May 17th, 1997 - It's been 27 years since Chelsea won a major trophy, and this is as good a chance as any. Already relegated Middlesbrough had navigated an almost trivial draw to reach the finals as Chelsea's opponents, while every team that finished above the Blues in the league had been knocked out by the fourth round. This was time.
Or was it? Chelsea fans had, by this point, been so used to failure that they expected it. Even against Middlesbrough. The memories of the thrashing Manchester United handed out at Wembley three years prior still stung. The Blues were, and presumably always would be, experts in raising our hopes only to dash them.
And then they didn't. A certain Roberto di Matteo scored one of the most iconic goals in the club's history just 42 seconds into the match, driving forward from midfield before unleashing a piledriver of a shot that neither Ben Roberts nor his crossbar could keep out. Two Middlesbrough players were forced off before half an hour had passed. A Gianluca Festa goal was ruled out for offside. And then, 83 minutes in, Eddie Newton steered in an acrobatic cutback from Gianfranco Zola to put the match beyond doubt.
If you're relatively new to the club the idea of being so happy after a mere FA Cup will seem slightly odd. Quaint, even. Chelsea's successes in the past fifteen years have meant that it's now easy to see everything but a Premier League win (we've got three of those now) and a Champions League win (still waiting) as something of a sideshow.
While, obviously, y'all can hold whatever views you want, it's really not fair to the previous generations of Chelsea players and fans. We are where we are because the likes of Frank Leboeuf, Dan Petrescu and Dennis Wise gave us the foundations of a winning club. Once the FA Cup was secured, the rest came much easier - the club has seen eleven major trophies since - but it needed winning before the Blues could move forward.
In many ways, the di Matteo-powered win fifteen years ago was the birth of modern Chelsea. John Terry, Frank Lampard and company haven't made this club by themselves. Every trophy is building off the hard work that was done prior to Roman Abramovich's takeover, work that ensured that the Blues would be an attractive purchase. What better way to honour the 1997 team than to win it again now, with the goalscorers who earned first major trophy since 1970 on the sidelines as a new generation of Chelsea talent pushes through?
For me, this is not an irrelevant competition. It's not a 'mickey mouse' cup. Some fans might think otherwise, and that's fine, but the club almost certainly do not. Chelsea and the FA Cup are bound together, like it or not.