0-2 down at half time to a rampant Liverpool side, only a dramatic comeback was going to keep Chelsea's FA Cup dream alive. Cometh the hour (well, the 58th minute) cometh the little Italian magician...
The title for this article should probably be ‘most significant goal I ever saw’, unless we want to stretch the definition of ‘greatest/great’ a bit wider than one would usually. The man himself has scored more technically accomplished goals, and in the 14 years since I have been fortunate enough to see some of the best players on the planet play and excel at Stamford Bridge, pulling off outrageous feats. In fact it wasn’t even the most significant goal in the match (Mark Hughes’ early in the second half after coming on as a substitute was objectively the key moment in the match), but football support is nothing if not heavy-duty solipsism, and none of these goals – not even Roberto Di Matteo’s wonder goal at that season’s FA Cup final – meant anything as much to us, and by extension me, as Gianfranco Zola’s equaliser against Liverpool.
You can tell a little bit about a fan base from the players they idolise; or at least, you can tell a lot about how a fan base regards itself. Manchester United fans of my generation will forever hold a candle for Eric Cantona, not just because the way his arrival galvanised the club, how he turned them from hapless dreamers into the trophy gathering behemoth we know today – and in 1996 it seemed as though that he won the double by himself – but also because of what he symbolised. He was moody, arrogant, distant, sure of himself. He was a rebel, a renegade; tough, with a wild temper. He was a man after their own hearts, in short, their image on the pitch – the personification of an identity they had created for themselves. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez subsequently command(ed) a similar sort of affection.
It was the same with us and Zola. Chelsea fans have always liked to think of themselves as stylish capital city types, savvy and witty. We’re not like your pinch-faced Essex boy Tottenham or West Ham fans, or those scruffy northerners. We’re cosmopolitan and have a certain swagger about us. (You understand, I hope, that I realise this is as much a myth as any constructed by any fan base, and that the last 15 or so years has seen Stamford Bridge slowly morph into a resting home for miserable cab drivers. From Mitcham.) Once upon a time it would have even had an element of truth to it, but by the time I was attending my first matches in the early 1990s it had ceased to be the case; our support was mostly 30-plus, refugees of the gruesome late 70s and early 80s, and the team were playing in a lop-sided pit of a ground that had only just been wrested from the hands of property developers. Eurodollar kept cars between the pitch and the Shed. There was no-one on the pitch who had that capability to make the fans swoon, not since Pat Nevin had been sold some years previously. In those days the programme was always full of stuff about better times, and iconic players; barely an issue would go by without some mention of Peter Osgood, Jimmy Greaves, Charlie Cooke or Pat Nevin, presumably with the intent of firing the imaginations of the supporters. Unfortunately following that up with a piece on record signing Paul Furlong exposed it for the desperate nostalgia it was.
The first time I saw Zola play was his first home game, against Everton in November 1996. By this point we already had Ruud Gullit give us his last – magnificent – full season as a player, and he was all those things that Chelsea fans identified with, but he wasn’t really ours. Zola, however, wasn’t specifically anyone’s idol, and he quickly became the symbol of a multi-national team that played elegant passing football: a team that came together at around the same time that London re-discovered itself a truly international city. The club was on the way up, continuing along the path Glenn Hoddle had laid for us, and the tabloids were full of clichés about the Kings Road swinging again and talk of our ‘Foreign Legion’. These were simpler times, when all you needed to accompany a back page lead was a foreign player decked out in a dreadful sweater and sunglasses cold plate of pasta or a baguette.
The Liverpool team of the time was similarly flamboyant, if crushingly Anglo-Saxon, and in fact both clubs had garnered praise as futuristic renegades the previous season, for daring to play a formation that wasn’t 4-4-2 (I distinctly remember reading an article likening us to Ajax, who at the time were European Cup holders, and it didn’t seems as laughable then as it does with the benefit of hindsight). Labour MP Tony Banks wrote in the programme that he had placed a bet on Chelsea winning 4-2, in honour of the 1978 third round win (Chelsea were in the second division and Liverpool European Champions), for which I assume he must have picked up a tidy sum, but as I read it during the half-time fugue, it was only a depressing reminder of my pre-match optimism. The ’55 Championship-winning side were (literally, in some cases) wheeled out, as the North Stand chanted ‘bring them on’. We could have been four or five down and we were going out. Luckily, both for the future of the club and, well, me, the great man stepped up.
The whole second half was an outpouring of collective emotion the likes of which I have never experienced since. Without wanting to sound like a sentimental football fan stereotype, it really was like two-and-a-half decades of flattering to deceive, relegation, and constantly living on the edge of financial ruin were expunged from the psyches of everyone at the ground. It was the sort of mass catharsis that defies wording, and the celebrations that followed Zola’s goal – a wild lash with his left foot that fairly whizzed into the top left-hand corner – were the first I’d ever experienced at Chelsea that symbolised something beyond just the 90 minutes of a match. As soon as he scored, the Cup was ours, and the rest of the competition was a formality – that was all there was to it. Again, this is one of those tricky things to explain, but it was a feeling of absolute certainty that things were going to be OK, this wasn’t a(nother) false dawn; we really were going to win the cup, and we really were going to be a big club again. The world outside, other sets of fans who had aspirations for the cup; irrelevant. Nothing was going to stop it from happening. Precious few match-going football fans will have experienced this kind of collective cocksure optimism, but let me tell you it was something else, and I thoroughly recommend it.
In that year’s semi-final against Wimbledon at Highbury, we walloped Wimbledon 3-0, a team who earlier on that season had kicked the living hell out of us and won 4-2 at Stamford Bridge, and who many were tipping for Europe. Zola scored one of the best goals he ever scored for the club, but by that time is was a done deal. We went to Highbury not just expecting to win, but knowing we were going to win, and having a pity on those poor Wimbledon fans who were going to see their cup dreams crushed; quite unlike the previous year, when we went to Villa Park believing we could beat Man United (before inevitably losing, thanks largely to that year’s sure thing, Eric Cantona). But that was another club, another time, and this time we weren’t going to chew our fingernails with worry – this time were going to savour it. It is all about me, after all. But while that was a great occasion, when I become that wobbly old duffer telling the young ‘uns they ‘don’t know they’re born’, I’ll tell them about Liverpool ’97 and how everything that was ever good that happened to our club came straight from the left boot of our greatest ever, and how lucky I was to see it. It is all about me, after all.
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