Hatters knocked down and Highbury high

Eddie Newton recalls playing in Chelsea’s first FA Cup semi-final at Wembley and the sunny day three years later when last-four London opposition were overcome…

Any FA Cup semi-final has a good chance of lingering strongly in the memory, especially if Chelsea win. Our former midfielder Eddie Newton was an important player in two such games that have special cause to be remembered, and they are ones worth recalling as the 2017 cup run takes us to another semi-final appearance this weekend, when we take on Tottenham at Wembley.

Newton was in the 1994 side which was our first to be asked to play a semi at Wembley, albeit before the national stadium was rebuilt into its current form. Three years later he played in another at Highbury on the way to the club winning our first trophy in a generation – a cup run whose 20th anniversary is being celebrated this season.

The 1994 FA Cup campaign was part of Glenn Hoddle’s first season as manager and coincided nicely with a rise in the team’s performance level after Christmas. For the semi-finals we were drawn against Luton from the division below who had knocked out top-flight sides Newcastle and West Ham. Chelsea at that time had a deserved reputation for being vulnerable to a giant-killing.

It was also an era when many of England’s stadiums were being redeveloped or had reduced capacity due to the Taylor Report, so for a couple of years the FA decided on the national stadium for both semi-finals.

‘It was exciting because it was the first time I played at Wembley in a proper game,’ remembers Newton, speaking this week to the official Chelsea website.

‘It was a little bit unknown because we were so used to playing Premiership opposition and Luton had Kerry Dixon playing for them as well, and the Chelsea fans were singing his name.

‘You are always wary of those occasions because Wembley, a one-off game, Luton could turn up and play the game of their life and before you know it, you are out of the Cup. We knew what a great chance of getting into the final it was but also what a potential banana skin it was. Would Kerry turn up on the day and score a hat-trick against his old club? There was a lot going on in the minds of a lot of players but without any disrespect, it ended up being quite an easy day and we dominated the game and we could have easily won it by more.’

Gavin Peacock congratulated by Dennis Wise having found the Wembley net

Instead of Dixon finding the net for the Hatters, it was Gavin Peacock on target twice for the Blues. Involved in both was centre-forward Tony Cascarino who probably would not have played had Mark Stein been fit. It is a very strong candidate for his best Chelsea game.

‘Tony was underrated as a player, he was very clever and utilised what he had to the best of his ability,’ notes Newton.

‘He had played in many big games and he knew what he was doing. But he was only really appreciated when he went to France in the latter stages of his career. The problem with a big centre-forward like him is in England back then, not so much now, was everyone would just pump the ball up to him but he had good feet and could utilise them in different ways. He played some good stuff.’

Newton’s performance, which snuffed out much of Luton’s attacking play, also drew praise, not least from manager Hoddle who said: ‘Eddie’s been our most consistent player. How Eddie has been performing over the last few months is how I want the team to perform.’

‘Glenn doesn’t get enough praise for what he did back then,’ says Newton. ‘People quite rightly talk about Jose Mourinho moving the goalposts a lot when he came here but Glenn changed this club significantly when he came in.

‘There was behind-the-scenes stuff and new tactics. I had not been coached like that regarding tactical information since I was a youth team player. He told me I was going to play as a 6 and I had not heard what that was before because traditionally in England you played with two 8s in midfield going back and forwards in a 4-4-2. He said sit in front of the defence and do the job we all know now from Makelele or Kante, but back then it wasn’t a position well known in England. I understood what he was trying to say.

‘Our fans came in full force that day and were very vocal,’ he adds. ‘They were not so used to days like that back then and it was a big day out. Kerry made it more special. He deserved the reception he got for the years he had given Chelsea. It was a big build-up to the game and in the end you were just gratified we got the job done and we were in the final.’

We were to lose that rainy May clash with Manchester United and lost to the same opponents in the 1996 semi-final at Villa Park, a game Newton missed due to a broken leg. He was back and an important part of Ruud Gullit’s Chelsea a year later when we took on Wimbledon in the 1997 semi-final at Highbury. We had looked good in that cup run but no Blues fan going to the game was taking anything for granted given past problems playing against ‘the Crazy Gang’.

 Eddie Newton in action

We need not have worried. A goal just before half-time by Mark Hughes, an iconic Gianfranco Zola strike with an hour played and a late second from Hughes took us back to Wembley with a 3-0 win.

‘We were just far stronger than them in every area of the pitch,’ remembers Newton.

‘In any semi-final you can’t go into it thinking you are the superior team and you are going to walk all over the opponents, but we approached the game in the right manner and were very focused.

‘By half-time I knew we had a very good chance. Players could not get close to us, we were moving the ball quicker than them, we were getting to every second ball and playing at our tempo. Once you are in that rhythm it is very hard for the opposition to get anything back, but if any team could it was Wimbledon because they were very good at set-pieces and they could create something out of nothing. We were always wary not to give away stupid free-kicks or corners but very confident we could finish the job. It panned out to be an easier day than I thought it would.’

CHELSEA GOLD: Former Chelsea stars share their memories of the FA Cup semi-final against Wimbledon in 1997

‘A lot of planning went into the way Frode Grodas played. We knew there was going to be a lot of crosses and big throws put into the box and we needed him to command the area. He could not sit on his line because that leaves indecision, and Frode was fantastic because once a keeper commanded like he did, you negate about 70 per cent of their game plan.’

 Gianfranco Zola has just made it Chelsea 2 Wimbledon 0

For most Chelsea fans watching on, it was the moment Zola back-heeled and spun his way into space and then slotted his goal to make it 2-0 that convinced them we were Wembley bound again. In the midst of the action it was similar according to Newton.

‘You feel it inside you but you don’t want to let it consume you. You try to be professional. In football you can never switch off. The fans can relax but on the pitch you can’t. You knew Franco had a goal like that in his locker. He was not extremely quick but over five yards he was hard to catch and he manipulated the ball so well.

‘The other semi-final was played soon after ours and I remember Wisey saying he did not want Chesterfield in the final because it would not be a big enough game. Everyone was saying are you joking, we could get them in the final, batter them and win the Cup.

‘He wanted Middlesbrough, who we got, and so history is as it is today.’

- Action from the Highbury semi-final is featured in the Chelsea TV video below...