It was 20 years ago…

There was a welcome blast from the past this week when the club’s official website published an interview with Frode Grodas on our memorable run to the 1997 FA Cup.

Now if you don’t know or remember who he is, I wouldn’t blame you. The Norwegian only spent one season with the Blues in 1996/97 when he was one of five goalkeepers (along with Kevin Hitchcock, Dimitri Kharine, youngster Nick Colgan and loanee Craig Forrest) deployed between the posts by manager Ruud Gullit.

With Kharine sidelined by injury and Hitchcock failing to convince Gullit, Grodas was our first-choice keeper towards the end of the season although he thought he had missed the chance to play in the FA Cup final when he was sent off at Everton in our last league game of the campaign. 

However, due to the FA’s somewhat arcane rules at the time, suspensions did not kick in until two weeks after the offence, which meant that the 32-year-old was able to don our fashionably garish yellow and black goalkeeper’s kit at Wembley that afternoon.

I’m not sure if the suspension was ever served because it was the last of the 27 matches that Grodas played during his short spell at Stamford Bridge. But while he could very well be the least-remembered of the 11 Chelsea players who lined up against Middlesbrough that day, the fact of the matter is that he was part of one of the biggest games in our club’s history.

Looking now at Gullit’s starting line-up, it is interesting to see what an interesting mix of players he called on that day.

We had a cultured young full-back in Scott Minto, a pair of home-grown players in Eddie Newton and Frank Sinclair, a trio of solid British veterans in long-serving defender Steve Clarke, evergreen striker Mark Hughes and impish skipper Dennis Wise, and a quartet of talented internationals in Grodas, Dan Petrescu, Roberto Di Matteo and Frank Leboeuf who would represent their countries at the World Cup the following year.

And of course, there was the genius of Gianfranco Zola at the heart of it all.

While the names of Zola, Hughes, Di Matteo and Wise are familiar, the likes of Grodas, Minto and Sinclair probably don’t have the same sort of resonance to most Chelsea fans nowadays. However, what they helped to accomplish on that May afternoon 20 years ago has left an indelible mark on the club.

Maybe the attraction of winning the FA Cup now may not be as great as it was for Chelsea fans 20 years ago when the team we had was far too inconsistent to mount a serious challenge for the league title, making the cup competitions a more likely route to success.

But given how long our trophy drought had gone on and with losses in the 1994 final and 1996 semi-finals in 1996 to boot, it may have seemed then that our sleeping giant would remain in a perpetual slumber, never quite managing to achieve its full potential.

However, in beating Middlesbrough to lift the Cup, Chelsea not only ended 26 years of frustration but kick-started the most successful era in the club’s history. 

To put it in perspective, our recent Premier League title made it 19 major trophies for the Blues in two decades and that number could reach 20 if we beat Arsenal at Wembley this weekend.

Victory over the Gunners would also make it seven FA Cup victories in the last 20 years after we had managed just one in the first 91 years of our club’s existence.

The phrase ‘success begets success’ does come to mind when you think about what we have achieved at Chelsea. That being the case, there is a debt of gratitude that we owe to the team of 1997 for finally turning the promise of glory into a reality for the Blues.