mean when I say that in this exact moment, I was convinced I would never see Chelsea win a sausage. Not een half a sausage. Not the discarded package that the sausages came in.
And the memory of this match has never left me. It made the demon-blitzing FA Cup win in 1997 so exhilarating, but it’s still there, trapped in my heart, my throat, my guts, waiting to get me every time I’m considering taking any kind of success for granted.
And I think it’s the reason why Chelsea will never be a big club, at least not as long as my generation, who witnessed this sort of hope-decimating match with mundane regularity, goes to games.
We know how easy it is to fail, what disappointment really tastes like, how fruitless hope is, and we are terrified that we are just a couple of poor signings away from a return to the days of Andy Myers, Ian Porterfield and Gareth Hall. You can smell it in the crowd at the Bridge when Chelsea go 1-0 down against a crap team, or are leading 1-0 with minutes to go, or are taking part in a penalty shoot-out. Big clubs don’t have this fear, it’s not in their genes, but it’s very much a part of my Chelsea and I wouldn’t change it for the world.