Hughes sparks Chelsea revival
It had been 27 years since Chelsea last lifted the FA Cup in 1970, but the Blues claimed the famous trophy once more in 1997; although they required a monumental second half effort to come from 2-0 behind to beat Liverpool 4-2 in the Fourth Round. Under the leadership of Ruud Gullit, eventually it would be current manager Roberto Di Matteo who made the difference in the final.
The arrival of Ruud Gullit as player-manager at Chelsea in 1996 had reinvigorated a side in dire need of transformation. Without a major trophy in 26 years, the Blues were a shell of their current self and had lost as many games as they had won (12) in finishing 11th the previous season.
Indeed, when Glenn Hoddle left to take charge of the England national team there was only a faint hope that they would finish in the top half of the table. But after the signings of Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo and Frank Leboeuf in the summer, and Gianfranco Zola in November, there was talk of crashing the title party. By the turn of the year the FA Cup, too, was a prize within grasp and beating West Brom 3-0 in the Third Round gave Gullit hope ahead of a draw with Liverpool.
One Chelsea fan site set the scene for the game well: "Distinct evidence of how far the club has come in the thirteen years between then and now presented a frightening reminder of the passing of time. There stood an unbuilt Shed End, while advertising boards around the ground promoted the new Nintendo 64 games console (out '1st March 1997') and the launch of an exciting new television station, the much-hyped Channel 5, back when it was still written as a digit."
Liverpool were a team on the up: top of the league and tipped by many to claim the title. They had been knocked out of the League Cup by Middlesbrough a few weeks earlier, yet had the form book in their favour - Roy Evans' side had won five of the last ten meetings, including a Patrik Berger-inspired 5-1 win at Anfield in September 1996.
To combat this, Gullit went on the attack. An adventurous wing-back system saw Scott Minto and Dan Petrescu utilised on the flanks with a three-man defence; Liverpool's strikeforce of Stan Collymore, Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and John Barnes licked their lips.
Indeed, the first half went to plan for the Reds. The Independent's Glenn Moore targeted the absence of Michael Duberry as a weak link for Chelsea and so it proved.
"Jason McAteer's cross from the right seemed innocuous but Frank Sinclair missed his jump, the ball came to Stig Inge Bjornebye whose cross-shot was touched in by Robbie Fowler," he wrote. "Eleven minutes later Gianfranco Zola played a bad square pass to Eddie Newton, his touch betrayed him and released Stan Collymore. Nil-two and, apparently, all over. Liverpool had not lost from a two-goal lead for 33 years."
But they had not counted on a piece of managerial brilliance from Chelsea's Dutch manager. Gullit brought off Minto and switched back to a more orthodox formation, while letting striker Mark Hughes loose. The Welshman had only scored five goals in his previous 24 games that season; hardly the kind of form to instil fear in an opposition, but his impact was immediate.
"Enter the Welsh dragon, breathing fire," wrote Moore. "Liverpool, regular victims during his career, were unnerved. Four minutes later he held the ball up then turned in characteristic fashion to shoot low into the net. Liverpool now looked as if they had encountered a snarling dog and Chelsea, smelling their fear, went for the jugular."
With Zola dropping deeper to influence the play and Vialli causing problems with his runs, Chelsea began to fire and, as Hughes threw himself around the pitch, there was a renewed vigour from his team-mates. "The atmosphere was already simmering - adding Hughes was like putting a lighted match into a powder keg."
After the first Chelsea goal, the 'match' then went and created another. Di Matteo stung the hands of goalkeeper David James with a hard drive, before Hughes turned a loose ball into the path of Zola. The little Italian took a touch to steady himself, then bent a left-footed shot high into the top corner of the Liverpool goal for the equaliser. Stamford Bridge erupted.
The excitement was not done though and as Zola found the freedom to roam, his pass found Petrescu in the centre. The Romanian cushioned the ball to play it through into the path of Vialli who beat his marker and knocked it into the net to put Chelsea up for the first time in the game.
Gullit's men had turned around a two-goal deficit inside less than twenty minutes and put the finishing touches to the comeback as Vialli won a free-kick on the right: Zola floated it in and Vialli, unchallenged, headed past James to make it 4-2.
"Chelsea's celebrations mirrored Newcastle's after the 5-0 eclipse of Manchester United," Moore wrote. "When the dust settled, a teeming Stamford Bridge emptied and the television nation switched on the kettle, Liverpool were left to contemplate 17 days which had seen them tumble out of two cup competitions. Now, more than ever, they must maintain the League challenge. Chelsea, meanwhile, have served notice that they have resilience to go with their skill."
What happened next? Chelsea required a replay to beat Leicester, but the saw off Portsmouth and Wimbledon with ease to make it to Wembley. Facing Middlesbrough (who were contesting their first ever final), the Blues got off to the perfect start as Di Matteo scored the fastest ever goal in FA Cup Final history 43 seconds after kick-off, beating Jackie Milburn's record from the 1954-1955 final by two seconds. Chelsea went on to win 2-0 and finished the league campaign in 6th place; Liverpool were nine points ahead in 4th.