Even though I can’t remember a single thing about the match and had to go on Wikipedia just now to find out the goalscorer, for me everything changed when Chelsea beat Wolves in the FA Cup quarterfinal at Stamford Bridge 1994. This was the game that told me supporting Chelsea might not necessarily be the biggest mistake I’d ever made, a no-refund subscription to a lifetime of bitter disappointment and boundless despair. I’d always told myself that supporting Chelsea was character building, that constant exposure to embarrassment and capitulation made me a better, stronger person. But really, it just made me sad.
But then came Wolves and everything changed. And I believe it was a turning point not just for me, but for the club in general, a game when ambitions changed, when previously unimagined possibilities suddenly tumbled into view. The sort of game that made players realise they’d been shortchanging themselves, and fans started to expect a little more.
To understand why, you have to get back into the headspace of being a Chelsea fan in 1994, which is no easy thing. At this point in my life, the optimism of youth had washed away and I was starting to confront hopeless reality. But I still had my dreams, and in those days it was to reach an FA Cup semifinal. Any more than that would be greedy.
It didn’t seem too much to ask. Despite their extraordinarily consistently crap cup performances, Chelsea were still a biggish club and in recent years, the likes of Portsmouth, Oldham, Luton, Sheffield United, Southampton, Sunderland, Plymouth, Watford had all reached an FA Cup semi-final. Crystal Palace had reached a final. Bloody Coventry and Wimbledon had won the thing. It couldn’t be that hard, could it?
There’d been a time when my aims were set higher, but ugly experience soon put paid to that. At the start of the 1990-1991, I’d thought Chelsea might - stop laughing at the back - put in a title challenge. Why not? We’d just finished sixth and then strengthened the side with that pair of wideboys Dennis Wise and Andy Townsend. There was only one direction we could possibly go, and that was up up up.
We came 11th, crowning the season with a 7-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest.
And still there were glimpses, cruel, beautiful glimpses of a goodfella life that might just be in our grasp. That same season we reached the semifinal of the crap-but-still-cool League Cup, cruising magnificently past a Gazza/Lineker-hyped Spurs in the quarters at White Hart Lane to set up a straightforward home semi against unremarkable Second Division Sheffield Wednesday. We lost 2-0 at home, 5-1 on aggregate. It’s a difficult thing, when you first acknowledge the club you love is capable of acts so pathetic that they leave a scar forever, and when your friends at school - not just the glory supporters that claim allegiance to Liverpool and Manchester United, but those nerds that support Palace and Wimbledon - regard your club with a mixture of horror, bafflement and pity.
Worse was to come. All hope was now pinned on the FA Cup and in 1992, we had our best chance to reach that sainted semifinal for a decade. It was a quarterfinal at home against unremarkable Second Division Sunderland. We were leading 1-0 in the closing minutes. It says so much about the general air of terror around the ground in this era that the club would turn off the scoreboard in the last few minutes of any big game in a futile attempt to stop everybody panicking about how long was remaining. We panicked. Sunderland equalised and then beat us in the last minute of the replay, scoring from a corner while our fans were still celebrating our own late equaliser.
I’d never felt worse about a football match - even now only Ovrebo comes close - and at that moment I reached a conclusion, which was both reassuring and terrifying. Chelsea would never win anything in my lifetime, but they’d leave me with a character so strong it would blunt diamonds. And I made that deal with myself, I accepted it as the hand I’d been dealt. I gave in, surrendered and hung my ambition on a peg.
So, when we played Wolves in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup in 1994, I don’t think I anticipated much more than impending humiliation. It was precisely this sort of tie, at home against an unremarkable Second Division side, which seemed to bring out Chelsea’s most abject performances. The season itself had been pretty disappointing, the high hopes engendered by the arrival of Glenn Hoddle soon giving away to genuine relegation fear, as we sat in the bottom three after a dismal Christmas defat at Southampton. But our revival began the very next day, when we beat Newcastle at home and put on a timely spell of form that not only led to the vapid sanctuary of mid-table but into the latter reaches of the FA Cup. I seem to recall the players had it out with each other in the dressing room after the Southampton game, starting a trend for player-related emergency summits that continues to this day. I wonder if this is where the schoolboy John Terry first got the idea.
So to Wolves. Well, all I can remember is that we won [Wikipedia tells me Gavin Peacock scored] and the giant blue flag made its debut appearance. As I recall, both of these events came as a complete surprise to everybody. At the time, I went to most home games and a lot of aways and read all the fanzines, but I don’t remember being aware that a flag had been made - or if I did, I had no idea how impressive it would actually look when it was unfurled on the West Stand and then slowly made its way into the Shed. I remember also that the Wolves fans were stuck somewhere in the East Stand as the North Stand was being rebuilt. And I remember that we won, that we’d finally reached that FA Cup semi-final, that there was a pitch invasion and, somewhere amid the sweaty joy, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, supporting the Blues wouldn’t be a complete wash out as a life choice. Maybe, just maybe, there was hope.
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