When the FA Cup draw paired Chelsea with Luton Town earlier this month, a glance at the online reaction from our fans made it clear. For those old enough to have witnessed our previous meeting, the semi-final back in 1994, it is their appreciation of a player on the opposing side that day that is as strong a memory as anything else that happened on the day.
As strong as the memory of the relief and joy when the final whistle blew on the victory; as strong as the memory of the two goals from Gavin Peacock that won the game; as strong as the memory of the outstanding noise made in support of the team that had reached this stage of the competition for the first time since we had the lifted the FA Cup back in 1970.
Playing up front for the Hatters 27 years ago was Kerry Dixon. His goal-laden nine years at Chelsea had come to an end only two seasons earlier and after a brief and unsuccessful attempt at Southampton to rekindle his famous strike partnership with David Speedie, he had moved to his hometown club of Luton.
The 193 goals that had taken him close to Bobby Tambling’s total, the Chelsea record at that time, had certainly not been forgotten by the Blues supporters. Those goals had been a major part of breathing life back into the club and restoring us as a top-flight force, and before that semi-final there had not been the chance to say thank you and goodbye.
‘Chelsea were the better side on the day, Gavin Peacock took a couple of opportunities that came their way, and they deservedly went on to play in the final. Myself, I was a bit gutted because I was at an age whereby realistically I was never going to get to an FA Cup final if I didn’t make that one but if I was going to lose, I would rather have lost to Chelsea than anyone else, so it was a bit of a situation where I could not totally lose out.’
The encounter was a during a brief flirtation by the FA with using Wembley as the venue for the semi-finals, not repeated again until the final year of the old stadium’s existence and the new one’s opening. That ensured a massive presence of success-starved Chelsea fans and an atmosphere worthy of a final, but although like this season, we were in the Premier League and Luton were from the division below, no one was taking anything for granted.
It was the first season under Glenn Hoddle’s management and Chelsea were very much a work-in-progress. An exciting FA Cup run was the highlight of improved form in the second half of the 1993/94 season but there was plenty of tension as we made a shaky start to the semi-final. Dixon had the first scoring opportunity.
‘Dmitri Kharine [the Chelsea goalkeeper] came out pretty quick,’ Dixon remembers. ‘If he had been a bit slower reacting, I might have got the ball past him but as soon as I hit it he smothered it, but it was an early chance.’
Our main goal threat that season, Mark Stein, was our injured so the taller Tony Cascarino led the attack and enjoyed as good an afternoon as he had for Chelsea. It was he who won a header from his side’s first free-kick of the game with 12 minutes played. There followed a flick-on from John Spencer and Peacock rifled in his first goal.
Shortly after half-time, Cascarino again won the ball in the air and this time attacking midfielder Peacock exchanged passes with Spencer before making it 2-0, which with Chelsea defending solidly, proved to be final score.
‘Cascarino was a good friend, Dennis Wise was my old room partner during his first years at Chelsea and my last ones, and Steve Clarke I played with for six years,’ says Dixon, ‘so I was pleased for players like them. I was pleased for Chelsea Football Club if it had to be anyone.
‘On the day I wanted it to be Luton and I would have been gutted the other way round for Chelsea, but instead I was gutted for Luton and myself and absolutely pleased it was Chelsea and not anyone else. I went to the final but they could not go on and finish the job off against Manchester United, but there has been plenty of making up for that since!’
The FA Cup was never that kind to Dixon. At Chelsea it was the League Cup that proved more to his liking and he remains to this day our all-time leading scorer in that competition.
In the FA Cup with us he did not make it beyond round four until his final season when he was part of a side that suffered a heart-breaking exit in a quarter-final replay at Sunderland. In 1986 in a fourth-round tie against Liverpool he suffered an injury that many believe robbed him of a little of his express-train pace.
‘In the League Cup there were a couple of semi-finals with Chelsea but certainly not in the FA Cup,’ he recalls. ‘We were in a few shocks, knocked out by so-called lesser sides, or we got tough draws against top sides, so our progress was halted fairly early on. My progress wasn’t great for Chelsea in the FA Cup so the memory of the FA Cup for me is all about that Wembley semi-final with Luton.’
At Luton he was managed by David Pleat who had rejected Dixon when he was a junior at the club, but he denies his return there was a feeling of having proved Pleat wrong.
‘He declined the opportunity to take me on as a youngster but he signed me and gave me a wonderful situation in the latter part of my career, the opportunity to play for my hometown club and the club I supported as a boy, and he is one of the best managers I have played under.
‘Luton are still my second team. Luton and Reading are the results I look for after Chelsea, and I have a soft spot for most of the teams I played for. Not all but most.
‘Without doubt I will be watching this Sunday’s game at home. It is a pity there are no crowds and we can’t attend it, that would have been fantastic. There would have been a large contingent from Luton who would have loved to go to the game but that is the way it is.
‘It will still bring back great memories and I am looking very much forward to the game.’