The third instalment of our detailed feature looking back at the 2004/05 season focuses on a successful evening in south London when a Chelsea great opened his account for the club...
‘Well, last season in Europe he certainly looked a Premiership player. You’ve just seen it turned it into reality.’
Martin Tyler, Sky Sports
It all began in a similar way to how it would end: a left-footed cross into the box and one man soaring above everyone else in the penalty area to deliver a bullet-header into the back of the net. For goal number one, read goal number 157.
‘I was watching his first for the club against Crystal Palace on Sky the other morning and it reminded me just how well he attacks the ball. I remember at the time thinking ‘this fella doesn’t half power it’ and now he’s gone and scored a goal like that in his final game,’ said Frank Lampard in May 2012.
In his first spell Didier Drogba’s last goal for Chelsea, of course, came against Bayern Munich in the German side’s own arena. It was the biggest stage of them all, soon to be followed by the calmly dispatched penalty which finally brought the Champions League trophy to west London.
It was the end of a personal era, albeit only temporarily due to his return to the club in the summer of 2014. Eight years of ups interspersed with the occasional down, but always with a special moment reserved for the biggest occasion. Not since Peter Osgood had the Blues been blessed with a player for whom scoring a cup final goal was seemingly second nature.
Selhurst Park and a late-August Premier League encounter with Crystal Palace, with all due respect to the south London club, was not one of those big occasions. Back in the top flight after a lengthy absence, the Eagles were pretty far from soaring under Iain Dowie - rooted to the bottom of the table and destined to make an immediate return to the Championship.
Drogba, too, had made a relatively inauspicious start to life in the Premier League. The perceived six-month settling-in period for players from foreign shores - so often cited by the press but rarely adhered to when prematurely offering criticisms - was certainly applicable to the Ivorian. But that didn’t prevent moments of brilliance popping up in the meantime. Selhurst Park would bear witness to one such occurrence.
The opening-day weekend victory against Manchester United, achieved almost entirely by a collective defensive effort worthy of champions, had been followed with a trip to St Andrew’s to face Birmingham City. Nothing seemed to click; our fellow Blues’ stifling 4-5-1 formation drawing a stalemate until substitute Joe Cole popped up with a late winner.
For Drogba, it was a second scoreless game for Chelsea and, having missed two decent chances, he may have felt that a first goal was overdue to prevent any further pressure building. Would it be third time lucky down at Selhurst Park for the club-record signing? The answer, emphatically, was yes.
‘Kezman… Babayaro… Drogbaaaaaaaaaaa,’ roared Martin Tyler on Sky Sports, who were showing the Tuesday night game live. “Brilliant, brilliant,” interjected co-commentator Andy Gray. ‘There’s never a doubt when Babayaro stands the ball up that it’s a goal - never a doubt in my mind. He was always going to win the header.’
‘Well, last season in Europe he certainly looked a Premiership player,’ added Tyler, referring to Drogba’s UEFA Cup goalscoring, and game-winning, performances against Liverpool and Newcastle United. ‘You’ve just seen it turned it into reality.’
The goal was celebrated with what would become his trademark knee-slide, ramming the taunts of ‘What a waste of money’ down the throats of the home supporters. We’d see that slide plenty more times over the course of the next eight years as Drogba compiled a further 99 goals to become the first African player to reach a century of strikes in the Premier League.
After reaching that milestone, he sat down with the Chelsea magazine to look back on all of those goals. When recalling the first, he was interrupted by David Luiz, who just happened to be passing by. Never shy of joining in an interview with his team-mates, the Brazilian proceeded to describe the goal: ‘Babayaro, the Nigerian guy, with his left foot and then BOOM! Didita!’
He’d been watching as a youngster in Vitoria’s youth team in his homeland. It was the moment Drogba had truly arrived - soon he would become one of the best-known players in world football, famed for his season, perhaps even history, defining goals.
It should also be noted that Drogba wasn’t alone in scoring his maiden Chelsea goal against Crystal Palace. That honour also befell Tiago, the midfielder who had recently signed from Benfica.
If anything, the Portuguese’s goal, assisted by Drogba, was more aesthetically pleasing - a little shimmy to deceive Blues old boy Danny Granville followed by a fierce low drive to beat Julian Speroni between the sticks. A 2-0 victory was clinched and delight etched on the players’ faces at seeing another new team-mate break his duck.
Having not been a part of the all-conquering Porto side, Tiago was perhaps the least known of the new Iberian contingent in west London. He quickly became a popular presence at the training ground, however, aided by his near-perfect English - despite his protestations to the contrary - and calm nature. He was also a perfect foil for Frank Lampard in midfield; a selfless midfield runner who was blessed with a tactical awareness which often saw him the on-field recipient of notes from the coaching staff.
We wouldn’t go as far as to call him an unsung hero, however. Before the full-time whistle was blown at Selhurst Park, Chelsea supporters had already devised a song for the new goalscorer. Cries of “Tiago, wo-oh, Tiago, wo-oh-oh-oh: he comes from Portugal, he hates the Arsenal,” echoed around the away end at Selhurst.
A new Chelsea hero had arrived that evening - just not the one everyone was singing about…
By Richard Godden - Chelsea matchday programme editor
You can watch a full recap of the 2004/05 season in Premier League Years on the 5th Stand app.