15th April, 2012, Wembley Stadium. It’s the 81st minute and a despondent man dressed in luminous orange is picking out a football from the back of a net. The man is Italian goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini and he plies his trade with Tottenham Hotspur. Beyond him, at the opposite end of the arena thousands of the club’s fans watch him, dejected, some are heading for the exit. They can’t take any more.
All around him 31,000 Chelsea fans are going absolutely insane; limbs are flying, familiar songs are starting up and the euphoria that is sweeping across that end of the famous new stadium is tangible and complete. Frank Lampard has just smashed home a free kick from the best part of 30 yards.
The electronic scoreboard and screens around the ground display the score line Chelsea 4-1 Tottenham. It’s an FA Cup semifinal and Chelsea FC have once again, taken the piss. Florent Malouda would net another late on to seal a fine display and 5-1 victory.
The team would go on to lift the trophy for a 7th time in the following months before the small matter of a Champions League final against Bayern Munich. (I wonder how that turned out?)
As the fans flowed out along Wembley Way that evening, we felt invincible, untouchable. It wasn’t just the manner of the victory, the fine goals or the fact it was a Cup semifinal, the real kicker was that it was against Tottenham. Our rivals. The best of enemies. Lording it up over the coming summer was going to exquisite. In workplaces, schools, universities, five-a-side football pitches, pubs, living rooms and everywhere else around London and beyond, Chelsea would have the bragging rights. Again.
If you told me then, as I toasted the win with a wee tipple that night, that flash forward to April 15th, 2016 Spurs would be 19 points clear of us in 2nd place whilst we hovered in the lower echelons of the top half of the table, I would have laughed you out the pub. If you had told me that Spurs would be within touching distance of stealing our league title from us — stealing is a heavy word, if they do win it will be deserved, however grotesque that reality seems — I would have sworn blind that it was in fact you who were 20 pints deep and told the landlord to cut you off.
Yet here we are.
Tottenham head to SW6 next Monday and as it stands, are leading the chasing pack behind Leicester City in the race to extract the Premier League trophy from the halls of Stamford Bridge. That they arrive as one the form teams in the league, with a squad built around energetic, talented young Englishmen is something more akin to the late night episodes of the Twilight Zone than I’d like to see.
Yet this is the cold reality.
A Tottenham win at Stamford Bridge is something I have never physically witnessed in my lifetime.
Grainy footage of goals from David Howells and Gary Lineker rolling past the despairing Dave Beasant don’t really cause me any great deal of anxiety — I mean, I was three so excuse me for not owning that one. Even the most ardent loyalists of my generation cannot lay claim to gestating in agony around the Shed as amebae. I’m sure for many those goals will feel like a dagger in the heart, the very mention of that day in February 1990 probably sends shivers down your spines. So I’m sorry for even bringing it up really.
Regardless, what I have been fortunate enough to witness is some monumental hidings of Tottenham Hotspur at the hands of Chelsea FC from the 3-0 in 2000 with two from Hasselbaink,, to Mark Stein’s glorious late penalty in a 4-3 triumph, to the 3-0 in the Double Winning season and many more.
Goals from Zola, Drogba, Flo, Vialli, red cards, penalties, even a Salmon Kalou winner (in my opinion a criminally underrated performer for us). The victories have been lavish and, when combined with our success both domestically and in Europe over the previous 25 years, to say we have one over on the dear lilywhites from the bleakness of N17 is, to be frank, pretty obvious.
That said, given the hyperbole and acclaim lofted upon their side after last season’s slip at White Hart Lane with a 5-3 loss (DVDs, badges, scarves, the full catalogue of merchandise only owned by those whose hard-drives and internet search history would be considered questionable at best) means that should we fail to deliver a dent into Spurs' title push, should we fail to knock them off-course, the reaction from their fan-base will border on the religious in its extremity. Quite simply, a three month move to the Altai Mountains is the only option.
It is of course, just one game. Of the 145 games we’ve played over the years, this, too has the potential to slip into the ether along with many others.
Yet this game, in this annus horribilis, feels significant.
This season will be picked apart, piece by piece, limb by limb by many long into the summer and beyond. The reasons for our decline are myriad and deep. Vultures and hyenas from the press, rival fans, pundits and our own support gnawing at the likes of Emenalo, Mourinho, Oscar, Courtois, Costa, Hazard, Hiddink — none escape the sting of criticism. That’s not to apportion blame to those individuals solely; the malaise and degeneration of the 2014-15 Champions is a collective failing and accountability will be delivered swiftly by Conte in the summer one feels.
One thing that can still inject fresh life into the flagging corpse of the club is a win over our rivals.
Few in the current side seem to have shown the stomach for battle in recent months, when all a jaded fan wants is simply to see their side put up a fight whilst playing for pride and for the fans who continue to pay to see them. It may seem a fanciful or outdated notion but loyalty and pride of character are attributes sorely lacking from the resumes of a disgracefully large section of the current Blues squad.
The fires have been stoked this week by the often maligned Blues Technical Director Michael Emenalo, who claimed the ‘hoopla’ around Tottenham’s reputation for developing young players was unjustified and singled out Harry Kane as the club's only source of pride. It’s hard not to agree with the Nigerian, especially on his admiration for the status of Chelsea’s crop of youngsters, who retained their UEFA Youth League crown this week with a victory over PSG’s ‘Petit Parisiens'.
A Youth Cup Final against Manchester City beckons and with Emenalo singling out the ‘outstanding’ Jake Clarke-Salter and Fikayo Tomori for praise ahead of the tie, it would seem there is hope on the horizon for the chances of our young stars.
That said, it is impossible not to concede that our own side is hardly flushed with academy talent, although in recent weeks there are signs of life. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Bertrand Traoré have been positive sparks, whilst the supreme Ola Aina is surely due a chance to show that rigor mortis hasn’t set in yet for this Chelsea side. We must hope that is not just an anomaly during this most jarring of campaigns.
Against Tottenham if the likes of Diego Costa, Willian (who has carried the team for much of the campaign) and Cesc Fabregas (who's lining up against his mortal enemies in this fixture) can stand up and be counted and rediscover a little of the steel and power that they surely retain, then this will be a contest worth its billing.
And what would we give to have our last fully Blue-blooded academy graduate John Terry lead the line on Monday night? That this could potentially be his last chance to play in this fixture is galling and a stain on the way in which the hierarchy are conducting affairs.
Loftus-Cheek is perhaps the bright hope of Chelsea moving forward. He has been with the club since he was 8 years old and if anyone understands the significance of this fixture, it should be him. Without wanting to put pressure on the young man’s shoulders, if he ever wanted to endear himself to the Blues faithful for a lifetime, a performance that leads to a result against the in-form Delle Alli and this Spurs side, would be it.
Victory in a derby is always sweeter than most. A win in this one in particular would feel totemic. A statement of survival, of fight. A sign that despite the harrowing season that has unfolded, there are better times to come.
Lose and at least I can share the misery of older generations. I can say I was there when Tottenham won one at the Bridge. Not that that is anything to sing about.
If Chelsea, against the odds for the first time in the best part of three decades, were to put in a performance worthy of the shirt and snuff out Tottenham’s title charge at the death, then the celebrations around SW6 would be seismic.
It may not be Wembley and it may not be 5-1, but it would be a legacy protected and a positive shift in the right direction and that, at least, is worthy of celebration.