Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts
column Thu 17 May 2018
With the FA Cup final drawing very close, Chelsea fans are in the pleasing position of having plenty to be nostalgic about. Giles Smith is one of them as he writes this week’s column…
I don’t know about you, but at this time of the year, I often find myself thinking back to 1997, which is where this modern, startlingly trophy-rich era for our club officially began. And what I find myself thinking in particular is that I had to wait more than a quarter of a century for Chelsea to win an FA Cup final. Whereas my eldest son only had to wait four days.
Honestly, kids today – they don’t know they’re born.
We’d had the dress rehearsal in 1994, of course, for which anticipation was inevitably immense, only for a combination of Manchester United, the weather and some unfortunate refereeing calls to inflict psychological damage which took a while to shift. Indeed, it wouldn’t be properly healed until the final of 2007 and the moment, deep in extra time, when Didier Drogba ran onto that exquisitely well placed through ball from Frank Lampard.
(Note for fans of random coincidences which sound much more impressive if you call them ‘omens’: the 2007 final was on 19 May, too, same as this year.)
But 1997, against Middlesbrough, was the one when it all, at long last, looked set to go right, after so many years when it hadn’t. It was also the year when the final was scheduled for 17 May, which just so happened to be the due date or thereabouts for our first child. So you can imagine how the tension escalated as the big day drew near, with that momentous and life-changing event on the ever-enlarging horizon, and with, at the same time, my partner about to go into labour at any moment.
As the final got closer, and as the baby continued to fail to emerge, certain troubling scenarios inevitably presented themselves. What if things started moving on the actual morning of the match? Complicated... Or what if, even worse, 15 minutes in to the game, I became that person who had to be called up over the PA: ‘your wife has gone into labour’ – which was something you used to hear in football grounds with surprising frequency, and which I mostly took to be the consequence of prank calls, although I suppose some of them must have been genuine. Anyway, what if Chelsea finally got round to winning the FA Cup after 27 years, and I couldn’t make it?
In the event, our son had the good grace and the sense of perspective to pitch up on the Tuesday before the game, which meant a) he shared his birthday with Stevie Wonder, which is always a bonus, b) he was home by the Wednesday, and c) I was clear to attend the final on the Saturday without accusations of negligence or the social services getting involved.
Still, I can’t pretend I wasn’t all over the place on the day – the victim, inevitably, of sensory overload. Accordingly, Roberto Di Matteo’s decision to slam one in after just 42 seconds was clearly taken without regard for my already fragile, indeed hair-trigger emotional state. Frankly, what with the general sense of euphoria, I was ready to be set off by just about anything at the time - but a 25-yard screamer in the opening minute? That was plain unfair.
The following 82 minutes, obviously, were spent longing for the game to end, which is a slightly bizarre attitude to take to an experience that you have waited more than a quarter of a century to have, and is probably, in fact, a phenomenon exclusive to football. But then, of course, Eddie Newton added a second, so we could all relax and I could gather myself and prepare to embark upon an exciting new phase of life as a father and as the witness of an FA Cup win.
That was 21 remarkably short years ago, though, and now here we are, preparing to go back to Wembley and do it all again, although quite a lot has changed in the meantime. The entire stadium for starters. Rooting through a box of photographs the other day, hunting for embarrassing baby pictures with which to excruciate my son on his 21st birthday, I pulled out a photo I took at Wembley that afternoon of our team warming up in the sunshine. In the picture, the grass glows green, the sand on the running track glows brown, the advertising hoardings (strictly non-electrical) glow red, and the view of the pitch is gently interrupted around the half-way mark by a giant pillar holding up the ceiling. Ah, the old Wembley: free obstructed view with every seat.
So much more than architecture has happened, though. In that time, I’ve seen us win the FA Cup final five more times and lose it twice, not to mention living through the additional gathering of a few league titles, a handful of League Cups and a light sprinkling of European trophies – in summary, everything a club can win. (I’ve also had two further children - but no cup final clashes. Which is remarkable, given how many Chelsea cup finals there have been in that period.)
What a pair of decades, though. Definitely – if we’re comparing eras - my favourite two decades of them all. And well worth the wait.